Exams are coming to an end here in Cambridge, meaning that everywhere you go you can’t help but notice students enjoying a well-earned cup of coffee, rowers preparing for the May Bumps (myself included), and of course the occasional bitter finalist who still hasn’t finished yet. Thankfully for me, my last exam was on Tuesday, and since then I’ve been using the time to catch up on a few projects that I’d let lapse over the exam period. One of these is this blog, which I’m resurrecting in a blaze of glory: feel free to sound the trumpets / cheer in the streets / blow the year-old party horn that you found down the back of the sofa.
During exams, it’s important not to let your life get completely taken over by revision, and so I found myself doing a bit more reading than I usually do during term. In particular, I found reading books in French to be very helpful, since it was (a) fun and (b) kept the linguistic portion of my brain ticking over.
Which brings me neatly onto one of these reads, Comme des images. It’s a French young adult novel, set in the prestigious (and pressurised) environment of the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris. I came across it for a very simple reason — I happened to know the author! Clémentine Beauvais is a postdoctoral researcher here at the University, where she juggles teaching and research with her writing career. In fact, she’s a published author in English as well as in French: her children’s series, The Sesame Seade Mysteries, could not be more different to Comme des images, but is equally compelling. Incidentally, the Sesame Seade books are set in Cambridge, specifically in Christ’s College, and are well worth reading.
But back to the French. While reading Comme des images, I found myself thinking that it would be an excellent first book for people coming to French literature for the first time. With that in mind, I decided to ask Clémentine Beauvais whether she’d be prepared to talk about the book, as well as to share some insights on all things relevant to people thinking of applying to university, to linguists in general, and to anyone who just really likes a good story.
And so, scone and pot of tea in hand, I caught up with Clémentine Beauvais, upstairs in the Michaelhouse Cafe.
So to start, would you be able to tell me a bit about yourself, and how you got to this position where you’re writing books in two languages? You started in 2006, right?
I came here in 2006, after doing a literary Baccalauréat in France and a year of classes préparatoires. The French system is relentlessly complicated, but basically the way it works is that while university is entirely free, and open to anyone who’s got a Bac regardless of how well they did, the tertiary education system is split between the universities and an alternative route that has competitive entry standards. That is called the classes préparatoires, and they prepare you over two or three years to take national exams for a number of grandes écoles. These schools are extremely competitive — to give you an idea, for the École normale supérieure there are generally 100 people admitted every year from the whole of France. So if you’re an arts and humanities person, and are into that system, the aim is to get into the ENS, the École des Chartes … It’s a really bizarre and competitive system, and it’s one which is in appearance meritocratic and republican, as we like to think, but in fact is hugely in favour of the upper-middle-classes.
Was that what made you turn away from the French system? Why did you decide to come to Cambridge?
Because I was profoundly unhappy with the system in France. I was always very interested in arts and literature, and was very good at school — but mostly because I was terrified. I was one of those people who copes with it all, gets top marks, does everything that is expected of them, but who is inside constantly terrified. Also, I was very interested in childhood, which I couldn’t study in France. I wanted to be a primary school teacher at the time, but before that I wanted to gain a theoretical, philosophical understanding of it. Then my mother, who had British colleagues, learned about the British system, which was very different, more focused on creativity, and in a way more relaxed. It helped that I was fascinated by Britain, partly because of Harry Potter … So sort of randomly I went to the British Council in Paris, where they were doing a presentation, and picked up the UCAS catalogue. It sounds random now, actually, but it was! I applied for Cambridge because they had an education course that sounded interesting, and to my astonishment I was shortlisted, meaning that I went there four days later in December, and then I was accepted. I had to stay for an extra year in France because I was too young to get into Cambridge — I was fifteen at that point — but actually staying that bit longer was great: although the French system is very rigorous, it confirmed to me that I was very glad to be leaving.
When you arrived in Cambridge, you studied English as well as Education, since you can’t study Education on its own. Could you explain how Education fits together with other subjects?
It’s changed a lot since I was here as an undergraduate, but generally speaking you could expect to do about two-thirds of your work in your ‘main’ subject and one-third in Education. Education is split into four subjects, History, Sociology, Psychology and Philosophy of Education, all of which you’re introduced to in your first year to give you an understanding of the general issues surrounding education. In the second and third years you can decide to do more education, finishing in the third year with a big research project. Of course, your third year of education would be your fourth year if you’re combining it with a language, as you spend the year abroad as part of the MML course. If you’re doing MML with Education, it’s worth mentioning that you can only do one language, so you can do French and Education, German and Education …
Do people ever ‘add in’ Education to their courses after one or two years?
I have quite a few students who’ve switched, actually, but I think there may well be students who switch to other subjects from Education too. This year I’ve got two people who’ve switched from ‘straight’ Geography to Geography and Education …
… and I assume they don’t all want to be geography teachers?
Not at all! And you can really do a lot of things after studying Education, although it leads onto the PGCE quite well, and naturally a lot of people studying Education do want to do a PGCE. A lot of Education students, although by no means a majority, do become teachers. The PGCE course in Cambridge is extraordinarily competitive, and the best in the country. But people do lots of other things; some go on to do MPhils and MAs in different places, and one person from my year became a nurse.
Could you tell us a bit more about the four subjects that you do in your first year?
You do History of Education, which traces not just the history of education but the history of childhood through the ages. Sociology of Education deals with things like the social structures and systems favouring certain types of students over others, and how education replicates (or doesn’t replicate) social structures. Psychology of Education ranges from how children develop language and neurology all the way to social pyschology. Philosophy of Education is my domain, and includes all the ‘big questions’ surrounding education: what is education? Why do we consider children to be a particular asset? What sort of asset are they?
Onto the book, then … could we start with the title? You can translate Comme des images literally into English as ‘Like Images’, but there’s more to it than that — the phrase ‘sages comme des images’, for instance, which means ‘good as gold’ but also carries a sense of children being ‘seen and not heard’ …
Yes, and it’s actually a very difficult phrase to translate. Titles are a weird thing: I actually had this title in my head before I wrote the book. I knew I wanted to write about high school and appearances, but I didn’t have the story in my head, so if anything the title might have motivated some aspects of it.
It certainly reads like that’s what happened, when you look at how images permeate the book. There are so many images: the phrase ‘comme des images’ describes how students at the Lycée Henri-IV might behave, for instance. But also, as I think the cover might be hinting at, the twins, Léopoldine and Iseult, are images of each other. But you were at Henri-IV yourself: would you say that any aspects of your school life there informed your writing?
A lot of people have asked me that question, particularly when it comes to the teachers in the book, but in fact my English teachers, quite unlike Monsieur Daguerre, were all lovely. There were still a lot of possibilities, though. In fact, Monsieur Daguerre is actually more inspired by one of my history teachers, however indirectly, but I could just do so much more with him as an English teacher. I really wanted his dialogue to be half in English and half in French … As for the Physics teacher, he represents a lot of the teachers who, in spite of their kindness, just seemed to be completely in another world: they were sweet, but there was this feeling of a complete disconnect between their experiences and ours. They felt bad for bringing us up to ‘compete’ against each other in that sort of way. A lot of the reviewers of the book picked up on that lack of communication between generations, which was a very important theme of the book to me.
Apart from all these questions about imagery and meaning, though, the book was also really interesting to me because of the way in which it was told. Not only do you start at the end, but the narration is also unique.
In my last book, La Pouilleuse, I was already experimenting with a type of narration where the narrator was not a central person, but on the periphery. This is much more developed in Comme des images, which is longer book: the narrator is part of the story, but is not one of the two central characters, Léopoldine and Iseult. This is really useful because it allows you to have what we call in French un narrateur décalé — a perspective that’s slightly different, slightly aside, and one that I find it fun to play with.
Well, in almost all literature written in the first person, the protagonist is the narrator: they’re the person to whom things happen.
Definitely for young adult fiction. Actually, in adult fiction I notice the narrateur décalé more and more often: Sherlock Holmes is an example of the person writing not being in the limelight. We don’t always notice it in adult literature, whereas young adult literature is so focused on the self that there are very few third-person narratives and the first-person is used to make you identify with the characters. I did not want anyone to identify with my characters!
The other thing I wanted to ask about the way you present the story is to do with the feeling of the place. There was this wonderful moment — the ressaisissement — when the narrator looks up at the ceiling and realises the beauty of the historical building in which she happens to go to school …
I remember when I was at the lycée, walking from the library to yet another dull lesson, and I would look up at the roof and think, ‘that’s beautiful! What’s it doing there?’. These buildings are functional: you go into and out of them every day.
It’s a very interesting book, and I think a very good way into reading in French. It’s at once an easy read and a challenging one: the themes and ideas are challenging, but in terms of language it’s very accessible, apart from some French school terminology.
It’s very plot- and character-driven. I think that in a way it’s an introduction to French society, particularly to an aspect of French society that you don’t learn much about in school. It’s interesting in the UK how a lot of people study La Haine in French. Of course it’s a really important aspect of French society, but this is essentially the other side of the spectrum: the über-privileged kids who are not at all like the children in La Haine. It’s actually an aspect of culture that France isn’t uncomfortable enough with. In the UK there’s a lot of wondering about how egalitarian (or otherwise) the education system is, but in France the system is much more insidious. Like Pierre Bourdieu would say, if you have the cultural capital, if you know where your kid is going to go, you know where to put them. It’s not a coincidence that my parents are senior managers and I went to Henri-IV! You don’t even have a choice; you completely internalise it, which makes it easy to claim that ‘the system is a meritocracy because it’s free.’
One final question, coming back to the practical side of things. I’ll ask this in French, since many of the people reading this blog will be interested in studying French … Est-ce que tu aurais des conseils à donner à un étudiant qui tente de lire pour la première fois en langue étrangère ?
Pour moi, le conseil serait de lire des choses qui te passionnent. J’ai appris l’anglais en lisant Harry Potter, parce que je n’ai pas pu attendre que les traductions arrivent en France. Un autre truc, c’est de ne pas chercher dans les dictionnaires, sauf si un mot revient continuellement, et de ne pas faire la traduction littérale mot-à-mot. Il faut s’efforcer de lire toute la phrase. S’il y a vraiment un paragraphe que tu ne comprends pas, il est très rare que ce soit un paragraphe qui est important pour l’intrigue : tu vas probablement pouvoir suivre l’histoire quand même.
Comme des images is published in France by Sarbacane. Clémentine also has her own website, which hosts a very interesting blog on all things literary, cultural and educational: www.clementinebeauvais.com.