Vocabulary for Discussing Literature in French

Voici des mots clefs pour parler de la littérature.

Here are some key words for talking about literature.

During my thirty years of speaking French, any time that I had to speak about a topic or subject that was new to me, I would be frustrated to discover all the holes in my vocabulary.  For example, if you have ever had the experience of needing to talk about literature in French, you may have come to realize that you lacked a certain specific vocabulary.

For students wanting to participate in a book club or to study literature to improve their language skills, this list might be of interest to you.  I put together a list of words and expressions that were needed for the conversations I would have during courses in which we discussed books and short stories.  Below are some expressions that you may find handy or essential in order to more easily discuss what you read (or even films you see) in French.

If you are interested in a Book Club course, please see my page on courses offered for details.


Il s’agit de…  = It’s about…

Traiter de = Concerns, deal with, to be about

L’histoire a eu lieu… = The story took place…

Cela m’a fait penser à… = It made me think about..

Ce livre parle de…  = This book talks about..

Tu as raison/ tort… = You are right/ wrong..

Je ne m’y attendais pas… = I did not expect that…

Je me rends compte que… = I realize that…

À mon avis – In my opinion..

Je suis en train de lire… = I am in the middle of reading, I am reading…

Ce livre m’intéresse parce que… = This book interests me because…

Je suis intéressé(e) par ce livre parce que… = I am interested in this book because…

La langue de l’écrivain est (élégante, riche, poétique, …) = The language of the writer is (elegant, rich, poetic…)

Langage haut en couleur, langage imagé = Colorful language


Genre = The style, type (of literature)

Roman historique, roman noir, roman d’aventure, une autobiographie = Historical novel, mystery novel, adventure novel, autobiography

Un récit, une histoire = A story

Le personnage principale, le/la protagoniste, le héros du livre = The main character, the protagonist, the hero of the book

Le lecteur = The reader

La lecture = Reading

L’auteur(e), l’écrivain(e) = The author, writer

Le dénouement, la résolution, la révélation ou catastrophe, la conclusion = Falling action

Le conflit, l’apogée, le moment décisif = Climax

La présentation, l’introduction, l’entrée en jeux = Exposition, introduction

Le déroulement, l’enchaînement, la progression de l’action, le développement de l’action, l’évolution du conflit, le point culminant = Rising action

le noeud, la péripétie = The entanglement, twists and turns

Le narrateur, la narratrice (omniscient)= The narrator (omniscient)

L’antagoniste, l’adversaire = The antagonist, the adversary, the enemy

Les personnages secondaires = Supporting characters

Le décor, la scène = The setting, scenery, the scene

L’intrigue = The plot

Le complot = The conspiracy

Une oeuvre = One or several works by an author

Un oeuvre = Describing the ensemble of works for a writer

Un recueil (de nouvelles, de poésie) = A collection (of stories, of poetry)

Le thème =The theme

Albert Camus’ The Stranger

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

I recently discovered the book Looking for the Stranger by Alice Kaplan and started reading it at the same time as rereading The Stranger in preparation for a discussion with a student. It was through this combination of books that I was really able to look more deeply at the themes of the book and the personality of the main character. The Stranger, read by so many students in school, has as Kaplan says become a sort of “rite of passage” (Kaplan, 2). It sparks debate on all sides and leaves us wondering why we sympathize with the main character, wondering why he does not fight for his life, or for that matter even defend himself?

The Stranger is a classic and in my opinion a novel that everyone must read. You can read it simply for face-value, as a book about a man who seems disconnected from his world, and as events unfold he is lead closer and closer to the murder of a man on the beach. However, I think questions will come up that will cause the reader to delve more deeply into why. Why do the events unfold in a way that lead him to kill a man on the beach, why in this moment is he prompted to do something so extreme, and yet with such coldness? Why is he so disconnected from everyone and everything, his mother, his job, his friends, even his girlfriend? Why does he not respond to the violence he sees around him, only to then shoot a man completely unprovoked?

Kaplan says something that I have often heard said by another favorite writer of mine, Dany Laferrière,  in a similar way. She says that “books have a life. They come to life as you read them, and they stay alive long after you’ve turned the last page.” Oh, how I know that is true! The Stranger will do just that to you. In fact, the more I read this book, the more I feel it with me every day. Camus’ philosophy, often mislabeled as Existentialist, is in fact Absurdist. He sees men as all being condemned to death, all in their own time, of course. He says that as humans we are somewhat meaningless in the world. Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, says that we cannot change our lives. That basically describes our main character’s attitude before his own life. He is indifferent to his own life, saying, for example, to his girlfriend that he supposes that he does not love her, and that it does not make any difference, that it is all the same to him, but that if she wanted him to marry her, he would. He refuses to give way to the expectations of society, has no ambition to better his job at work, basically refusing a promotion and never justifying himself.

Camus uses the first person singular to tell his story, thus putting the words and thoughts directly into the mouth of his narrator. This gives us a strange feeling of distance between us and the writer, all while creating a strange relationship between us and the character. In my opinion it might be why by the end, we have a kind of sympathy for him, even while we basically know exactly what happened on that beach. By the end of the book, I wanted him to fight for himself, to let his lawyer try to save him. But eventually Meursault more or less condemned himself by saying “the sun made me do it.”

The question remains, of what exactly was Meursault convicted, putting his mother in a nursing home, or killing a man on the beach? At the trial, the victim was never mentioned, and the majority of the questions to him were related to his mother’s placement in a home, his lack of showing sadness, his behavior before the casket (drinking coffee, smoking and sleeping) and the relationship he began with Marie soon after his mother’s burial. Additionally, throughout the days following the death of his mother, he repeats phrases like “it’s not my fault” or that he felt guilty. Guilt over what? Did he feel guilty for abandoning his mother, or did he feel as if her placement in a home was what prompted her death, which of course we know is not true since we know she had a fiancé while there.

If anyone here is dying, it is Meursault, whose life seems empty. We see his slow Sundays where he sits on his balcony watching Life roll by. We know he has no passion about his job, or even for his girlfriend. He has no pets, no hobbies except bathing either at a pool or a beach. He eats at the same restaurant, and when not there will cook something simple like boiled potatoes. There is no spice or joy in his life from what we can see. He is a stranger to his life. Interestingly enough, talking about strangers, most of Camus’ characters are strangers to us, too. We never know Meursault’s first name, nor the name of the Arab that he shoots, nor the name of his neighbor’s girlfriend, la Mauresque. We never even know his mother’s name.
By the time we finish the book, maybe we can come to fully understand Camus’ philosophy, just like Meursault does at the end.
A truly stunning read, thought-provoking and moving. It gets better with age, and with every subsequent read! 5 stars indeed.

**** This title also available as a Book Club selection.  See my Services page for details.****

Le Monde est Son Langage

The newly published book by Alain Mabanckou, Le Monde est Mon Langage, is a tour of the French-speaking world in a series of essays. His travels take him all throughout the world meeting, occasionally by chance, French speakers and writers in the most unlikely of places, discussing literature, politics, francophonie, and the history of French literature as it appears in various places all over the world.

In his captivating introduction he explains how this autobiographie capricieuse came about.  He himself became a writer, not because he had to leave his native country, but because writing helped him to look at his world differently. Having lived on three continents, he says that he discovered this world through this point-of-view français. This is a book about the relationships that he has created with the people that he has met in his travels, calling them “ambassadors”, many of whom write in a language other than their native language, that same language that Mabanckou has adopted for his writing.  French does not belong only to the French, but is spoken the world over.  Many of the writers he will meet and write about are multi-national, multi-lingual and write in search of identity or on the theme of exile.


Chapter one begins in Paris where he meets the writer Le Clésio for a conference and remembers his relationship with him over the years.  Le Clésio, whose mother is from France, father from Mauritius but Breton by birth, now lives in New Mexico.  Their philosophical discussions on writing and language are fascinating and inspiring. These discussions set the tone for the book, and I especially enjoyed envisioning these two great men of literature strolling through the gardens of Paris while in deep discussion.   As the first and longest chapter, it seems to me that this one was indeed the most important.  His next stop is to my beloved New Orleans and a meeting with a man who claims to have roots with the Haitian hero Toussaint Louverture!


One of the many reasons why I find this book fascinating and captivating is, as I have said above, when he and his friends discuss topics such as the purpose of language, art, writing, poetry, whether poetry is dead, how poets are the guardians of the language and how a single language cannot define the world. These philosophical discussions are for me so thought-provoking and precious.  I read slowly and carefully, taking notes and occasionally putting it down just to contemplate.


Quite often the chapters in the book read like a biography with references to the most significant works produced by these writers and the impact their work has had on the literature of the region and the Francophone world. Some people may see them as dry, but to me they are always eye-opening, create great discussions and sometimes have sparked my interest in a certain writer or his work.  There are many chapters in which discussions will range from créolité, antillanité, the créolisation of Europe, to identity and exile, in the works of such authors as Edouard Glissant, Camara Laye, and Gary Victor, just to name a few.


Another of my favorite chapters is the one on Montreal with Dany Laferrière and his friend Rodney Saint-Éloi. It is partially a story,  partially an interview.  I have appreciated Dany’s humor and use of metaphor ever since I first discovered his work.  Even in this short chapter, his charm and humor come through.  Mabanckou, a long-time friend of Dany’s, clearly knows how to capture his essence.


It is clear through his writing that the French language is precious to him, and that writing this book is like a love letter to les lettres françaises, French literature, all of it from everywhere in the world.  For someone whose exposure to French literature outside of France is limited, this book is a great starting point.  For the great bibliophile, this is also an important work to add to your shelves.  Mabanckou’s defense of poetry, his pure belief in the importance of literature to move and inspire people will resonate with those passionate about language, as it has with me.


I have used it with students as a book club selection, with chapter by chapter discussion questions.

***Book available as a French Book Club Course, See my Services page***

Language Learning Never Ends

At some point in one’s language learning, it seems as if there is nothing left to learn, yet fluency still has not been attained. However, never forget that there is always more to a language than vocabulary and grammar.  There is the way that it is used everyday in that descriptive, poetic, idiomatic way that just never seems to be taught in school.  I have studied French for thirty years.  Granted, not all of that time has been spent in school.  Many of those years were outside the classroom, in my many travels to France and Francophone countries, through my many subscriptions to magazines and newspapers, in all of my reading and through all of the movies and news programs I have enjoyed since finishing school.  Yet there were times when I still felt my French was grammatically hyper-correct, that kind of “book French” for which my friends mocked me, yet not colloquial. I had never mastered the idiom.


Thanks to the Alliance Francaise, I discovered  Claude Duneton’s La puce à l’oreille: anthologie des expressions populaires avec leur origine. Perfect! It was just what I needed. I highly recommend this for the advanced French language student who is looking for a deeper understanding of the language and where certain expressions come from and why the French express things in certain ways.

This is not your typical book of idioms. A typical book of idioms will give a student a list of idioms and the meanings as best translated in English.  On occasion, however, after discussion with a native speaker, I have determined some of the “translations” in such books to be inaccurate, not quite grasping the original meaning, or just not quite the equivalent. Understandably, it is very difficult to translate some popular expressions.  Yet a simple “dictionary” of idioms does not make for easy memorization, either.  This book by Duneton reads like stories.  They are memorable stories, about the history of certain expressions, tracing their origins back to old French words with the occasional or eventual change of meaning that sometimes takes place. It was so memorable that maybe a few months later, at a film showing at the Alliance Francaise, I heard one of the characters using several of these expressions in the movie, and I did not need to make use of the subtitles to catch the meaning.  That might not have happened had I not just recently read this book.


A fairly common idiom that a student might even learn at school would be something like tomber en panne.  We learn this to mean “break down”, but what is a panne and why does it have to fall?  We will learn from Duneton that this is a nautical term and the fascinating story of what panne means.  Some of these expressions are very old and rarely used, but not too many.  I regularly come across some of these in books, even in ones that I have read even recently, like tenir le haut du pavé or se mettre sur son trente et un. You will also learn the origin of an expression which is very common even in English, le cordon bleu.  Putting the cart before the horse (which in French comes to: mettre la charrue avant les boeufs) may have its origins in old French labor idioms.  These are clearly explained in this book, and now I know them when I see them.  It makes my reading that much more enjoyable.

Another unexpected outcome and welcome realization is discovering why we say in French grand-mère without the extra e on grand.  Mère is feminine, why is grand not in the feminine form? Grand at the time was invariable and took masculine and feminine nouns.  There are other gems that we will learn here, like why ouvrier means worker, but ouvert means open, literally open for work.  Yet, there are words for work and those are now travail and travailler which used to mean “torture”.  I find this fascinating!


I cannot sufficiently sing the praises of this work.  You will simply have to discover it for yourselves. It is most definitely for the very advanced French reader, and you will certainly need a very good dictionary if you want to search for some of the words used that are simply not so common in French today.  Despite the difficulty of the text itself and the sources cited in old French, I do highly recommend it for anyone who wants a more fuller experience and glimpse into the highly colorful colloquial French.  We never stop learning a language.  It is a life-long experience.  I find it very exciting to learn new words or phrases, and common expressions, especially the colorful ones!  Vive le français!

In Honor of March as Le Mois de la Francophonie (Francophone month)

In honor of March as Le Mois de la Francophonie (Francophone month) where French culture and history are celebrated around the world, I decided to write about one of my favorite Francophone books La Civilisation, ma Mère!…from Driss Chraïbi. Chraïbi is a twentieth century Moroccan writer that I discovered in college during my graduate years.  It was one of the literally dozens of books that I read during that program that really stayed with me all this time, one that I still talk about and remember fondly. It is the touching story of a woman and her sons, who loved her so much that they risked everything to liberate her.

The whole novel is narrated in the first person, first by her youngest son in part one entitled Être (to be).  We assume this is Driss even though he is never named. Then part two, called Avoir (to have), is narrated by the older son Nagib, while the younger is in Paris to pursue his studies.  This is the part that is biographically true for Chraïbi, who did go to school in France and in fact never return to his native Morocco. In part one, we learn about the childhood of their mother, also biographically accurate, who was orphaned at a young age, raised by a family who make a maid out of her, and then married her to a much older man while she was just 13 years old.  She is a traditional Moroccan woman in the 1930s, whose sole purpose and joy in life is to serve her family and make a good home.  Her children go to school and her husband works, meanwhile she is more or less cloistered.  In fact, I lost count of how many times Chraïbi refers to the home as either her prison or her tomb.

But this is during the period of French control, and European “civilization” begins to change the lives of the people of Morocco, especially cities like Casablanca, where children go to French schools and learn French and other European subjects, and new technology begins to arrive. Here is where fiction takes a detour from the true story of Chraïbi’s mother.  Our two narrators begin to introduce, slowly at first, the newest products, like a radio, the telephone, the cinema, etc.  We begin to see, ever so slowly the evolution, the transformation of this woman, for better or for worse, sometimes even she does not know, due to the education her sons offer her, unbeknownst to their father.  At first she is frightened, but then she embraces it, and like a sponge, absorbs the information, and it empowers her.  So frightened was she the first time her sons tried to take her outside to a park, in a western dress and shoes they bought for her, that they had to carry her over the threshold.  Yet, in an absolutely endearing scene, she hugs all the trees, eats the grass and dangles her feet in a stream, like a child for the first time outside.  The world is finally open to her.  She can learn about the world from her living room via the radio, reach out of her cloistered space and talk to distanced family members via the telephone, and eventually find her own voice through her new discovery of politics and the education of her sons.

There is so much that can be said about this novel that there is just not time enough, like the scene where they install the radio, which I can only imagine from the description is a massive piece of furniture, causing so much damage during its installation in the house that they had to buy plaster to repair walls and ceiling.  Metaphorically, the damage here could represent the disruption of peace in this household with the arrival of the West in Morocco.  While having caused her stress in the beginning, she does not let it stop her.   Her education does not stop with simple objects of technology.  She takes her new empowered status on the road and tries to educate and empower other women of her country.  There is the burial of all the vestiges of her past, and looking only forward, she undertakes the complete makeover of her house, painting, furnishing with nothing but European imports.  Hers is a miraculous transformation in just a few short years.

It is an inspiring and moving story that has stuck with me for more than two decades. Reading it for the second time has only enhanced my original experience, making it even more endearing that it was the first time.  It is a story of rebirth, liberation, where she herself was a being “colonized” and was freed by the very persons to whom she gave life. They in turn, gave life back to her.  It is about the power of knowledge, having a voice, coming into being (être) and having a voice (avoir).

An enthusiastic 5 stars, if I could give it more, I would.