An interview with Denis Hirson professor of English and author of the recent book Ma langue au chat, Tortures et délices d’un anglophone à Paris (Seuil/ Points Editions, October 2017)
Denis Hirson came to France from South Africa 40 years ago and has been learning and playing with the French language ever since. His recent book is a collection of anecdotes and reflections on French in French that can be appreciated by all of us who have learned the language from the bottom up and continue to learn each day. The book is delightful, it’s delicious, it’s Mr Hirson’s personal experiences of an anglophone using the French language described poetically with humor, amour and insight. The subtitle of the book says it all “delights and tortures of speaking and writing in French”. French readers will raise their eyebrows and see their own language from a new perspective. Anglophones will say “Moi aussi, been there, done that”. It’s a wonderful read no matter which side you are coming from.
Born in Cambridge, England in 1951, Denis Hirson was brought up in South Africa where he lived till the age of 22.
FUSAC: From what I have read it seems that your high school French classes in Johannesburg were neither interesting nor productive, so how is it you moved to France?
Denis Hirson: I arrived in France in 1975. I am convinced that my high-school French teacher in Johannesburg was chronically depressed; he certainly did not seem to believe you learnt a language by actually speaking it. Later, in Paris, I didn’t open my mouth much for about six months. But even though I felt no particular love for the French language I found myself almost entirely among French-speakers. I refused to speak English, even when I was in a room with English-speakers who understood even less French than I did.
In fact, even though I would not have been able to say so at the time, for me the French language turned out to be an extremely useful means of disorientation, and that is what I needed: I had left my family and my girlfriend behind me and I was ready to get lost at least for a while and begin a new life. Is there anything more refreshing to the mind than perceiving the world through the lens of another language, even though learning to speak that language properly might be utterly exhausting? The exhaustion is like the feeling when you’re climbing a mountain. When you get even a bit higher the world all around you begins to look different.
FUSAC: What was your first job in France? How did you find it?
DH: I had two jobs, one was working on a building site renovating a school, even though I’m pretty useless with my hands. The second was working in a theatre, even though my French was so lousy. Fortunately we were using giant marionettes and puppets and musical instruments but not much language. I didn’t look for these jobs, they were given to me by people I met and who, all these years later, are still friends. The first job gave me a sense of being grounded, the second plunged me into a process of transformation.
FUSAC: How did you begin writing?
DH: I began writing when I was about eight years old in Johannesburg. I wrote a few pages and stapled them together to make a little book called Rufus the Rabbit. Rufus was the name of the younger brother of a friend of mine. I gave the book to his mother but she didn’t look very happy about it.
I wrote my first serious poem at the age of fifteen, about the man who used to come into our classroom to fetch the register and take it to the secretary’s office. The register was the big book where our daily presence was recorded. Like all other Africans, who were almost without exception servants of some kind in Johannesburg, the man was called “a boy” and wore washed-out blue overalls and scuffed shoes, and was not recognized as a fully human being. The poem was about the contrast between our presence and his absence.
FUSAC: Ma Langue au chat is your eighth book, but the first in French (and about French). How did you know it was time to write in French for the first time?
DH: Most of my first seven books had to do with growing up in South Africa, the apparent innocence of childhood and boyhood set against the perversity of the apartheid system that led to the majority of people in the country being deeply humiliated. This did not prevent some people, white and black, from shining through with humanity and creativity, sometimes in the least likely circumstances. But it took years after leaving South Africa for me to realize what had actually been going on in our daily lives there. Writing about it, and getting involved in the work of other South African writers, was an essential part of understanding what I had been through. Writing can allow one to look back and see the past as if for the first time, opening spaces of perception that did not seem to be there years back in the thick of daily life.
To answer the question about writing in French, it is strange to have lived here in France for many years, and written every day in English. This means that while writing I created an island around myself, because the language I used out in the street, the words I heard on the bus or the radio or read in the newspaper, were excluded from whatever text I was working on.
I did not know that it was time for me to stop living on an island of English and let French onto the creative page. But one day in December 2012, over 37 years after arriving here, I made one more spelling mistake, and this mistake had consequences because it involved the email address of a police-station I was supposed to be contacting so that a theft could be declared. When after a few hours the situation was finally ironed out I sat down in a fit of red-hot anger at myself and wrote out what had happened – in French, since the situation had happened in French.
In the midst of writing about it, I found my lack of mastery of French spelling so ridiculous that I started laughing. The mixture of anger and laughter is like water spilled onto a burning hotplate, it fizzes and squiggles and releases a steam of energy, just right when you’re trying to get a flow of words across a page. And this was actually happening to me in French! That was just over five years ago, and I’ve been writing in French ever since. Ma langue au chat is the first fruit of this new writing life of mine. There is a second book in the pipeline and a third one on the way.
FUSAC: Ma langue au chat is a collection of your musings around words or expressions of the French language which have tripped you up or just strike you as curious. Do you view the English language with the same perspective?
DH: Part of the book is also about the beauty of the French language. More generally, its pages are all the result of being confronted with a language that will never entirely be mine yet which has entered the blood cells of my life. I would not consider trying to publish anything in French without having a few trusted French-speakers going through every word and sentence and punctuation mark with a fine comb. Two people in particular, Katia Wallisky and Antoine Lermuzeaux, have been breathing down my neck while doing this for a few years now. Nancy Huston has also played a crucial role; so has my daughter Anna. I am very grateful to them all.
English cannot be of the same nature to me because I grew up speaking it and every word I know is thick with associations, some of them going back far further than I can remember. I need English-speaking critics to comment on my writing before I publish it, but I am not at all dependent on them in the same way.
FUSAC: As Nancy Huston writes in the preface, the vignettes in Ma Langue au chat ring true to anyone who is a learner of French. How is the book perceived by native French speakers?
I am still in a state of wonder at the response of native French speakers who say that I am revealing to them aspects of French which they had not thought of before. This is particularly unexpected given the sensitivity and sometimes finicky protectiveness which French people express when it comes to their own language.
FUSAC: You say that you yourself learn best sur le tas rather than in a classroom. How does this conflict or help when you are the teacher in the classroom? Also, you say in your book that Le français est devenu ma main gauche can you explain your metaphor a bit more?
DH: When I came to France I went to one single lesson at the Alliance française in Paris and never returned. I don’t think the classroom is the place where I learn the best, I prefer the lessons of experience, of mistakes, of love and close friendship. I think friends have taught me more by generously sharing with me what they know than anyone who insisted on being a teacher. I also think – which takes me back to the beginning of this interview – that I am attracted to situations of uncertainty, perhaps because in other ways I don’t take enough risks in my life. When I am writing, in English or in French, I want to stumble on what comes next, not know it in advance. I want every word to be alive, not sitting in front of me as if it were wearing a school uniform. But my lack of mastery of French only adds to my uncertainty and therefore not only to my trials and tribulations but also to my sense of discovery. This is what I meant when I said that French has become my left hand: the hand over whose movement I have less control, that will lead me to places I had not expected to get to.
When I am in the classroom I am supposed to be “teaching English”, and it is true that everything happens in English; I am also quite rigorous about grammar, syntax, vocabulary and other elements of language that I want students to learn. But I don’t think of the transmission of knowledge about language as the ultimate aim of what I am doing. I am much more interested in having people think about their perception of the world, of the way they relate to others, of the energies and understanding that takes us beyond the confines of everyday material existence.
To whet your whistle, dear reader, here’s are a few of the titles of Mr Hirson’s vignettes from Ma langue au chat, Tortures et délices d’un anglophone à Paris:
Trous en formation (a personal favorite)
Etapes dans l’apprentissage de la langue française
Mon petit accent
Passer 24 heures dans la peau d’un Français
Born in Cambridge, England in 1951, Denis Hirson was brought up in South Africa. In 1975 he settled in France, where he now works as a lecturer at the École Polytechnique. Up to 2011 he had written seven books including the novel The Dancing and the Death on Lemon Street (Jacana 2011), almost all of them concerned with the memory of South Africa at the time of apartheid. He has also produced three anthologies of South African writing, among them In the Heat of Shadows: South African poetry 1996-2013. Ma langue au chat (Seuil/ Points, October 2017) his first book written directly in French, is about an Anglophone’s feeling of delight and torture when speaking and writing in French. Footnotes for the Panther, ten conversations with William Kentridge has just been brought out by Fourth Wall in South Africa.