When consulting various examples of French literature through the ages, an interesting phenomenon reveals itself: many of the novels, plays and other literary works we consider as belonging to the French national canon are actually written by foreign authors, and by this I do not only mean Francophone authors. Romanian, Russians, Britons and Czechs, for example, 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 Canatrice 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? 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.
Are we wrong to assume that choosing not to write a literary work in one’s native tongue is out of the ordinary, or something unnatural? We assume that because writing a literary work is such a personal thing the most natural choice is to write it in one’s native tongue, the language with which one is most at ease, with which one feels most oneself. But maybe this is not so. Perhaps writing literary works in a foreign tongue 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. I recently attended a conference in Paris, a round-table debate entitled « Que racontent nos langues ? » organised by Café Bilingue about the role of languages in the lives of various intellectuals. A British-born author on the panel, Alex Taylor, discussed the fact that he wrote his book (Bouche bée, tout ouïe : Comment tomber amoureux des langues ?) in French rather than English. He had grown up speaking English, and only acquired French ‘artificially’ as it were; it was not the case, as might be suspected due to his choice of language for his text, that he was bilingual almost from birth, and he only learnt French as a teenager. Taylor later told his publisher that he could not translate his work himself for the English market, as he felt such an endeavour would bring him uncomfortably close to his own text. This need for distance, for escape through the use of a second language also calls to mind Kundera, Czech author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being who wrote his novel L’Ignorance (2000) in French. Kundera’s novels focus on questions of identity, nationality and belonging, the experience of exil and the return to one’s native land. The distance gained by writing in a language which is not one’s mother tongue perhaps helped Kundera in his musings on what it means to belong to a nation, to be exiled from one’s homeland, to be in search of an identity.
Some authors write in French for a personal love of the language, because they grew up strongly influenced by French culture and language even though they count another language as their mother tongue. Such is the case of Makine’s Le Testament français (1995), written in French rather than his native Russian. The book testifies to his love of all things French, and the language in which he chooses to write therefore seems fitting.
Many authors from former French colonies, such as Senegalese poet Senghor, choose to write in French rather than their native tongue. Why write in the language of the colonisers? Some Francophone African authors believe their work is likely to meet a wider readership written in French, while others cite what they see as the precision, clarity and literary spirit of the French language as their reason for choosing it when writing their works.
Such a reason, the idea that French is a literary language, is a reason often cited by various foreign authors who choose to write in French instead of their native tongue and is presumably why such a phenomenon is found particularly in French literature, far more so in comparison with other national canons.