What is love? It may be a many-splendored thing, or the dizzy dancing way you feel. But in French fiction, it’s also a bolt from the blue, intoxication and addiction, deception and disguise, seduction and surrender, taboo and transgression, murderous musings, pangs of jealousy, fantasy, abandonment, and eclipse. Few have written better on the pleasures and perils of love than the French. The French Kisses reading group will survey “love” in multiple manifestations from a wide selection of French writers.
While writers around the world have addressed the subject of “love,” the French have developed a long tradition that explores its erotic and emotional dimensions. Part of this tradition is the ability to represent the most passionate states, while at the same time analyze them critically. This dual focus has produced works that have initially been deemed scandalous but, with the passage of time, have come to be regarded as literary classics.
Over two years*, the French Kisses reading group will read and discuss works of French fiction in translation from the 17th century to the present. Year 1 will meet from September 2019 to June 2020, and will include works by Madame de Lafayette, Abbé Prévost, Choderlos de Laclos, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, and Marcel Proust. Year 2 will meet from September 2020 to June 2021 and may include works by Alain-Fournier, Colette, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, Violette Leduc, Pauline Réage, Françoise Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, and Anne Garréta. While many of these names may be unfamiliar to American readers, to French readers they are well known.
Each of us may have his or her own notion of “love.” Discussing these works together should prompt reflection and reconsideration of how we understand “love” in light of the experiences and expressions of others. Many of these works will challenge simplistic or sentimental notions of love. Some readers will find certain of these works offensive. We read them not to give (or take) offense, but rather to enlarge our understanding of the range of human experiences that make up “love.”
*Please note: registration for Year 1 will open in July 2019 and for Year 2 in July 2020.
For Year 1, the French Kisses reading group meets monthly from September 2019 to June 2020, with the exception of January 2020 (no meeting).
The Athenæum is hosting two identical sessions of the group, one on the first Tuesday of each month and one on the first Wednesday of each month, with one exception in April as noted below. The meeting days will always be back-to-back. Both sessions meet at the Athenæum, from 5-5:30pm (refreshments) and 5:30-7pm (discussion). Participants will be asked to select their preferred session during registration.
Monthly readings will typically be 150-200 pages. All readings are in English translation. A list of recommended translations and editions will be provided separately to reading group participants. Readers who wish to read in French are welcome to do so. All discussion will be in English.
Refreshments are provided on a voluntary, coordinated basis. We will discuss the group’s refreshment preferences and refreshment provision in the first meeting.
Please note that there is a reading assignment for the first meeting.
Tues, Sept 3 & Wed, Sept 4 | Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses [Parts 1 and 2]
Tues, Oct 1 & Wed, Oct 2 | Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses [Parts 3 and 4]
Tues, Nov 5 & Wed, Nov 6 | Madame de Lafayette, La Princesse de Clèves
Tues, Dec 3 & Wed, Dec 4 | Abbé Prevost, Manon Lescaut
No January meetings
Tues, Feb 4 & Wed, Feb 5 | Honoré de Balzac, selected stories, including “Sarrasine” and “The Girl with the Golden Eyes.” Stendhal, selections from On Love
Tues, Mar 3 & Wed, Mar 4 | Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Tues, Apr 7 & Wed, Apr 8 (not Apr 1) | Emile Zola, Thérèse Raquin
Tues, May 5 & Wed, May 6 | Marcel Proust, Swann in Love
Tues, Jun 2 or Wed, Jun 3 | Celebration meeting (optional), no reading assignment
The works cited below represent a very small selection on the theme of love in French fiction. Additional works may be added to this list over the course of the reading group.
Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse. [Fragments d’un discours amoureux.] Essay.
Roland Barthes, S/Z. Literary criticism: complex, lengthy, famous textual analysis of Balzac’s story “Sarrasine.”
Georges Bataille, Eroticism. [L’erotisme.] Philosophical essays.
Leo Bersani, Balzac to Beckett: Center and Circumference in French Fiction. Literary criticism, chapters on Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. [Le deuxième sexe.] Philosophy and cultural history.
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World. [L’amour et l’Occident.] Philosophy and cultural history.
René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel. [Mensonge romantique, vérité Romanesque.] Literary criticism. “Mediation” in love; chapters on Flaubert and Proust.
Stendhal, Love [or] On Love. [De l’amour.] Essays.
Arnold Weinstein, The Fiction of Relationship. Literary criticism: discussions of Manon Lescaut, Les Liaisons dangereuses, and In Search of Lost Time.
Athenæum member Steve Coon leads the group as facilitator. Steve earned a Ph.D. from Brown University in Comparative Literature, with a focus on 19th and 20th century fiction and poetry. Since 2012, he has led reading groups at the Athenæum, including groups on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Balzac and Baudelaire, W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, and most recently Melville and Conrad. Steve emphasizes that the group is not a “class,” but rather an opportunity for interested readers of all backgrounds to explore, enjoy, understand and engage with this most important theme in French literature.