Richard Watson is a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is also highly regarded in the United States as a scholar of the French philosopher René Descartes. He has immersed himself in the language, culture, and ideology of French academic society for an impressive twenty-five years and has received awards, accolades, and the respect of his peers for his efforts. The one thing keeping him from fully enjoying his academic success was his perceived failure to be included by the French Cartesians in their very close social and scholarly circle.
Watson’s chance at this inclusion finally arrived in December of 1986, when he was invited to present a paper the following June at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris at a conference celebrating the 350th anniversary of the publication of Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method, 1649). The feat of reading his paper and fielding questions from his peers—aloud, in spontaneous French—was to be both his opportunity and his trial.
For as long as he had been steeped in the French language—reading it, writing it, even translating highly technical texts from French to English and back again—Watson had never learned to speak the language of his scholarly subject spontaneously. To learn to speak French like a Frenchman, so as to be accepted into the virtually impenetrable world of French Cartesian scholars, became the passion and driving force for the next nine months of Watson’s existence. This singularity of purpose, and the tenacity with which he grasped it, sets the tone that permeates this autobiographical tale of learning to speak a foreign language once one has reached late middle age.
Realizing that a semester of French at the university or even a quite rigorous language course would not be sufficient for his rather specific needs, Watson sought the counsel of a close friend and fellow professor, Michael Rybalka. The advice given was to seek private tutoring from his wife, Maya Rybalka, a native of France who taught French at the Alliance Française in St. Louis. Being a Basque, Maya apparently did not share the ultra-pretentious disdain that Parisians are said to feel for American-imbued French. Nevertheless, she corrected, scolded, and sometimes mocked Watson through six months of daily intensive instruction, thinking all the while that he would surely give up his vain attempt.
Watson did not give up, but neither did he succeed. He was unceremoniously rebuffed at the conference by nearly all the native French scholars, not because of a lack of depth, insight, or clarity in his presentation but because of his inability to show a command of the language that even neared fluency from a native French speaker’s perspective. Most painful for Watson in this situation was the cold shoulder given him by Madame Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, the second oldest and perhaps most distinguished of all Cartesian scholars in both Europe and North America. Yet her brush-off only added fuel to his desire to learn to speak French and be accepted. Thus he enrolled at the Alliance Française for the last three months of a four-month intensive introductory course. The final examination of this course was viewed as either a validation or revocation of one’s passport into the French mystique, depending on whether one passed or failed.
Focusing particularly on two of his five instructors in the course, Watson relates anecdotes regarding language in general and French as a foreign language specifically. The pretensions of the French people, the rigidity of their allegiance to the purity of their language and culture, and his own resistance to giving up his native language in favor of another are all subjects touched upon as he frets about being a student again.
His first instructor at the Alliance Française, referred to only as Claire, was a young, vivacious Frenchwoman who coquettishly coddled, then playfully pushed Watson and his fellow male students to adopt her teachings. Spanning over forty pages, nearly a third of the entire book, Watson’s discussion of Claire and the antics in her classroom serves little more than to illuminate the sexual ambience of the class and his own need to reassure himself that he has not become too much of an old fogy to be a part of it. Perhaps as an attempt to affirm his charisma, Watson spends far too much time describing the varying traits of beauty and sensuality exuding from the ethnically diverse collection of women in his class and how...
(The entire section is 1853 words.)