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French Lessons: A Memoir
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French Lessons: A Memoir

3.63  ·  Rating Details ·  562 Ratings  ·  83 Reviews
Brilliantly uniting the personal and the critical, French Lessons is a powerful autobiographical experiment. It tells the story of an American woman escaping into the French language and of a scholar and teacher coming to grips with her history of learning. Kaplan begins with a distinctly American quest for an imaginary France of the intelligence. But soon her infatuation ...more
Hardcover, 232 pages
Published November 1st 1993 by University Of Chicago Press (first published October 15th 1993)
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May 14, 2010 Jenny rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Professor Alice Kaplan explores her life through her intellectual attraction to all things French. As the book unfolds the intellectual mask begins to fall away and the raw emotion of a child who loses her father far too soon emerges.

The need to express the deep emotions of loss, grief, love is submerged into the exploration of the complex grammatical structure of the French language. Alice's attraction to the French language, culture and history is compelling. As she matures and reflects on the
"I've been willing to overlook in French culture what I wouldn't accept in my own, for the privilege of living in translation." - Alice Kaplan
Jun 01, 2008 Annabel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2008
Delightful memoir. Maybe that's just because I found myself identifying so wholly with Kaplan. Well, besides the herpes in the ear, being the daughter of a Nuremberg trial lawyer, going to boarding school in Geneva, being a Commie in the 70s part.

She describes admirably, though, the relationship one can have with language (in this case, the French language), and its salvific quality (French saved her, and, I'd dare say, it has also saved me), as well as the strength of the desire one can have t
Aug 25, 2012 Miranda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the memoir of a professor of French at Yale that one of my former professors from UConn is buddies with. At first I thought of it as a silly, easy read without much depth, but I soon realized that everything she talked about - her Midwestern roots, her love affairs with and within France, her experiences teaching the difference for the passé composé and the imparfait - were things that made me identify with her. The nostalgic references to French authors, artists, and critics brought me ...more
Apr 02, 2008 liz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Almost like two books in one: First, a beautiful recounting of how learning French helped the author heal from the death of her father and create the person she was to become, and secondly describing an examination of how French intellectuals became enamored with Fascism. Reading about rearranging your mind to learn another language always makes me nostalgic.

I can't stand not to be in France in June, the month of my birthday and the month my father died. The smells and sounds in the air are too
Ellen Keim
Jan 09, 2015 Ellen Keim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book reminded me of Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language with an important difference: This is not an immigrant story. Although the author has spent some time in France (and went to school for a while in Switzerland), she is an American who happens to love the French language. This is more of a memoir about how Kaplan learned French and what she has done with her knowledge of the language. But both books reflect on what learning a new language has done to shape not only their respe ...more
Mar 14, 2007 Rebecca rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those books that tells important pieces of my own life story. Kaplan really explores what it means to learn another language and adopt a second culture via language: how it feels to try to pronounce the French "r" for the first time, what's appealing about owning your first French pencil case. Suffice to say, I can relate and find these topics important! Her discussion of the (perceived or real) conflict of being francophile and Jewish is interesting, as is her description of her ...more
Dec 12, 2007 Sarah rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
i love french. i have no idea why, but for a few years i have wanted to learn the language. this book talks about alice kaplan's love for the language and how it became such a huge part of her life. i thought it was interesting until she starting talking about dissertations on fascism and the anti-semitic people that she was fascinated with. she talked as if i knew who these people were and it got annoying. and why would a jewish woman want to sit down and talk with an open anti-semite? food for ...more
Sep 20, 2008 Jessica rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Kaplan (a French professor at Berkley) remembers and analyzes her life through her learning of French. The learning of language is used as a very poignant metaphor here for the way she (and maybe all of us)tend to approach life. The metaphor gets even deeper as we learn about her family.
Dec 30, 2008 Gretel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved French even more after reading this!
Jun 03, 2012 Ari rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012, france
FRENCH LESSONS is divided into four different parts and I think the strongest sections are Parts 3 and 4. The first two parts are confusing, they provide information on the background of the author but I struggled to see how they related to her study of deconstruction, French culture and intellectual fascists. I do not speak French so I think that may be why I didn't appreciate this book as much as other readers who speak French, the author really dissects the language and hones in on little nu ...more
Jul 22, 2013 Sara rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Francophiles, language teachers and learners
This is the story of Alice Kaplan's obsession with French, which ostensibly began in 1968 during her year at boarding school in Geneva. But really it began when she lost her father, in 1962 when she was 8 years old, and even before that, because she grew up in a Jewish family that used language (Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Russian) with flair and precision. Her father was a lawyer during the Nuremberg War Crimes trials, and Alice's discovery after his death of his collection of photos of Holocaust ...more
Jun 30, 2014 Antonia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2014
French Lessons is a memoir by Alice Kaplan, a professor of French language and literature at Duke University and later, Yale. She recounts her early infatuation with the French language and culture, the way it provided her an alternate identity, an escape, and ultimately, how it became a means of accessing deeper self-awareness. The book is also very much about various strains of French intellectual life and Kaplan’s own intellectual development and disappointments.

Much of the book is charming
Jun 28, 2012 Carol rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a perennial struggler in French, taking lessons year after year, I appreciated the author's description of the truly obsessive dedication needed to become comfortable in her second language. This obsessiveness was, of course in her case, helped along by the tragedy of her father's death, combined with family wealth which enabled her to spend her junior year of high school in a Swiss boarding school. It's probably just my proletarian feelings, but Kaplan seems rather casual in her description ...more
Nov 08, 2015 Pascale rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Alice Kaplan has some interesting things to say about the teaching of foreign languages in American universities and the weird fact that she chose to write her PhD about fascist writers at Yale while Paul de Man was there, but not under his supervision, before the scandal about his past blew up. It's probably my own fault if I got impatient with her when in the final chapters she got tied up with her need to find out why she was so obsessed with French. It's pretty obvious from the word go that ...more
Oct 22, 2014 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
The engaging, intelligent metre of Kaplan's writing makes for a very readable memoir about one woman's journey through life via two languages, French and English. Kaplan is exposed to French early on in life, at school, but the real turning point comes in high school when she attends a Swiss boarding school. The book does get a bit bogged down in an almost didactic few chapters where Kaplan explains her work in Academia, exploring the etymology of French writers, scholars and celebrated thinkers ...more
Aug 17, 2009 Irene rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book wasn't what I expected. From the description I thought it would explore how a person's thinking process and inner life changes as they become fluent in another language. This was more or a memoir, covering the writer's many extended visits to France == first as a high school student and then as an undergrad and a grad student == and her experiences with people there, including other students and residents of the country. It may appeal to people who have learned and taught languages at ...more
Jun 20, 2016 Ashley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
50 pages into this book, I was frustrated. Kaplan's memoir felt disjointed; while the book is structured by her journey learning French, anecdotes are mixed with musings on language learning that simply left me cold.

However, another 25 or so pages later, I encountered narratives and philosophical questions that made my initial frustration worthwhile. Kaplan is most vivid when writing about the nuances and details of acquiring a second language, and the emotional and visceral experience of the pr
Continuing my interest in language memoirs, Kaplan's "French Lessons" was suggested by a number of different sources. Her views on language are interesting, though my interest - in how language learning itself has affected her, more than how she has continued with French in her life - was focused most in the initial section of the book. The remainder is certainly interesting, particularly her views and experiences with her PhD program and her interviews and interest in French fascist literature. ...more
Lane Pybas
Oct 19, 2014 Lane Pybas rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoiresque
A really nice memoir about adopting a new culture and language as a means of escaping an unsatisfactory past. By detailing how French has expanded her sense of identity and her understanding of the world, Kaplan reminds us why learning another language can be so rewarding. The only qualm I have with this memoir is how little Kaplan acknowledges the ways in which her privileged background informed her study of French. Perhaps this is not a valid complaint, but the lack of analysis about the advan ...more
Jun 15, 2007 Vardit rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Kaplan's essays on her French studies are wonderfully astute observations on academia and the challenge of mastering another language. Her essay on being a grad student at Yale- the hub of deconstruction- during Paul de Man's tenure is provocative and well-constructed. Unfortunately, the majority of the book contains meandering essays about her childhood, her relationship to her father, crushes in boarding school that didn't hold my interest. Skip straight to the later essays, and enjoy those!
Jan 22, 2012 Ruth rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure that Kaplan knew what she wanted when she started this book. Altho it's all tied together with the idea of learning/teaching French, it seemed like 2 or 3 separate books to me. The first dealt with her privileged childhood and her year in a Swiss boarding school learning to fall in love with French. Then there was a lot about pedagogical methods of teaching French, which was where my interest began to fail. By the time I got to the muddled third section about, what was it about, exa ...more
Oct 27, 2016 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Someone recommended this book, which I would not otherwise have read, and it did take me rather far out of my comfort zone, nevertheless, it is well written and engaging. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Alice wanted to research such unpleasant and these days almost unknown men - some form of masochism? I do understand the desire to try and be like the French - in my case, it was the young post-war Germans I wanted to be accepted as. Like Alice, I came to terms with this later. An int ...more
Aug 27, 2007 GraceAnne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am now reading, on Julius Lester's blog's recommendation,
French Lessons by Alice Kaplan. After a wonky start where we
heard about her childhood the youth (I so don't care) she talks
about teaching and learning French, and the French, and France,
and how language shapes our mouths and our thoughts. It's
wonderful, and her wrestling with the shape and meaning of the words is particularly wonderful.
Feb 04, 2013 Kinga rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is good food for thought. What does speaking foreign languages give to us?
"After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, is is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there." — Gertrude Stein
May 15, 2011 Meghan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: french, american
I got this at Jenny Pyke's recommendation and am so glad I did! A memoir about learning French, studying/traveling/being in Switzerland and France, and being involved in American academia, it reminded me of the great 20th-century French autobiographers, Sarraute, Collette, Ernaux and the great class I took on them. A must-read for anyone who loves French or languages in general and/or for those interested in a memoir about the ties of intellectualism, fascism, and anti-Semitism.
Apr 04, 2012 Molly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A lovely, readable memoir, whether or not you have any familiarity with Kaplan or any particular interest in language studies. Her crisp, thoughtful descriptions of her childhood and adolescence are particularly memorable. The book may bog down a bit in the middle for readers who have no interest in academia or literary criticsm, but the introspective narrative resumes in the final section of the book.
Mar 20, 2011 Laura rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I really loved this book. It hit very close to home on a lot of levels. She grew up in Minnesota enamored with French culture, spent her junior year in France and went to graduate school at Yale. They way she describes her relationship to the French language with all its ties to identity and memory is really lovely. In many ways, she articulates my own draw to French.
Jan 07, 2013 Tim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A memoir of learning French and hiding in French. Kaplan, French professor at Duke when she wrote this, now at Yale, writes with real beauty and love of the language, as well as excellent self-awareness of her privileges and her losses. She also writes convincingly on Celine and de Man, personal writing influencing and influenced by her own scholarly writing on French fascism.
Nancy Vala
Jun 04, 2014 Nancy Vala rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
This is an unusual memoir, weaving in and around the French language and language in general and in particular. Lovely writing, lots of humor and sarcasm, soul-searching and sadness. It's an older book but you can find it somewhere. I'm always picking up books at Goodwill, garage sales, etc. so who knows what I might read.
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