Brilliantly uniting the personal and the critical, French Lessons is a powerful autobiographical experiment. It tells the story of an American woman escaping into the French language and of a scholar and teacher coming to grips with her history of learning. Kaplan begins with a distinctly American quest for an imaginary France of the intelligence. But soon her infatuation with all things French comes up against the dark, unimagined recesses of French political and cultural life. The daughter of a Jewish lawyer who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, Kaplan grew up in the 1960s in the Midwest. After her father's death when she was seven, French became her way of "leaving home" and finding herself in another language and culture. In spare, midwestern prose, by turns intimate and wry, Kaplan describes how, as a student in a Swiss boarding school and later in a junior year abroad in Bordeaux, she passionately sought the French "r," attentively honed her accent, and learned the idioms of her French lover. When, as a graduate student, her passion for French culture turned to the elegance and sophistication of its intellectual life, she found herself drawn to the language and style of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. At the same time she was repulsed by his anti-Semitism. At Yale in the late 70s, during the heyday of deconstruction she chose to transgress its apolitical purity and work on a subject "that made history impossible to ignore:" French fascist intellectuals. Kaplan's discussion of the "de Man affair" ¿́¿ the discovery that her brilliant and charismatic Yale professor had written compromising articles for the pro-Nazi Belgian press¿́¿and her personal account of the paradoxes of deconstruction are among the most compelling available on this subject. French Lessons belongs in the company of Sartre's Words and the memoirs of Nathalie Sarraute, Annie Ernaux, and Eva Hoffman. No book so engrossingly conveys both the excitement of learning and the moral dilemmas of the intellectual life.
In a piece about the difficulty of translating French Lessons into French, Kaplan has commented that she sees herself as occupying an in-between place, an intermediate spot between two languages and cultures. As such, her memoir will be of interest to anyone who has learned a second language or lived in a different culture. Whether it is her recollections of her initial attempts to learn French in Switzerland, her laborious efforts to perfect her linguistic skills and become a part of French culture as a university student in Bordeaux, or the intellectual passion for literature and teaching that has characterized her life as an adult, Kaplan’s experiences will strike a chord with readers who are themselves bilingual or bicultural, or who want to be.
The only parts of French Lessons which seem less engaging to the general reader are the sections that deal with the strictly academic aspect of Kaplan’s language background. Her reflections on Céline and her study of French fascism that formed the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation are certainly relevant to her story. As one of her primary intellectual interests and also as the setting for a dramatic personal story, the author’s study of fascism and collaborationism certainly needs to be part of the book. However, the amount of detail involved, including accounts of university departmental politics, become a bit tedious to readers whose interests lie somewhere other than academe.
Nonetheless, French Lessons is a fascinating account of an American’s love affair with the French language. Kaplan’s self-reflection provides a surprising insight into the role a second language can play in one’s life. It affects intellectual development, social activities, professional life. In fact, a second language weaves itself so thoroughly into the fabric of existence that it becomes part of every aspect of life. French Lessons is a book that I wish I’d thought of writing before Alice Kaplan did. But everyone’s story is unique, and so perhaps Kaplan’s greatest contribution is in inspiring her readers to consider and to appreciate the role of language in our own lives.