The second big book I started reading in French – and by big, I mean it was longer than the children’s book I’d read the previous summer there – was Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, or the mystery of the yellow room, a locked-room mystery by Gaston Leroux, better known in English-speaking countries for having written The Phantom of the Opera.
I chose this novel because it’s one of those books that are better known, and certainly more widely read, in France than in the United States, and so something of a cultural touchstone among the French, many of whom read the book when they were younger. This was and is important to me. Not for bragging rights (no one cares about your own particular cultural wanderings or accomplishments, especially if they’re undertaken in another language or another country), but for my own sense of private enrichment.
The plot of Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune is at the very least overcomplicated, but amusing nevertheless. I had the feeling that Leroux, who published it serially in 1907, was trying to figure it out as he went along. After setting up the situation he needed to resolve it and he had to get out of a few tricky situations, not entirely successfully (or plausibly). But for me, taking on this novel was more than an exercise in simply reading for understanding at a slightly higher level than I’d been used to then. I needed to continue to push myself.
Certainly I’d read the free newspapers that were given out at my gym – Le Parisien, for example – and the journals that were distributed on the metro. They weren’t particularly taxing, but neither were they particularly rewarding, though I was happy to make out the sense of the faits divers and the pop culture reporting. I had a taste of the language through the newspaper stye, but I wanted more. A novel offered something richer, at least for me, but I had to choose wisely and not defeat myself through an intellectual ambition that was greater than my competence (as has happened before with me). So I figured that while Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune wasn’t initially conceived as what we now refer to as young-adult literature, it’s become a book that younger people rather than adults read, so I figured it was appropriate for my level.
Despite my ability to converse more or less as an adult, when it came to books I was still something of an adolescent. During this time, I was staying on the Rue Saint-Denis near the boulevard de Sebastopol, and my French tutor Bernard came three times a week. I read a chapter or two before each of his visits – and this took a bit of effort.
I would recount for Bernard as best I could what I had read (to the background noise of screaming children below in the schoolyard, the sounds of whom even the closed windows couldn’t muffle), and we’d discuss turns of phrase with which I wasn’t familiar or that had presented me with some difficulty in comprehending. I’d duly note Bernard’s explanations and a few of the expressions or unknown words would stay with me. Even if the language of the Leroux novel was slightly démodé, reading it prepared me for other, more difficult writers (or at least writers whose style is more demanding). I no longer wanted to read French in translation, so reading and even writing French were almost as important to me as speaking it. The reading and the writing were not essential to my career (since I wrote in English). But I had begun to learn the language, and I didn’t want to do it halfway. What was the point of half measures, if I was going to the trouble of living in Paris? I was never under the delusion that I’d become French, but I never wanted to become a mere visitor either. To participate in the daily life of a city, or a country, is to take part in how it’s spoken, heard, read and written.
I could speak French well enough, at least among the more patient of my acquaintances, though I wasn’t yet at a point where the French friends I had made took for granted my competence in their language. I was still introduced to their friends as an American who was learning French. Happily, these days, a few years later, I’m simply introduced as me, and the person to whom I’m introduced will eventually ask me, after we’ve spoken a bit, if I’m English or American or even Irish, because of my accent in French. (We do this in English, too – and our ears have a remarkable ability to detect subtleties of pronunciation.) Back then, regional French accents were indistinguishable for me, though I’ve begun to tell north from south, though not yet Belgian or Swiss accents from those of France.
But while I could get by in a straightforward interchange with people, and could even follow some conversations where the sentences weren’t spoken in as rapid-fire a way as they sometimes could be, I didn’t read French as easily as I wanted to. Patience was forced upon me. So I kept my sights humble, which allowed me to make progress while having the satisfaction both of comprehending most of what I read and of finishing an actual novel.
And I had the pleasure of discovering yet another cultural touchstone known to the French but lesser known to the non-French. This kind of cultural localization fascinates me. Certain aspects of culture don’t travel. Many French film and television actors are unknown outside of France, because many French films and television series aren’t shown abroad. This can be English-language (or American) provincialism, certainly, but also simply a matter of what works where. Culture can be local as much as customs.
I found and saw a film version of Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, starring Denis Podalydès, a noted theater and film actor who’s virtually unknown outside of France. His brother, Bruno Podalydès directed him here (and has directed him in other of his films too). I wouldn’t have come across the film or the actor, if I hadn’t searched for it after having read the Leroux novel, and eventually I noticed and watched some other films in which Podalydès played. I even saw him as Hamlet last summer. While Podalydès, who was in his late 30s when he played somewhat convincingly the young journalist hero of Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, as Hamlet he seemed a little long in the tooth, despite a lingering boyishness. Still, I probably wouldn’t have seen this French-language Hamlet if I hadn’t read the Leroux novel and seen the adaptation and expanded the scope of French cultural figures who had suddenly begun to interest me because I’d discovered them in their language.
And thanks to struggling through and eventually comprehending a century-old young-adult novel, and of seeing a thoroughly French adaptation of it, I got a sense of France and its literary patrimony that I would never would have if I’d contented myself simply with residing in France without living in its literature, film and theater. I wanted to be enraptured by the sights of Paris, certainly, but I wanted also to be transported (or disappointed, even) by the varieties of its culture that were becoming known to me because I was getting outside of myself.