What Are These Fableogs?

fa*ble*og [fey buh l awg]: fable + blog = fableog

A couple of months ago … no, let me start at the beginning (or a better beginning, since wherever I start, the story has already begun) … a couple of years ago, my partner and I spent two months in Paris. For me it was an opportunity to dust off my French, polish my tarnished accent, and fatten my vocabulary. As a child I was perfectly fluent. French was my first language in school and a sabbatical year in France when I was eight years old secured its place in my chemical composition. But my fluency was droopy. Since I had been studying theatre, I decided to audition for a daily theatre class at Cours Cochet-Delavène. In the spirit of full immersion, there’s nothing to bring up one’s French like trying to perform a Victor Hugo monologue in its original language. One of the core techniques of the school is to require students to “tell” La Fontaine fables.

Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables are the mother’s milk of education here. Every child has memorized at least a dozen by the time they reach the double digits. So what are they?

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) was a French writer. Born in the countryside, he grew up with the language of nature, of animals, as much as French. And, as Erik Orsenna puts it so beautifully in his recent biography, La Fontaine: une école buissonnière, don’t we all long for this forgotten communion with the animals, for aren’t we all of the same family? (And if you have your doubts, see the recent documentary, Jane, and watch the chimpanzee community that Jane Goodall began studying so many years ago.) But the country boy fell, too, for the charms of Paris. La Fontaine was at once urbane and parochial. He needed the sizzle of city culture and the retreat of the forest. I, too, feel that constant push and pull. I will super saturate with nights out, challenging culture and engaging conversation, only to then withdraw for some extended solitude on a mountain trail.

La Fontaine warmed up his writing talent with stories, mostly erotic and irreverent, which would get him into trouble in later life, but that’s another story. Then he turned to the fables, for which he would be revered, to this day. He wrote 234 in all.

A fable is an invented story, created to instruct and amuse. As La Fontaine pointed out, the fable has two parts: body and soul. The body is the story. The soul is the moral at the center. A fable is, like any great work of fiction, “a real lie”. La Fontaine didn’t invent his stories, he brought forward the lineage of the ancients, rewriting, refining and reimagining in poetic format the works of Aesop, Horace, Seneca and the list goes on and stretches from the Greeks and Romans across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Think Scheherazade. Think Bocaccio. And if you’d like a taste of some from Africa, here’s a sampling (in French).

Via his fables, La Fontaine commented on his age — the corrupted power of the church, the despotic caprices of the kings, not to mention our other vanities and without forgetting love and death.

From the outset they were wildly popular. They continue to be so in France. But they are written in a contorted syntax, often using expressions in currency in the mid 17th century. Accessing the juiciest bits of the fables beneath the arcane surface can be challenging. Hence, the teaching technique that is Cours Cochet-Delavène’s signature. Learning to “tell” a fable naturally, as if it were a modern story, with direct, personal meaning to the storyteller.

Hard to do, therefore a good exercise in theatre performance. On first encounter, I couldn’t quite get their appeal.

Flash forward two years, we are back in Paris for another two months and I’m taking my French off the shelf again, somewhat less rusty than last time, but still. I am in the midst of other writing projects. I can’t dedicate myself full time to the daily theatre classes, instead I engage one of the instructors for private theatre coaching. Raphaëlle suggests we warm up with some fables. I protest, but acquiesce. After all, I engaged her for her expertise.

This time around it was love at first fable. Tu vas devenir addicte, Raphaëlle says to me the second week of our studies. Will become? I’m fully hooked already.

Here’s how the studies go (and continue, despite my return to New York, thank you video connectivity): I read the fables aloud. We comb through the meaning of antique expressions and convoluted syntaxes. We discuss and dissect, often ending up in some rich discussion about politics, power, dreams, self-knowledge, death and other light topics. Then I read again and again, working on the performance, adding colour and depth, adding my own perspective and opinion. Here light and quick. Here a pause. Here a joyful tone with a dash of the sly. Until the story sparks and hisses to life. Until I am “telling” the fable, as if over dinner with friends. And then, that’s just what I do. I translate the fable on the fly, “telling” it to my partner. Up to this point all has been in French, bien sur. Now that English is in play, it’s a matter of refining the translation: choosing the right words, of course, but also deciding when to replace old expressions, where to maintain an uncomfortable syntax and how to capture the spirit of the performance.

And in this process, the body of the fable gains dimension and the soul precision. And universality. Because if you’ve been reading these fableogs, you know that La Fontaine’s fables (as with all the stories they are descended from) are more than whimsical children’s tales, they speak directly to these times and to the heart. No one is more modern than the Donkey, in all his burdens, all his innocence and his occasional selfishness.

As a friend of mine said, the light heart of the fables enables us to look at the world or ourselves through fresh eyes, to remember what we already understood, without having our spirits crushed by the darkness of that knowledge. That is what I have set out to do with these fableogs.