Writing in French as a second language

The authors who chose to write literature in French as a second language

Many of the novels, plays and other literary works that belong to French literature were actually written by foreign authors.

Many talented authors have all chosen to write literary works in French than in their native tongue. For example, Ionesco, a Romanian playwright, wrote his absurdist works such as La Cantatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon (1951) and Rhinocéros (1959) in French rather than his native Romanian.

What motivates an author’s choice of literary language?

Why did Ionesco, and so many others, choose to write in a language that was not their own? Samuel Beckett, an Irish playwright wrote Waiting for Godot (1952) in both English and French, translating his work himself. Both Ionesco’s and Beckett’s plays are generally considered as belonging to the literary genre the theatre of the absurd. Therefore, might the choice to write in a foreign language in these two cases be a linked to the content of these authors’ work, one thread of which is the futility of language as a tool of human communication? Their texts often a treatise on the ability of language to lead only to misunderstanding rather than unambiguous conversation, and it is possible that their choice to write in a language which is not their first is a symbolic nod to the problems they saw as inherent in human language.

Perhaps writing literary works in a foreign language is actually more fitting.

When writing a literary work it can be difficult to gain a sense of perspective about what one is writing, so perhaps writing in a language which is one’s second or even third foreign tongue is actually an apt choice to make when penning a novel or play.

Here is a list of authors who chose to write literature in French as a second language, and sometimes even in two languages.

Agota Kristof

Agota Kristof
Agota Kristof

Ágota Kristóf was a Hungarian writer, who lived in Switzerland and wrote in French. Kristof received the European prize for French literature for The Notebook (1986). She won the 2001 Gottfried Keller Award in Switzerland and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2008. Kristof’s first steps as a writer were in the realm of poetry and theater, which is a facet of her works that did not have as great an impact as her trilogy. In 1986 Kristof’s first novel, The Notebook appeared. It was the beginning of a moving trilogy. The sequel titled The Proof came 2 years later. The third part was published in 1991 under the title The Third Lie. The most important themes of this trilogy are war and destruction, love and loneliness, promiscuous, desperate, and attention-seeking sexual encounters, desire and loss, truth and fiction.

Ágota Kristóf has received the European prize for French literature for The Notebook. This novel was translated in more than 30 languages. In 1995 she published a new novel, Yesterday. Kristof also wrote her autobiography called L’analphabète (in English The Illiterate) and published in 2004. In her book, Kristof describes feeling illiterate during her first years in exile, as she struggled to master the French language. After five years, she came to realise that she needed to learn French if she wanted to integrate. Although the fact that her books are all written in French is evidence of her success, Kristof still considers French a langue ennemie [enemy language], one that is difficult to handle and is even killing her mother tongue. This essay examines Kristof’s relationship to language, reading and writing by asking why she has chosen to write in French and how she writes in this « langue ennemie ». Comparing L’analphabète with an earlier German version of the text, it can be argued that the use of certain rhetorical and autobiographical blank spaces is a calculated decision and can be tied to issues of gender.

Samuel Beckett Samuel Beckett

Born in Dublin, Samuel Beckett was an Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet. He studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College, Dublin, before travelling around Europe and settling in Paris in the late 1930s. He remained there throughout the Nazi occupation, stating he preferred “France at war to Ireland at peace”, and fought in the French resistance movement. Towards the end of his life, he would refer to his involvement to as “boy scout work”.

Beckett translated his novel Murphy (1937) into French in 1938. In the years following the war he published mostly in French, including his most famous work En attendant Godot (1953), commonly known by its English title Waiting for Godot. He claimed that he tended to write in French, because it made it easier for him to write “without style”. He translated all of his works from French ino English himself, with the exception of Molloy, which he translated in cooperation with Patrick Bowles. 

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera (born 1 April 1929) is a Czech-born writer who went into exile in France in 1975, and became a naturalised French citizen in 1981. He “sees himself as a French writer and insists his work should be studied as French literature and classified as such in book stores”. Kundera’s best-known work is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Prior to the Velvet Revolution of 1989 the Communist régime in Czechoslovakia banned his books. He lives virtually incognito and rarely speaks to the media. A perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has been nominated on several occasions.

Writer Milan Kundera
Writer Milan Kundera

Although his early poetic works are staunchly pro-communist, his novels escape ideological classification. Kundera has repeatedly insisted on being considered a novelist, rather than a political or dissident writer. Political commentary has all but disappeared from his novels (starting specifically after The Unbearable Lightness of Being) except in relation to broader philosophical themes. Kundera’s style of fiction, interlaced with philosophical digression, is greatly inspired by the novels of Robert Musil and the philosophy of Nietzsche, is also used by authors Alain de Botton and Adam Thirlwell. Kundera takes his inspiration, as he notes often enough, not only from theRenaissance authors Giovanni Boccaccio and Rabelais, but also from Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, Denis Diderot, Robert Musil, Witold Gombrowicz, Hermann Broch, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, and perhaps most importantly, Miguel de Cervantes, to whose legacy he considers himself most committed. Originally, he wrote in Czech. From 1993 onwards, he has written his novels in French. Between 1985 and 1987 he undertook the revision of the French translations of his earlier works. As a result, all of his books exist in French with the authority of the original.

Andrei MakineAndrei Makine

Since he emigrated to France in 1987, just as Mikhail Gorbachev was drawing back the Iron Curtain, Makine has joined an exclusive band of writers – he is lodged alphabetically between Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov – who have achieved both commercial and critical success by writing in a foreign language.

Makine arrived in Paris with little baggage other than his love of French and its literature. He applied for asylum and citizenship, and spent the next seven years living the romantic stereotype of an artist starving in a Parisian garret. As it happens, Makine himself never viewed it that way. Moving regularly from one lodging to the next, and even sleeping rough for a time, he cobbled together a living by teaching Russian and spent the rest of his time writing. Whenever he changed rooms, he had a bigger mountain of manuscripts, hand written on loose sheets of paper, to take with him, and a corresponding hillock of publisher’s rejection letters.

Innocent as a librarian behind his little, wire-framed specs, Makine seems to shock even himself when he recounts how he was prepared to do almost anything to get published. He resubmitted novels under different titles and different names. He rewrote the opening pages and gummed together the middle ones to see if publishers read that far. In the end, concluding that French publishers were suspicious of a Russian writing in French, he even presented some of his novels as translations. The tactic backfired when a publisher suggested corrections to what she termed “poor translation”.

Makine was growing desperate when his luck turned. A distinguished French publisher rang to say that she loved his fourth novel, Le Testament Francais. She published it, to positive reviews, in 1995. The book was showing all the signs of being a modestly successful novel by an unknown author when Makine was catapulted into a different league. He achieved the unprecedented feat of winning France’s two most prestigious literary prizes – the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis – simultaneously. Suddenly, everyone wanted to read his book.

Makine seemed perfectly at ease in both languages. Certainly he has a trace of an accent, something curious about the way he tongues the “l” when he speaks French, his “grandmother tongue”. But if ideas seem to crowd in faster in Russian, Makine insisted that this was not because he thinks in that language. “It depends; I think in both languages. I know that this always surprises people, but it really is not important to me which language I write in. I began by writing poetry in Russian and one day I may well write in Russian again, but for the moment I am addressing myself to a French audience and so I write in French. It’s as simple as that.”

Eugene Ionesco

Eugene Ionesco was born in 1912 to a French mother and a Romanian father. He spent most of his childhood in France. He studied French literature at the University of Bucharest. Ionesco married Rodicia Burileanu, and they had one daughter, to whom he wrote a number of unusual children’s stories. The family moved back to France and lived in Marseilles during World War II. After the war, they relocated to Paris.

Ionesco would earn critical acclaim as a playwright, but but he did not write his first play, The Bald Soprano, until 1950. Having decided to learn English at the age of forty, Ionesco found inspiration in, of all things, his language primer. Simple sentences constructed by simple words struck him as alternatively profound, mysterious, tragic, and hilarious. He wrote The Bald Soprano to satirize the construction of a middle-class family trapped in a world defined by meaningless formalities and stale routines. To his surprise, the tiny production received critical praise and catapulted the middle-aged man into a vibrant writing career. Ionesco’s most famous work includes The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952), and Rhinoceros (1959). His plays, or “anti-plays,” as he called them, break theatrical traditions of plot and sequence. They are particularly modern in the degree to which they do so. The plays explore mortality and existential conundrums with fanciful and often fantastical humor. The line between fiction and reality consistently blurs as Ionesco depicts meaningless worlds that are ruled by chance. In 1962, Martin Esslin identified Ionesco as a leading writer in the “Theater of the Absurd.” Other such writers of this party included Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov. They shared similar concerns about life’s meaning, its meaninglessness–and life’s mystery. To express and explore the problems of living in seeming meaninglessness, these writers not only challenged traditional theatrical models but revolutionized the art of writing itself. Ionesco was made a member of the French Academy (L’Académie française) in 1970. He went on to publish more theoretical writings and more plays. He also won a number of prizes. Ionesco died at age 84 on March 29, 1994. Although the celebrated thinker wrote almost entirely in French and lived so long in France, Romania still considers him one of its most talented artists.

Jack Kerouac Jack Kerouac

Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac was an American novelist, born to French-Canadian parents in Massachusetts in 1922. He was brought up speaking French, and first learnt English at the age of 6, and did not speak it confidently until his late teens. He wrote in English, and is most famous for his iconic ‘road-trip’ novel On the Road, first published in 1957. However, in recent years it has been discovered that initially he began writing it in Quebecois French, a language in which he also wrote two other novels which remain unpublished. He also wrote some poetry in French, and towards the end of his life said that he wished to return to speaking his parents’ native tongue.

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