There have been just two items that have seemed to me worth watching on TV in the past few days: the one, David Attenborough with Frozen Planet; the other, a treasured video of Manon des Sources, the sequel to Jean de Florette; not only two of the most acclaimed French films ever made, but two of the most popular with British audiences.
But it is not about the films that I am very briefly writing here; it is about the novels on which they were based and their relevance for anyone trying to learn French. I do not know what experts at the Institut Français or the Alliance Française would have to say about it, but I suggest that Marcel Pagnol’s novels in general, and those of his Souvenirs d’enfance and L’Eau des Collines series in particular, are eminently worth recommending to even very moderately advanced students of the language.
Pagnol (an Anglophile who graduated in English, taught it, and had a son with an English dancer) writes in a clear, unaffected French. His stories, intellectually unpretentious and unchallenging, profound in their humanity (love and hate, good and evil, revenge and forgiveness), are about easily recognisable characters, one of the consequences being that although the dictionary is, of course, ever close at hand, it is often possible to guess the meaning of a word or a phrase from its readily perceived, even familiar, context,
Lastly, the Souvenirs d’enfance and L’Eau des Collines works are quintessentially stories about rural life. Beyond a doubt, it is the enduring rurality of France which still explains the hold that the whole glorious country has for its ardent admirers, and these stories are set in that part of France with which the British fell in love long before they discovered the charms of Périgord and Normandy: the author’s native Provence.
Forget France’s literary giants for the time being. Forget your Balzac and your Baudelaire, your Dumas and your Hugo, your Maupassant, Lamartine, Flaubert and Zola. Above all, forget about your Proust and his monumentally intricate À la recherche du temps perdu. Reach instead for the sort of man whom millions love but the Booker judges would not be seen dead with. Turn to Marcel Pagnol.