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Pennac vs Argot

October 19th, 2010

Just finished reading my friend Sarah Ardizzone’s mistressly (?) translation of the French novelist and former teacher Daniel Pennac’s School Blues (Maclehose Press ISBN 978-1-906694-64-7). It originally came out last year in France as Chagrin d’école and like everything Pennac does – he’s considered a national treasure across the Channel – sold in spades. The book, essentially an extended essay, is an autobiographical memoir coupled with a dissertation on Pennac’s take on teaching French, i.e. French grammar and literature, to teenage pupils who, as he himself was once was, are categorised as cancres, or dunces.

This isn’t a book review, although I would recommend it unreservedly (it’s not perfect but the Pennac style, as rendered by Ms Ardizzone, is enthralling, whether one agrees with his views on education or not). What interested me was a passage, perhaps of two or three pages, in which he considers slang, or more properly argot. For a man who presents himself as the quintessential caring liberal, bending over backwards to imbue his tough, dysfunctional, initially and often deliberately analphabetic kids, drawn mainly from the roughest of the high-rise slums of the banlieus (the big-city suburbs), with an appreciation for the beauty and diversity of language, his attitude to slang seemed anomalous to me.

In a phrase, he doesn’t like it. Indeed he scorns it. It is ephemeral, simplistic, a construct used by the illiterate underdog to pretend to his or her superiors that the underclass lifestyle has something to hide. Something that is of worth, when patently, and as shown by this poor, inarticulate language – which is not even a real language but simply an assemblage of a few uninspiring synonyms – this is not the case. Only in ‘real’, literary, standard, sanctioned French is there worth. Slang is a value-free zone.

It’s odd, that slang section. I’ve now read it several times, and I’m not sure to what extent he’s really pretending to reassure a notional member of the middle class – which is how he presents it – that they have nothing to worry from this underclass prating, that a bit of argot will never even bruise let alone injure French culture, or whether Pennac is actually presenting his own, deeply felt views. Because of course he then goes onto to talk about slang in his own work. I can’t judge that, because I haven’t read that work in the original. Although, once more, when I did read the translations of what is known as the Belleville Quartet (paradoxically it runs to five not four titles), I enjoyed them enormously. And he doesn’t appear to submit that to the same negative strictures.

But I think that in the end, and reinforced by his oft-stressed French teacher’s (excessive?) respect for the classics of his own culture and language, that these are indeed his own views and that in his way he comes over as an equally fearful bourgeois. A bouffon as the argot puts it. I can see that he wants to show his young banlieusards that there is more to literary life than obscenities and verlan (the backslang that is so popular in banlieu speech) and of course he’s right, but what he seems unwilling to accept is that – and I am the least relativistic person you will meet, and have serious ideas of my own of what is good and bad – there are alternative forms of expression that in themselves are of equal, and sometimes even superior value. (For instance I would prefer, to mix my cultures, one chapter of a good Simenon – whether a Maigret or a ‘roman dur’- to the entire past, present and indeed future works of Messrs McEwan or Faulks), and that some of these forms are couched in, or are substantially filled with slang / argot. But then France may not have thrown up a Trainspotting (I won’t say an Irvine Welsh, because too much of what followed that stellar book was just recycling), or any of the many great titles from across the anglophone world that I have enjoyed gutting for my dictionary. I don’t know. I enjoy the likes of Didier Daeninckx, Jean-Bernard Pouy and other noiristes, but I am told that they don’t exactly count in sales or influence. And I’m not sure that they are especially slangy.

My own feeling, and I suppose the reason for these comments, is that to some extent Pennac reflects the wider history of French lexicography whereby the Académie française has always sought to set boundaries to the language (and in so doing has thus caused it to lose its once pre-eminent status in the world) and to state ever since its 17th century foundation what is acceptable as ‘French’ and what is not. Whereas as Samuel Johnson, whose own dictionary was commissioned for the express purpose of providing an English rival to its French predecessor, made clear: this was impossible. And indeed pointless. Thus the title of my own history of lexicography: Chasing the Sun, which was drawn from his introduction. You can chase it, if you so desire, but don’t expect to make a capture.

That didn’t mean that Johnson didn’t have noisily conservative ideas of what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but he knew that the language rolls on and all the lexicographer can do is attempt to keep pace (or maybe merely chase behind) and take notes that might be useful to others. Or to move on a century, to jump on the train for a while, catalogue what’s on board and then jump off. But the train is going to keep moving and it picks up new wagons all the time and while the lexicographer may choose to jump back on and expand his catalogue, he is never going to get it all. Because the train goes on for ever. And the ‘good’ items may turn ‘bad’ in time. Not to mention vice versa.

Pennac’s young pupils may well have benefited from his introductions to ‘great’ literature, but his nullification of slang, especially in the contemptuous, and thus fearful tones that he has chosen to employ, does neither this important strain of language nor those who are capable of such articulacy within it, the slightest good. National treasure you may be, M. Pennac, but I beg to disagree. Vive l’argot!

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