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September 18, 2014

Book Notes - William Alexander "Flirting with French"

Flirting with French

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

William Alexander's new book Flirting with French chronicles his attempt to master the French language as an adult with insight and humor.

The Wall Street Journal wrote of the book:

"His quixotic resolve to transcend his inherent competence recalls the participatory journalism of George Plimpton, the lanky patrician whose unlikely stints in football and boxing lent nobility to failure. Like Plimpton, Mr. Alexander presents himself as an apprentice, but the reader quickly discovers he is also a master teacher."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is William Alexander's Book Notes music playlist for his book Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart:


About six months into my quest to learn French I read somewhere that listening carefully to the lyrics of foreign songs is supposed to be an effective tool in learning that language, the theory being that songs are sung more slowly than spoken language and with more diction (the author apparently didn't listen to Kurt Cobain and other mumble-rockers). Plus, the lyrics generally rhyme, and make sense (again, see disclaimer about Cobain et al), providing added cues. The cues are actually pretty important: Think about how often you've been able to predict the next few words of a song you're hearing for the first time -- let's face it, what else rhymes with "dove"?

I should've carried a touch of skepticism about this music-as-language-teacher business, because when I was about nine and confined to bed with the flu I'd sent my parents on a fruitless and embarrassing mission to procure the 45 single of what I insisted was "Mr. Spaceman," which was really Johnny Cymbol's "Mr. Baseman." (In my defense, I was feverish.) Regardless, the French experiment seemed like a no-lose proposition, because my love of French music -- especially, old-fashioned café chansons -- is one of reasons I wanted to learn French to begin with, and I already owned several CD's, mostly compilations from the Putumayo label. I'd been playing these songs in the car and the kitchen for months, but not really listening to them, so now I plugged in the headphones and tried to discern the lyrics of several of my favorites. As luck would have it, the very first song I chose was:

"Lettre à P" by Paris Combo
An enchanting hypnotic waltz with a lovely female vocalist and a muted trumpet, "Lettre à P" ("Letter to P') puts you a mere half-empty bottle of pastis away from a Parisian nightclub at midnight. But what on earth is this song about? Surely, the first line can't be J'ai mangé de l'autocar — I ate the bus. Leaving that for later, I move on to Ensuite, j'ai fumé une berline. "Then I smoked a" . . . a . . . what's a berline? I look it up: a sedan. Must have another meaning, perhaps a brand of cigarette. I play some more, I rewind and replay, again and again, trying to understand the French, looking up more words, which is proving unexpectedly difficult. These are not the words I've been learning from Rosetta Stone! Ha, here's something I recognize: Paris, j'aime ton gasoil. "Paris, I love your diesel." Huh? Something very odd (and automotive) is going on here.

Of all the songs to start with, I'd chosen a nonsensical one about a women with a strange addiction to Paris's polluted air, or its smells, or perhaps the whole thing is allegorical; I have no idea. Songs are poetry, and thus take poetic license, an obstacle I hadn't anticipated. Though I should have. Imagine a Frenchman trying to learn English from the Beatles's Abbey Road and coming across the opening lines from "Come Together":

Here come old flattop. He come grooving up slowly

He got ju-ju eyeballs. He's one holy roller.

Even I don't know what the hell Lennon is singing about, and English is my first language. But undaunted, I moved on to something more traditional, a love song that I'd already picked a few words up from while listening in the car:

"Un jour comme un autre" by Brigitte Bardot
"A Day Like Any Other" is a slow, sultry song, and I'm able to get the gist of it, partly because it uses simple language, and partly because the vocalization is so clear and well-paced. This is more like it! I want to hear some more songs from this artist, whomever she is. At home I pull out the liner notes and learn, to my great surprise, that my new favorite French singer is . . . Brigitte Bardot! Known to Americans as either a sixties French sex kitten or a wacky nineties animal rights activist, France's version of Marilyn Monroe was, to my surprise, also a successful recording artist, perhaps aided by the fact that her first album bore the suggestive title, Inside Brigitte Bardot. (A later album, bearing a photograph featuring her shapely derrière, was titled Behind Brigitte Bardot.) Another song that I can kind of grasp parts of also has a surprise in store for me.

"Quelqu'un m'a dit" by Carla Bruni
"Someone Told Me" is a breathy, catchy tune, with an even catchier album cover featuring a reclining, guitar-caressing brunette whose tight dress can barely restrain the nipple underneath. The surprise is that the nipple belongs to the breast of Carla Bruni, the wife of then-President of France Nicolas Sarkozy. Can you imagine if an American First Lady posed like that? Quel scandale! Quel Congressional hearings! But the album Quelqu'un m'a dit debuted at number one on the French charts and stayed in the top ten for thirty-four weeks, in addition to being an international hit in Europe.

Carla sings in a whispery style that is not to everyone's liking, but, like Bardot, she has more than just sex appeal. Speaking of sex, the second track on the album, "Raphaël," is named after Bruni's former lover. Vive la différence!

Rounding out my French-language playlist:

"Notre devois" by Intik
A reggae song from a young Algerian hip-hop and reggae group, you might mistake the first few lines of "Our Duty" for Bob Marley. The strong beat and beautiful voices make for delightful listening even if you don't understand a word. And you won't.

"Marilous sous le neige" by Serge Gainsbourg
No French playlist is complete with a song from Serge Gainsbourg, France's beloved singer and songwriter. Known for the wordplay of his lyrics and his eccentricity onstage (and off), he wrote over 500 songs through the ever-present haze of half-smoked Gitanes. My Serge selection is "Marilou Under the Snow."

Elaeudanta Téïtéïa by Jane Birkin
Jane Birkin, who was Serge Gainsbourg's lover following his torrid and highly publicized romance with . . . wait for it . . . Brigitte Bardot (the French music scene seems to have been quite incestuous), was a blue-blooded Englishwoman, but became a French singing star and actress, although the French delighted in mocking her accent. (I know how that feels.) I love this song (originally recorded by Gainsbourg) for Birkin's beguiling staccato voicing of the name Lætitia ( él - a - e dans l'a - té - i - té - i – ahh) as she types it "sur ma Remington portative" — on her portable Remington (as in "typewriter," for you kids). The title is the phonetic spelling (in French, of course) of "Lætitia." The French actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg (her latest film: "Nymphomanic") is the product of Serge and Jane's turbulent 13-year relationship.

"Comme des enfants" by Cœur de Pirate
For more contemporary French music, I like the "Le Pop" series, compilations of the best of French-language music. On "Le Pop 5" I discovered the young Québécois who calls herself Cœur de Pirate (Pirate Heart). Known to her parents as Béatrice Martin, she burst onto the francophone music scene in 2009 with the hit single "Commes des enfants." Cœur accompanies herself on the piano and has been praised for bringing elements of classic French chanson française to Canadian youth. The album Cœur de Pirate won the Canadian Broadcasting Company's Bucky award for "Best Reason to Learn French." I couldn't disagree.

So much great French music, so little time! À bientôt!


William Alexander and Flirting with French links:

the author's website
the author's French blog
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
PopMatters review
Slate review
Wall Street Journal review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his book 52 Loaves


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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