In his fine Threepenny Review essay French Without Tears, Luc Sante (whose last name is pronounced SAHNT [according to the author himself, who was kind enough to drop by the comment section to correct my mistaken two-syllable version]) reminisces about the process by which, as a young immigrant from Belgium, he settled into English without losing French; it contains the following delightful passage on the glories of French as used in comics:
But I had a fortuitous link to the world of francophone children: my father’s sister and her husband, small-town newsagents, subscribed me to my favorite Belgian comic magazine. I read Spirou every week for ten years, and through it subcutaneously absorbed not just the living language but also a sense of daily life in a Belgium that was then changing much more rapidly than my parents realized. The comic weeklies (the others were Tintin and Pilote, the latter published in France) had no American equivalent; they combined about a dozen serial comic strips, on double-page spreads, with a handful of single-page gags, along with games, contests, educational tidbits, and some prose fiction I never so much as glanced at. I didn’t care much about stories; I cared passionately about graphic style, and this affected my reading—I disdained the ostensibly serious yarns, with their conventionally realist draftsmanship, in favor of the wildest and funniest drawings. The funny strips also happened to be the most unbridled in their use of language, reveling in the singular ability of French to generate wordplay, puns in particular.
French-speaking children are schooled in puns from the start. Of course, this could be said of speakers of English and maybe every other language as well—that’s what riddles are for. For example, I date my true immersion in English from the moment I understood the humor of Q: When is a boy not a boy? A: When he turns into a store. But puns lie much thicker on the ground in French, in large part because the language is so much more rigorous and willfully delimited than the sprawling mass of English, an elegantly efficient two-stroke engine to the latter’s uncontainable Rube Goldberg mechanism. French does not necessarily have fewer sounds than English, but the protocols governing their order and frequency make their appearances predictable—hence the profusion of sound-alike phrases and sentences, which fueled Surrealism and ensure the ongoing appeal of Freudian and post-Freudian ideas in the French-speaking world: Les dents, la bouche. Laid dans la bouche. Les dents la bouchent. L’aidant la bouche. Etc. These phrases, which sound exactly alike, respectively mean “the teeth, the mouth;” “ugly in the mouth;” “the teeth choke her;” “helping her chokes her.” You don’t need to have been psychoanalyzed by Jacques Lacan to see from these examples how language can assist thought in swiftly tunneling from the mundane to the taboo. Children are instinctively aware of this, even and perhaps especially if they are being raised Catholic and are thus trained in the finer points of repression.
The most internationally famous characters in Spirou were Les Schtroumpfs, known in the English-speaking world as the Smurfs, small blue elfin creatures who lived in a toadstool village. In their English-language animated appearances they could be cloyingly cute, but in French they were spared this fate by their language, marked by an incessant use of the (invented) word schtroumpf, employed as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and interjection. Every reader, no matter how young, understood this usage without a gloss, because it parodied the French conversational trope of substituting catch-alls such as truc, chose, and machin for words that cannot immediately be called to mind, in any grammatical position. What schtroumpf highlighted was the ability of such dummy words to suggest words prohibited from writing or speech, regardless of the fact that the actual words schtroumpf was substituting for were always clear from context. Truc or chose became neutral from exposure, but schtroumpf subliminally spoke to the unconscious; its surface strangeness could make it mean things that the child’s mind does not yet know but can imagine with tantalizing vagueness.
Not all the wordplay was so freighted, of course. In the Astérix series (tales of a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of winged-helmeted first-century Gauls, serialized in Pilote), the characters’ names were always elaborate puns that turned on their suffixes, -ix for the Gauls and -us for the enemy Romans (to pick two that don’t require lengthy glosses, one of the former was Madamboevarix, one of the latter Volfgangamadéus). Deciphering such names—and puns of that sort were rife in all the funny strips—provided an agreeable gymnastic exercise, especially if it took a week or two of rolling the name around before it clicked open like a combination lock. Meanwhile, the adventures of Tintin, the boy reporter, a Belgian (and eventually international) institution since the 1920s, featured as a recurring character Captain Haddock, an alcoholic and irascible but good-hearted old sea-dog. He was noted for his pratfalls, and even more for the streams of insults he would launch at villains, thieving wildlife, cars that splashed puddle water at him on the street, or small boys who had hit him in the head with a ball: Accapareurs! Coloquintes! Ophicléides! Patapoufs! Cloportes! Anthropophages! Catachrèses! Moujiks! Rhizomes! Ectoplasmes! Anthropopithèques! Analphabètes! Cornichons! Va-nu-pieds! Saltimbanques! Moules à gaufres! Protozoaires! (Monopolists, bitter apples, serpents [the musical instrument], fatsos, woodlice, cannibals, catachreses, muzhiks, rhizomes, ectoplasms, Anthropopitheci Erecti, illiterates, gherkins, ragamuffins, mountebanks, waffle irons, protozoa.) It was an explosion in the dictionary, Finnegans Wake on a matchbook cover, a fantastically liberating surge of pure unshackled language. The comics provided an important lesson: language could be a medium of fun, and not just safe, approved fun, either, but wild, anarchic, disruptive fun. There was nothing lazy or slapdash about the comics’ employment of words, though; that much was clear even to an eight-year-old. Therefore, the appendix to the lesson was that fun could best be achieved through a thorough grounding in ballistics and a heightened sense of precision.
He later discusses his introduction to the world of poetry thanks to a visit to a Montreal bookstore, where he bought “a fat paperback anthology of French poetry, published by Marabout”:
I wasn’t very much interested in poetry, except maybe stray bits of Beat stuff I’d seen here and there, but in flipping through the volume I noticed that many of the poems looked different from what I’d generally been exposed to: some had very long lines, some were studded with proper nouns, some were even in prose, if such a thing was possible. That night I lay on my bed in the motel room in Longueil and opened the book to
A la fin tu est las de ce monde ancien
“In the end you are tired of this old world.” Thus began “Zone,” by Guillaume Apollinaire.
Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin “Shepherdess o Eiffel Tower the flock of bridges is bleating this morning.” The poem was speaking directly to me, to me alone, as proven on the second page: Voilà la jeune rue et tu n’es encore qu’un petit enfant / Ta mère ne t’habille que de bleu et de blanc. “Here is the young street and you are but a little child / Your mother only dresses you in blue and white,” which was exactly true of my early childhood; that tu clinched it. Tu regardes les yeux pleins de larmes ces pauvres émigrants / Ils croient en Dieu ils prient les femmes allaitent des enfants / Ils emplissent de leur odeure le hall de la gare Saint-Lazare. “You look with your eyes filled with tears at the poor immigrants / They believe in God they pray the women suckle infants / They fill with their odor the hall of the Saint-Lazare station”—I had been there and seen that! Furthermore, the poem seemed to be about a yearning for modernity in the face of confusion as to the truth of religion, a clairvoyant depiction of my own central inner drama of the time. But there was more: the poem was fluid, rhyming but in an elastic meter like an improvised song, with phrases strung together without punctuation but always clear in their meaning, with an unlabored syntax close to conversational, with capitalized names like cherries in a box of chocolates, with sudden movements in time and space executed with a casual legerdemain, with a flash and whirl and continual surprise that was just what I wanted from the modern world but with a palpable kindness that reassured me as the poem flung me about.
At that moment I became a French modernist…
Read (as they say) the whole thing.
(Via wood s lot.)