Sunday, May 29, 2011

Geek's Corner 12 : A Weekend with Monsieur Perrault (French Literary Tenses)

In addition to the usual list of difficulties encountered when learning any foreign language, French has a few specific wrinkles of its own. In particular, there are certain verb tenses that have fallen into disuse, so that they are no longer used when speaking, but may still be encountered in written French, particularly in older texts.

Most intermediate French students will have seen at least one of these, the so-called "simple past tense", or passé simple. Although it has been completely replaced by the perfect tense, the passé composé , in spoken French, it is still reasonably common in modern texts, though it can come across as being slightly pompous. But, for example, in an article about the DSK brouhaha this week I came across the following phrase

Nombreux furent les chefs d'Etat qui eurent droit ... (Many heads of state were entitled to ...

which has both verbs in the passé simple. Given that it's still used in modern writing, inclusion of the passé simple as part of the curriculum seems entirely reasonable.

But the passé simple is not the only French "literary tense". No, indeed, there are four others: the passé antérieur (now replaced by the plus-que-parfait, or pluperfect), the imperfect subjunctive (now replaced by the present subjunctive), the pluperfect subjunctive (now replaced by the past subjunctive), and the so-called second form of the conditional past (something clearly dreamed up solely for the purpose of making life more interesting back in the days before television and video games).

For anyone interested (and there's always at least one reader who is), there is a very nice overview here , by the indefatigable Laura K. Lawless,'s French Language Guide. Ms Lawless is, in my not-so-humble opinion, a prime candidate for sainthood, God bless her.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, primarily, because I take a certain geekish pleasure in it. But also because, during Thursday's class with Laurent, we read part of Perrault's "Comtes", as a way of introducing us to the whole morass of French literary tenses. So I was moved to go out and buy my own copy, which I've been reading over the weekend, and enjoying thorougly.

Many of your favorite Disney tales are included: "Sleeping Beauty", "Cinderella", "Tom Thumb", "Puss in Boots" (oh wait, wasn't he in "Shrek"?), as well as "Little Red Riding Hood", "Bluebeard", and a handful of others. But don't necessarily expect those Disney happy endings. The Perrault version of these tales errs heavily on the side of cruelty and brutality. There's more than one's fair share of incest, cannibalism, and good old-fashioned gore. For instance, that hunter or woodsman who arrives to save Little Red Riding Hood and her grandma at the end of the Brothers Grimm version? Completely absent from Perrault. In his view of the world, wander from the path to chase butterflies or talk to wolves and you'll come to a grisly ending.

The illustrations are the original drawings by Gustav Dore, and are terrific.

Finally, on the topic of "Little Red Riding Hood", I came across the following photo, which dates from the winter of 1968, my first term at boarding school, and which I present, in all its horrifying detail, without further commentary. The psychic scars run too deep*. But can you guess which of the characters depicted is now one of Ireland's best-known architects, a figure of international renown?

*: For instance, I was forced to sing, in my adorable boy soprano voice, to the tune of "Just a Song at Twilight"

I am getting loooone-ly
for Red Riding Hood


1 comment:

  1. But, hey, are those wolf- or bunny-ears you were wearing? Hmmm. Rabbit ears, you say?

    About that horrific school concert photo, all I can say, David, is many thanks for the great gift of your singing voice (even if it wasn’t yours to give), so sweet and pure in 1968, which we all enjoyed so much and were so envious of – let alone your incomparable piano-playing or 'instant' mastery of German, your hobby at the time. And let's not talk about Math(s)! Give us some chance, eh?

    For you folks who don't already know, DG subsequently received the highest mark in Ireland in German in Ireland's 'Inter Cert', a State exam one takes two years before leaving High School. That was in 1971. 40 years ago already, my God! The top three (our class scored 4 out of the top 5 in the country that year) won a trip from the West German government to the Munich Olympics of 1972 – I (a sport-aholohic swimmer then - Mark Spitz, anybody?), came fourth or fifth (I got a book from the Ambassador, but hey). I went on to Munich anyway in August that year, ahead of the games, but was refused access on security grounds (and see how that worked out!).

    Best of our time, you! Homage to this day. Shane