Jeanne Koré Salvato

elcome back to September, whatever that means for you. 

For us teachers, la rentrée scolaire means back to school. 

The teachers return a full day or two before the students in order to receive new policies, meet new teachers and staff, and have schedules finalized, which can, fortunately or unfortunately, have some surprises. 

The first day of teacher orientation we English and German teachers sit with our French colleagues to listen to the overview at the beginning of the school year. Then, believe it or not, we are treated to a delicious four-course lunch, replete with wine, both red and white.  The meal begins with des crudités, an unfortunate choice of words for a recent politician, who, he was told, really meant vegetables. On to chicken or roast beef, potatoes and beans, and many different kinds of salads, accompanied by French baguettes, and followed by a variety of cheeses and dessert. It all lends a festive air to the return to school.

I know firsthand about French schools with International Sections showing appreciation for its teachers.  I was employed as a teacher for 7 years at Sections Internationales de Sèvres-Paris Ouest, where my daughter also went to school for 7 years.  (She likes to say she got me the job since my face was familiar from the many, did I say many, student teacher conferences I attended on her behalf.  Her French teacher even showed me a paper my daughter had written in French, her least favorite subject, with corrections similar in spirit to those I would write in English on my students’ papers. My allegiance shifted at least slightly in the direction of the French teacher. This was unexpected at our house!)

Not only do the French celebrate the return to school, but all manner of return is also recognized.  We have la rentrée littéraire from the end of August to the end of September.  A large number of French books are published then, as the judges prepare to award a variety of prizes in the fall.

Clémentine Goldszal has written a splendid overview of La Rentrée Littéraire called,Inside France’s Fall Publishing Frenzy, aka ‘Oscar Season For Books’”, which was published in 2019 in the on-line journal Literary Hub. Francis Geffard is featured: 

“‘La Rentrée is a unique phenomenon,’ says Francis Geffard, a renowned publisher who specializes in North-American literature through his imprint, Terres d’Amérique, part of Albin Michel, one of the country’s biggest publishing houses. ‘Nowhere else in the world are so many literary prizes given out in such a short period of time. The release of hundreds of books within a few weeks is in direct connection with the awards season, in November. It also has to do with the holiday season, and the fact that books are still a go-to Christmas present in France. In the course of four months, the book industry makes more than a half of its overall yearly sales.’”

Thanks to my writerly friend Alison Moore, (Small Spaces Between Emergencies) was visiting one fall in Paris, I was invited to lunch with M Francis Geffard and Alison.  She wanted to speak with him about a manuscript she was working on.  We were dining al fresco at a small café in the Les Halles district.  The fall air mild, the food and wine delicious, and the conversation heady. When M Geffard learned I too was writing a novel, he said, wait for it, “Think of us.” And believe me, I do, think of him, dreaming of fame and fortune.  The novel in question, called Ghosts of the Borderlands, was almost taken up by an agent, but then not.  Agents, apparently in the States, need to “love” a book. I would accept admiration, frankly. Another literary agent, this one in England, said that my novel was superior to many that had come over her transom, but she didn’t know where to put it on her list.  I’m like, send me your spread sheet, lady.  I’ll find a place.  Undaunted, I am still writing and still thinking of M Geffard. (His name does start with a “G,” and I want to remind you that the name of this blog is writing4godot, a name which suggests something of the futility of getting recognized as a writer. This futility is similar to the two vagabonds fruitlessly waiting for Godot in Beckett’s play by that name.)

Here’s an overview of the French literary prizes to be awarded in November (courtesy again of Clémentine Goldszal and taken directly from her article).

1. Most desired Prix Goncourt.

2. With its pledge to reward overlooked writers: Le Prix Médicis is coveted.

3. Le Prix Femina. Created in 1904 in response to the Goncourt Academy’s alleged misogyny, the prize is granted by an all-women jury.

4. L’Académie Française created its own literary award in 1914: le Grand Prix du Roman.

5. In 1926, ten journalists and literary critics, frustrated with the Goncourt’s hegemony, came up with le Prix Renaudot.

6. And since 1994, the Prix de Flore—conferred at the famous Saint-Germain-des-Prés café of the same name—has prided itself for being the best indicator of literary cool.

7. Le Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, an increasingly visible offspring of the Goncourt, is awarded by high school students.

8. The Prix Trente Million d’Amis highlights a book with a strong animal character.

9. The Prix Gulli du Roman was created eight years ago to honor the best children’s book.

10. The Grand Prix Littéraire Château La Tour Carnet awards its winner a 20,000 euro check and a jeroboam of red wine (the prize was created in 2017 by one of the Bordeaux region’s biggest winegrowers)…”

PS Anybody know what a jeroboam even is?

Back to the Prix Goncourt.  It so happened that a well-known French writer, Marie Darrieussecq, gave a reading I attended when I taught the freshmen at the American University of Paris. Her book is called Tom Est Mort, which translates as Tom is Dead, a searing account of a mother who lost a toddler when the child was four and a half.  She names this missing child Tom-est-mort in order to remember him.  Another writer who had actually lost a child and had written about it accused Darrieussecq of what she called “psychic plagiarism.”  This writer objected to the fact that the story was told in the first person when the actual novelist had not lived the experience. The debate was an interesting one where some defended what they saw as an attack on the imagination itself and others defended as I don’t know what since I think the complaint is wrong headed. The novel was longlisted for both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina.

A few years later, Darrieussecq published a novel called Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. This book was longlisted for le Prix Goncourt but won the Prix Médicis. This title translates literally as You Have to Love Men a Lot, but Lord knows what it will be called in English. Very little to do with the French title, often. Et voilà, it’s called simply, Men, in English. It’s an interesting story of two actors, an African man and a French woman who meet in Hollywood and have an affair.  The man wants to make a kind of Heart of Darkness movie in Africa based on the novel with the same name. What I thought was interesting about this book is that in the love affair the woman’s feelings are stronger and what that’s like.

Because most of France goes on vacation in August, when people return, they too participate in La Rentrée by virtue of returning, since the word literally means to return. Everyone welcomes each other with a kiss on each cheek and asks how the summer went.  Summer is referred to as les grandes vacances because summer is a big vacation! 

I remember trying to send an e-mail to my boss to ask her how her summer was.  How (Comment) was (était) your summer (ton été)?

Mon dieu !  Non, non, non ! Here’s the idiom : Les vacances, comment se sont passées?  (Your vacations, how did they spend themselves?) Well, first of all, the form is a reflexive one:  notice that little “se”? Literally this means how did your vacations spend themselves?  (With you in it, one hopes.) Why is it plural when it’s one vacation?  Got me. And of course, “vacation” is feminine and plural so the little extra “e” before the “s” tells us that.  I was ten minutes working this all out.  A lot of effort for, “How was your summer?”! Imagine what it’s like to say something complicated.

I created this blog, wrting4godot, two years ago.  After our grandes vancances this summer (qui se sont très bien passes) which spent themselves agreeably with me in them, the blog is returning.  Godot, the chief absent character in Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, never appears, although he threatens to. The play presents an amusing counterpoint to our ever efforting efforts, managing to touch on playfulness, despair, camaraderie, and bondage, all with an eye toward the nature of the human condition. The blog then, follows along behind the two characters who are waiting for Godot. The blog also references the many joys and sorrows of 21 years lived near Paris, never forgetting the perils, strangeness and beauty of the French language.


Don’t just take my word for it! Here’s a discussion from 2016

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