I do hope William Alexander won’t mind me making the obvious connection between him and that other American ‘Billiam’ – Bryson – that there are a lot of similarities between the two. Both (from author photos) are genial appearing bear-like men. Both are clearly extremely erudite, wonderfully, subtly witty, weave magic with words, have a fine line in self-deprecating humour, and a light-touch wearing of their evidently extensive knowledge. Both also have minds and a writing style which does not go from London to Edinburgh in a straight line, grimly in pursuit of the journey’s end, instead preferring to ramble about delightfully on the scenic route, taking in Japan, Alaska and other surprising destinations along the way. And paradoxically, they both manage to cram all the rambles into a probably shorter (well, it certainly feels that way) journey than that taken by a more linear, less joie de vivre-ish sort of writer.
William Alexander, a dedicated Francophile, with fantasies of being French is presented with a couple of challenges to this fantasy. One is that he doesn’t speak French. And the second is that he is in his 50s, long past the ‘window of opportunity’ for becoming bilingual, or even fluent, according to various experts on the learning of language itself, and the learning of a second or additional language in particular.
This wonderfully good humoured book explores William’s sterling, perhaps foolhardy efforts to become someone who thinks and speaks like a Frenchman. Along the way, he even adopts a new name, in case this will help. ‘Guy’ pronounced the French way naturellement comes from a shortening of the French version of his own name (cue opera by Rossini)
Less happily along the way William discovers he suffers from atrial fibrillation, and more seriously ventricular fibrillation and has several shocking (literally) medical experiences, whilst he half-idly wonders whether the extreme stress and struggle of his attempts to engage with the language have hastened the ‘breaking’ or break-down, of his heart.
(Here is a lesson for all those of us who are not French : this is how to do it, magnificently, and with impeccably rolled rs – come on, now rrrrrrrrrregrrrrrrrrrrette rrrrrrrrrrrrien – you too will be applauded like this, by an ecstatic audience, if you get those rolls as brilliantly executed as this lady manages:)
There are marvellous, fascinating and witty explanations of language theory, an exploration of the frankly illogical (sorry!) language which assigns the masculine gender to breasts and the feminine gender to beards. Unless the French were always just more nuanced than the English around fixed positions on gender. In which case, kudos, amis et amies. Or is this an fine example of French humour?. The French clearly also are streets ahead of us English speakers in mathematical ability, since their numbering system oddly at times includes multiplication and addition – quatre vingt , quatre vingt dix and the like.
I have now become as fixated on wanting to read more of William’s writing as he is about wanting to speak better French. A book on growing tomatoes (!) and one on baking bread awaits. The man is a raconteur to the manner born, and probably has a whole fleet of shaggy dogs to take out on rambles