Is French The Language Of Love?
French is the language of love, right? Day in, day out, that’s what I am told. We French, apparently, are best placed to talk about love. Friends of mine have told me that we are extremely fortunate to have so many authors who know how to talk about love: Antoine de Saint Exupery , Victor Hugo, Moliere…And for a romantic weekend, all my British friends head to Paris, the city of love. They usually come back engaged. I don’t get it. Paris doesn’t have the same effect on me. Maybe it’s because I used to live there.
In fact, when I want to read about love, or to learn about love, I don’t turn to French literature. Yep, you read that right. After a decade spent living in London, you could think that I go to a classic book of English literature to find out more about the intricacies of the human heart. Nothing could be further from the truth. All I found over here was stories of power struggles (Shakespeare anyone?), human misery (Dickens) and endless descriptions about family dramas in the British countryside (Bronte). Don’t get me wrong, I love English classics, especially romantic dramas written by Jane Austen. I must admit that I also have a soft spot for some American authors, such as Steinbeck (Ah, East of Eden…) and Kerouac. That said, when I want to read about feelings and love, in my opinion nobody beats the Russians.
It all started when I was around fourteen. Somehow I read ‘First Love’, of Ivan Turgenev. I was reeling from yet another heartbreak probably inflicted by an acned boy whose name, I am ashamed to say, I have completely forgotten. The novella was my medicine, and it worked wonders. The story is about a father and a son in love with the same woman. The narrator is the teenage son, and he manages to capture the essence and complexity of being in love. My personal favourite lines were:
“ While the sun and wind played gently in its spreading branches, the bells of the Donskoy monastery would sometimes float across—tranquil and sad—and I would sit and gaze and listen, and would be filled with a nameless sensation which had everything in it; sorrow and joy, a premonition of the future, and desire, and fear of life.”
I remember reading this sentence over and over again. At the end of the book I had totally forgotten about the object of my worries. I was cured, it was a miracle.
Years later, I went to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to see Eugene Onegin. The music was by Tchaikovsky and the story by Pushkin. After fifteen minutes I could feel a lump in my throat. I could feel for Tatyana, who falls head over heels for a man she has just met, gets rejected, and goes on to become the centre to society’s whirl, despite her broken heart. At the end of the opera, she meets her long-lost love without flinching, admits that she still has feelings for him, but doesn’t accept his advances, at which point I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks. Back home, I started to read Pushkin and Tolstoi, and loved it.
“I have outlasted all desire,
My dreams and I have grown apart;
My grief alone is left entire,
The gleamings of an empty heart.” –Pushkin
Russian authors came to be my refuge when I was in need of some advice. In my home country, things don’t seem to get any better. Reality has caught up with the French. Today, the ex girlfriend of the French president has published a book of their much-mediatised affair. This is the literary equivalent of the kiss-and-tell, I suppose. What happened to the country of Moliere, who declared “To live without loving is not really live”? It seems to me that, in France just like anywhere else, break-ups can be ugly. And men, wherever they are, should never underestimate a hurt woman.