Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What the French Think of Twain: Take 2

The front cover of a French version of Tom Sawyer for children
      To understand anything about what the French think of Mark Twain, you first have to know something about how and where they encounter him.  Are they reading his books in school?  At what level?  Or do they come to know him through popularizations of his books into movies, TV shows, and cartoons?  During my time in France, I've traveled to French universities to give guest classes and talks on Twain, and I've given a short questionnaire to the students, faculty, and occasional administrators who came to listen.  The results were illuminating, at least for me.
     The first thing I learned is that Tom Sawyer--not Huckleberry Finn-- is Twain's best-known work in France.  This mystified me, until I got the good sense to do the obvious: ask why.  And it turned out that almost everyone I met knew Tom Sawyer from a children's TV show that was as popular and ubiquitous in France as, say, Superman was in the U.S.  Over decades and in different incarnations, the show brought a strange kid's version of Twain's most famous characters to generations of French youth.  Here's a sample episode, and you can easily watch others by doing a simple Google or YouTube search.  I especially like the show's theme song, which you can now download as a ring tone for your cell phone--a fact that surely falls into the category of "What would Twain make of that?" WWTMOT.
     The theme song's lyrics give a glimpse into how the French stereotype Americans through Twain, in a nice counterpoint, I think, to what he does to them:
Tom Sawyer
C'est l'Amérique, le symbole de la liberté
Il est né sur les bords du fleuve Mississipi
Tom Sawyer c'est pour nous tous un ami

Il est toujours prêt pour tenter l'aventure
Avec ses bons copains
Il n'a peur de rien c'est un Américain
Il aime l'école, surtout quand elle est loin

Tom Sawyer
C'est l'Amérique, pour tous ceux qui aiment la vérité
Il connaît les merveilles qui sont dans la forêt
Les chemins, les rivières et les sentiers

Il a dans ses poches des objets fabuleux
Qu'il emporte avec lui
Trois bouts de ficelle, quelques pierres et du bois
Il les partage, avec tous ses amis.

     Translated into English, this more or less means:
Tom Sawyer
He’s America, the symbol of liberty.
He was born on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Tom Sawyer, he’s a friend for all of us.
He’s always ready for an adventure
with his good friends.
He’s afraid of nothing; he’s an American.
He likes school, especially when it’s far away.
Tom Sawyer
He’s America, for all those who like the truth.
He knows the wonders of the forest--
The paths, the rivers, and the roads.
In his pockets, he’s got fabulous objects
that he takes with him:
Three threads, some stones, and wood.
He shares them with all his friends.
     What do we learn about America and Americans, as symbolized by this French Tom Sawyer? Well, for starters, he stands for "liberty."  This word, of course, is one of the most important in both cultures, historically and in terms of how we define ourselves and our societies.  For Americans, it's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; for the French, "liberte, egalite, fraternite."  I'd say there is a difference, though: for Americans, liberty is a more individualized concept, for the French, it retains a collective spirit.  Still, Tom Sawyer here stands first for "America," which in turns stands for "freedom."  It's the key value that our cultures share, going back to our revolutions.
     What else?  The Frenchified Tom is a country boy and a river rat. Makes sense: think of how many fleuves there are in France and how much the French love la compagne.  He's also a good friend who loves adventure more than school.  He's fearless; he knows how to share, and he carries the sort of ordinary things around in pockets that other kids find fascinating.
     Oh, yeah, and he loves the truth.  (Tom?)
     Even bearing in mind that this theme song is for a children's show, it's worth noting that "America"--"Tom"--is an outgoing, generous, adventurous, and honest guy, if not exactly intellectual or refined. And I would say that, among my French friends and acquaintances, those qualities do somehow still sum up the American character(And note that there's much more positive than negative here.)
     But back to Twain.  On my questionnaire, many students said they had read at least parts of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn at lycee (high school) or university level.  But virtually all said they first learned about him from the TV show.  My final question--"What is your general idea or image of Twain?"--brought some fascinating and strange responsesThey were all over the place
     One person wrote simply, "odd," another only "cheerful.Many accurately associated him with "humor," "wise and witty remarks," "adventure stories," "the Mississippi," and "fun.Others cottoned on to his use of dialect, irony, and satire, and to his interest in writing about "controversial" topics like slavery and race.  At the very least, everyone knew he was an "important" American writer. "Very American," as one person put it. "He is so much a part of the intellectual fabric of the USA that is would be hard to separate his influence.  He is everywhere."
     Not a bad showing, I'd say, for them or for Twain.  Here's the thing, though.  Tom Sawyer predominates in the French imaginary, no doubt because of the TV show.  But for Americans, it's Huck Finn who inhabits our literary and cultural landscape--as well it should be.  The French seem to have less knowledge or understanding than I expected of how deeply Twain's poignant story about an abused boy and a run-away slave on a raft resonates with "America." 
     Come to think of it, the description of Tom Sawyer in the French theme song sounds a lot more like Huck Finn.  He was the one who was loyal, adventurous, and imaginative. Mostly, though, he was honest, brave, and free.  Many Americans still aspire to that kind of free-wheeling life.  As Huck put it, "It's lovely to live on a raft."  
From: Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NY: Simon & Brown, 2010

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