Alice Kaplan’s memoir French Lessons
(1993) is a story that deals as much with the issue of language learning as with that of cultural belonging(s). This “language memoir,” as it is typical of this sub-genre, is an intimate tale of the transition between languages and cultures. French Lessons
recounts her evolving relationship with French language and culture in various phases of her life: starting from childhood, continuing through her graduate student years at Yale and finally as professor of French at Duke. Soon, however, in this unconventional Bildung
, the second language turns out to be a verbal safe-house, an instant refuge when her first language and culture happen to be too uncomfortable. Ultimately, French provides a psychic space and a hiding place. Ultimately, however, as Derrida has shown, we are alienated from both the first and the second; we find ourselves to be more comfortable in one than in the other. This essay will analyze such processes with special attention to the part played by the body in Kaplan’s building as a student and eventually as a teacher. The analysis will be linked with the text’s peculiar narrative style: fast-paced, with simple, concise sentences, nevertheless extremely effective and moving.
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