That year, we were going to France in June—small, out-of-the-way places in Guyenne and the Dordogne—and so I decided to brush up my college French (se remettre le Français que jai apprit à I’université), even though I realize it’s a losing game. As everyone knows, the French are delighted to encounter one’s college French — they either ignore it and ask in plain English, “What language are you trying to speak. Monsieur?” or else they reply with lightning speed — employing idioms unheard of in French II (three credits), and quickly activating verbs in the pluperfect subjunctive. Either way, it’s sure to be a big laugh (c’est désopilant) from Dunkerque to Perpignan.
Once at my neighborhood chain bookstore (la librairie avoisinante), I began to sample the shelf of phrase books, ten-easy-lessons, and learn-French-fast. The language shelf is at the back of the store, next to the books on knitting and origami —and probably is stocked by the same buyer. Most of the books had bright-colored national flags on their covers along with an attractive drawing of the Arc de Triomphe or a flamenco dancer, to suggest one of the marvels awaiting us in Europe. But the contents of many of these books reminded me of my friend who, traveling on a train in Austria not long ago, looked over the shoulder of a boy studying the page of an English grammar book that bore the example, “Where can I buy a pair of plus-fours?” It was either that sort of thing, or else the text was depressingly brisk, touristic, and practical. On the one hand, “Madame Robert, may I have the honor to present my sister-in-law (ma Belle soeur). Mademoiselle Jenkins?” seemed highly theoretical in that: a) I have no sister-in-law; b) I wouldn’t dream of going to France with her if I did; and c) I would expect her to make her own way in French society without any help from me. On the other hand, I found myself overwhelmed with boredom (je me suis ennuyé à mourir) at the idea of memorizing “I wish to cash a traveler’s check,” “There seems to be something wrong with the clutch. It makes a funny noise” (NOT un bruit amusant), or “I desire your recommendation as to which wine goes with the lamb stew.”
There was one mod book that instructed me how to say “You can’t fight City Hall” (although the idiom advised had a quaint flavor — “Vous vous battez contre des moulins” more suggestive of a remark by Sancho Panza than a streetwise Parisian). It even offered me the wherewithal to make such remarks as “I’m up shit creek” or “If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle” in flawless French.
Since I couldn’t imagine how to work any of this into a conversation, I walked around the corner to the Brattle Bookshop, a secondhand dealer (un brocanteur) with a vast collection of frayed bindings, foxed paper, dog-ears, coffee stains, and pencilled marginalia. And, sure enough, on a dark shelf at the back of the shop, I discovered a singular French grammarcum-phrase book.
It was titled Thèmes François & Anglois, or, French and English Exercises, A New Edition. The author was listed as Lewis Chambaud. It was bound in scabby calf, the pages were yellowed, and it had been printed in London in 1776, the year of our Declaration of Independence and the publication date of notable books by Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine. I bought it for two dollars, on the theory that therein I wouldn’t have to face the latest horrors of Franglais and — romantic notion —I might learn a little of a purer brand of French.
When I opened the small volume that evening, I came across its first peculiarity on the third page. Under the heading ADVERTISEMENT, the booksellers (actually the publishers—“W. Strahan, J.F. and C. Rivington, Hawes and Co., S. Crowder, T. Longman, T Davies, T Becket, E.Johnston, and T. Cadell, in the Strand,” apparently a regular Simon and Schuster of their day) had some testy things to say about their author.
They remarked, “It matters very little to know the reasons which have induced Mr. CHAMBAUD to refer his Readers to his Grammar, for rules which should have been inserted in this performance.” It appears that poor Chambaud, in an effort to sell copies of his other book. Grammar of the French Tongue, had slyly omitted from his manuscript the grammatical rules supposed to go along with the exercises in this book. But Messrs. Strahan, Rivington, Hawes, et al. had caught him at it. Not ones to be hoodwinked by this Frenchy trick, they had, they said, extracted the rules from his Grammar and printed them along with the exercises.
After the introduction to verbs (pluperfect tense: I had received. Thou had’st undone. He had girded. We had enjoined. Ye had disappeared. They had plaistered), I began to read through the exercises: correct uses of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, comparatives, conjunctions, interrogatives, and so on. The fuller models of usage proved to be even more charming than he girding and they plaistering. No traveler’s cheques, no asking subway directions, no instructions for sending a telex. On the other hand, examples that dealt with basic things in life such as food and drink, apt quotations from Horace, busy swindlers, unmarried heiresses, epigrams in moral philosophy, flattery for the king, duelling preparations, precautions about highwaymen, and edifying episodes from Greek history. M. Chambaud was, it seemed, not only a man of learning but a man of the world as well.
Then, there were sudden, startling glimpses of eighteenth century life, hardly calculated to reassure the tourist:
She has put out her eyes (Elle s’est creve les yeux). She took care not to speak within the house; but when she was without, she began to cry out from the middle of the street to the people that were within.
A fragment of some horrifying event whose end or beginning we will never know. But whose middle —that blinded woman with a bloody face standing on the cobblestones and screaming her accusations at the people in the house—we will probably find hard to forget.