Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pardon my French

Over at Larvatus Prodeo last night, regular commenter Nabakov used the expression l'esprit de l'escalier and I was vividly reminded, as I always am whenever anyone says this, of the first time I ever heard it. I was deeply puzzled. '"The spirit of the ladder"? I said. 'What on earth is "the spirit of the ladder"?'

'It's the wit of the staircase, you dope.'

'Oh. Um ... I still don't get it.'

'It's the really witty thing that you only think of to say after you've left and are halfway down the stairs. The thing you wish you'd said but didn't think of till it was too late.'

I'd always thought there had to be a name for that. I might have known it would be in another language and not immediately obvious to a citizen of a country where housing sprawls laterally and most of us don't live upstairs. Even then, it's the kind of metaphor that goes straight to the emotional core of the experience. Idioms get to be idioms for the same reason that clichés get to be clichés. They're a kind of nail in the heart.

Coincidentally, the poetics of idiomatic French were brought to my attention again this morning when I read an overnight email from my insomniacal and generous-handed friend R, currently working in Geneva and collecting new and useful examples of idiomatic French: 'I have "dormir avec les deux oreilles" - to sleep like a log, and "faire la folie, " to splurge. So far my interest groups are being covered.'

The literal (more or less) translations are 'to sleep with both ears' and 'to make the craziness', neither of which needs further explanation. But whenever I look at things like this I'm reminded of the most enchanting French phrase I've ever come across, and one of the great quests of my life: a line from a Jacques Brel song that I first heard on Judy Collins' album Wildflowers when I was seventeen.

Deep in swotting for Matric French at the time, I could hear everything she sang in La chanson dex vieux amants, the song of the old lovers, except just the one line that seemed to make no sense no matter what I "heard" it as. Maybe I would have got it if I'd been older, but at seventeen you can't imagine the particular kind of world-weariness this song conjures up, the kind where lovers have been through vingt ans d'amour, twenty years not just of love but of being lovers.

And somehow the French model of love wherein one has adventures instead of settling down, and then spends one's old age reading old letters and looking at faded photos, found its way into my grey matter (actually I don't think brains had much to do with it) and never went away.

La chanson des vieux amants is full of haunting, bittersweet feeling and images of great beauty and weirdness. The third verse, where the mystery phrase occurs, is all about how you feel after twenty years of what love does to you: how you feel and the things you've learned, and how you feel about the things you've learned.

I hunted high and low, albeit intermittently, for many years to find the written-down French lyrics -- we're talking pre-Google here -- so I could see what words Judy Collins was actually singing, and finally tracked it down in a good big French-English English-French dictionary with an emphasis on the idiomatic. It was 'le fil de l'eau' -- 'the thread of the water' -- which though very beautiful still didn't seem to make a lot of sense.

But it means the current. Dangerous, secret and strong. On se méfie du fil de l'eau, one is wary of the current.

Too right one is.


genevieve said...

I really love Rabelais' expression,
'revenons a nos moutons' - it is not strictly speaking idiomatic, but I use it to make myself return to a subject (let us go back to our sheep), in a manner I fancy Baldric (or even Queenie) might have used if he/she were French.

Also in a similar vein is the quote that is threaded all through Tom Stoppard's play, Travesties, supposed to be from La Rochefoucauld, about Switzerland: 'Quelle sanglante pays, meme le fromage ont des trous.'
(What a bloody country, even the cheese has got holes in it.)

There was also a very fine couplet from Beroul about Iseult being too goodlooking to go without a lover, but I have to go hunt that one down. Excusez-moi.

shula said...

Funny, I always thought of l'esprit de l'escalier as happening halfway UP the stairs.

Judy Collins.

Now that takes me back...

Francis Xavier Holden said...


reminds me i must get on and do a post about scott walker's music.


comicstriphero said...

This is a most lovely post.

Mummy/Crit said...

I have one which is more of a direct mistranslation - a French film that came out in the mid-late-80s will always be known as 'The Big Shirt' due to a moment of idiocy.

Also, did you know that in Sweden if you're hoping for something to happen, you don't 'cross your fingers' you 'hold your thumbs'?

Bernice said...

Just fab

Nabakov said...

Gee, now I wish I'd thought of writing an thoughtful piece about evocative French idioms.

Tant pis.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Nabs -- heh. I bet you know more than I do.

Genevieve, for me, the idea of going back to our sheep is a bit too literal -- I can't hear or see this expression without contemplating a trip home (and yes, I know the exact feeling, in ref to your comment over at Sars) to the Golden Age of Childhood/Fields of Gold Myth-o-scopescape -- what I call the Realms of Gold and what Peter Goldsworthy (no relation; astonishing considering he was born ten miles away from me) calls The Brown, Brown Grass of Home. Mind you, that was back when there used to be grass.

I am glad that youse* variously liked this post, which started out brief and lighthearted until I remembered Jacques Brel, whose music I first heard sung by (no prizes for guessing here) Robyn Archer in some seedy Adelaide pub.

*I blame ThirdCat for the fact that any minute I'll start using this word seriously.

ThirdCat said...


if it helps, it was studying French which has made me stick to my guns. More precisely, it was studying French in Port Pirie which has made me stick to my guns. And if it is any consolation, I will never champion the widespread use of 'where's it to?'

genevieve said...

Shula, my visual picture of the spirit of the stair for quite some time has been one of having just passed the person on the staircase and thinking, 'oh shit'. As A. A. Milne would have said, 'halfway up the stairs isn't up and isn't down.'
There should be an Australian equivalent for being halfway home on the freeway, I guess.

genevieve said...

I mean, 'something like halfway home on the freeway.'