I sort of hate to write a post about this (I’m feeling like maybe I’m a little too prolific), but my comments on wordpress.com blogs seem to get automatically flagged as spam for some reason (even, in some cases, on this very blog; maybe I am too prolific after all). So writing a post is an end-run around that and a way to weigh in via trackback on a post over at A Supposedly Fun Blog that sucked my comment into a spam black hole.
The post in question makes note of the misspelling of “roulants” as “rollents” in references to the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents. It turns out that there are all sorts of French language errors in the book. In the post, Matthew speculates that this error is another attempt to disorient the reader. I don’t know how charitable it is to suggest that Wallace wanted to disorient anybody. Lay a bunch of information on them to force active reading, sure. But disorientation seems like such a malicious thing, and I don’t think there’s malice in Wallace’s work.
My vanished reply to his post went as follows:
Some suggest that the bad French is intentional, chalked up in some cases to the fact that much of it comes to us via term papers, etc., written by teenagers with dubious French language acumen. In long note 304 (in which we read about the origins of the AFR), we’re also led to question the authority or lucidity of the person who has written the paper Struck is cribbing from. So it could be a mistake, but given how squishy authority and lucidity in that note are, it could also very well be intentional.
Hi all. Actual university French Literature professor here… IJ is my all-time favorite book in English and I first read it back in the 90s and have been wondering about the French ever since then. The “fauteuils rollents” question is just the first instance of weird or just plain incorrect French (and it has nothing to do with Quebecois French). A lot of the other French titles and expressions that appear throughout the Marathe/Steeply sections are also full of strange little misuses of details like relative pronouns and prepositions. To my eye, they’re just wrong, but I, like so many of us, have always wanted to find some other explanation for the mistakes. I don’t completely buy the “pun/playing-with-French-like-he-plays-with-English” idea (over on “A Supposedly Fun Blog”) because the French given here just doesn’t work that well as language play. I do, however, really like the idea someone proposes (in the same place) that the French has to do with narrative voice, that it has to do with actual, incorrect student usage: cool idea. Other thoughts?
Thanks for speaking up, Jeff (and for doing so here as well as at the other blog, where I’m unable to post a response). I too like the idea of some of these errors being explained away as student mistakes. But those that appear in the Marathe/Steeply section may not be so tidily explained. Perhaps out of a sense of contempt, Marathe is speaking incorrectly to see if Steeply notices or something, though I’m not sure I’d really buy that argument. I believe we learn in the first Marathe/Steeply section that Steeply’s Quebecois French is actually better than Marathe’s English, which doesn’t mean that Marathe couldn’t slip the odd solecism by Steeply, but it just doesn’t seem likely that Marathe is toying with Steeply via language.
The narrative in the first Marathe/Steeply section is actually very interesting in spots. We have a very emphatic third-person, non-Steeply, narrator at the beginning (p. 87). But then by page 92, you see odd little things like this: “Steeply looked down at himself. One of the false breasts (surely false: surely they would not go as far as the hormonal, Marathe thought) nearly touched the chins of Steeply when his looking down produced his double chins.”
A true third-person narrator in Wallace’s would say “Steeply’s chins” (possibly with another possessive or two thrown in for good measure) rather than “the chins of Steeply,” which is a distinctly Romance-language construction. So within this little two-sentence vignette, we have in a way three points of view: Steeply looking down at himself; Marathe observing Steeply and internally making an observation about the lengths to which the OUS would go for the sake of a disguise (comic because, hormonal or prosthetic, the disguise is horrible); and the narrator viewing the whole thing and using something of a Francophone construction, as if translating incorrectly from French to English. There are other such stilted constructions within this section (adverb inversions, things like that), but there are also classic Wallace-voice sentences like “But he appeared huge and bloated as a woman, not merely unattractive but inducing something like sexual despair.”
I don’t suppose I’ve added any specific clarity. But I do think that Wallace is doing something with the narrative voice in these sections and that the French mistakes may be a part of it, as if the narrator is in a way assimilating parts of the stories or POVs s/he’s telling, as effected as affecting by the telling.
Daryl: Great stuff. As I wrote over on “A Supposedly Fun Blog,” where there’s another “French” thread going on, it may be that considering this question from the perspective of narrative voice may very well provide one avenue into the epicenter of the novel’s entire structure. Since I’m only 150 into the current reading, I’ll have to see how this continues to develop.
Looking quickly again at the French in the first Marathe/Steeply section, however, it seems that we can immediately divide the French into (at least) two categories: 1) incorrect French that is clearly intentional and funny, e.g., “jeune fille de vendredi” (92), which is a literal transliteration of “girl Friday” and totally meaningless in French (but also very funny given what DFW is also doing here with the hilarious French-ified English syntax [“weeds-of-tumbling”]); 2) French that is grammatically incorrect, but isn’t particularly funny (in the way the first example is) and seems to be unmotivated by anything (e.g., the list of “Personnes à qui on doit surveiller” [I can’t at the moment find the original mention of this list; there’s a shortened form at the top of 92]; this is just grammatically wrong (incorrect relative pronoun)…
My own French is too bad, for the most part, to notice Wallace’s (or the Narrator’s, or Marathe’s) bad French, but, without ruling out the possibility of DFW simply making some outright mistakes, I’m still looking for intensionality in all of it. I like the argument you’ve both put forward about the mistakes, often, being in the student work, or in the case of the plagiarism, in works for which the authority is in question.
That takes care of a lot of it (or a lot of it this far, at least, as I’m a first-time reader of IJ, but it doesn’t really work for Marathe’s own thoughts (or those of the narrator when he’s using the free indirect style and dipping into and out of Marathe’s thoughs). So I’ll have to continue to mull that one over. I did notice the quick shifts of POV, and I want to look at those more closely, possibly in my next post.
Seems near impossible to believe that DFW and his editor(s) on this book would have let multiple mistakes in French slip by. I’m not sure any of the explanations offered up so far explain the situation totally satisfactorily. In the Steeply/Marathe scenes, as someone pointed out above, the English is probably as weird as the French, using lots of Romance Language-type constructions that are very awkward in English. Who knows? Maybe all the writing in those sections is intentionally muddled between French and English and something else altogether? There does exist some kind of new relationship between Canada, the U.S., and especially Quebec in the novel – one that seems particularly muddled.
One of those things we’ll probably never have a really good answer to I guess.