Intermediate weird horror in french: Le Horla

Illustration of
I love old timey horror, because I find most contemporary horror too intense. The 1887 Guy de Maupassant novella “Le Horla” was perfect for me– important and influential (it gave H.P. Lovecraft ideas for Chthulu), not too scary, and accessible to intermediate french readers. Plus, someone actually yells, “Oh! quelle horreur!”

It is 30 pages, in the form of diary entries. I read it after Harry Potter book 3 and it was slow going but doable. There are maybe 5 words that are important to the plot that you need to look up, and the rest of the time you can guess which words refer to types of anxiety and which ones refer to types of trembling. I have found Maupassant’s writing too flowery in english, but in french I thought it was lovely. His habit of making elaborate descriptive lists was even helpful for learning vocabulary. When something is as enormous as a galaxy, as deafening as thunder, and as invisible as the wind, it is easy to guess the meaning of those adjectives.

Like many stories about hauntings, one way to read Le Horla is as a story about settlers and imperialists grappling with the harms of their colonial projects. Instead of the more typical scenario where an “Indian Burial Ground” produces angry ghosts in american suburbs, we watch an upper class French narrator realize he’s being enslaved or colonized by an incomprehensible alien force. He spouts some racist nonsense while grappling with his horror, but I took satisfaction in watching a european deal with the receiving end of colonization and the limits of his scientific knowledge.

Since the story is public domain, you can find the text online or order from one of those cheap public domain publishers. I liked this free audiobook of Le Horla on for listening practice, but there are many others available for free online.

Intermediate french new wave: Hiroshima mon amour

Still from Hiroshima mon amour, with english subtitles

If plays are relatively easy reading projects, screenplays are even easier. TV and film are more familiar than theatre for most of us, it is easier to find movie versions of screenplays, and those movies are more likely to have subtitles. Given these advantages, I thought I’d try reading a more difficult genre of screenplay: experimental film.

Hiroshima mon amour is a film by Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais, with a screenplay by experimental novelist Marguerite Duras. It portrays an intimate conversation between two lovers about memory, time, and war. The film is known for using flashbacks in a jarring way, as if past memories are intruding suddenly in the present. Reading the script, with the writer’s notes and directions included, makes the different time periods quite clear.

It’s an interesting type of reading practice. The vocabulary and language is simple and the script is short, but the statements and ideas are abstract and strange, with complicated emotions. I enjoyed it, with my limited french language skills and my better-developed thinking and feeling skills.

There is a beautiful Criterion edition of the film, if you want to see the finished work (and practice listening).

Two quick language learning tips

I was having so much fun improving my french that I decided to start learning spanish as well. So now I have new tips, that are unrelated to flashcards!

  1. It is hard to find compelling things to read when you are a total beginner in a language. May I suggest kids joke books? They are available for very low reading levels and deciphering the jokes is a fun (and funny) challenge. Short jokes contain ideal groups of vocabulary for learning, too– common words that are memorably related but don’t sound the same or have similar meanings. E.g., What animal has the smallest appetite? A moth, because it only eats holes!
  2. Apparently I am not the only language learner who felt a sort of plateau at the upper-intermediate level. For me, this has been partly due to the experience of being able to understand adult french content like newspapers or mystery movies, but finding it a lot more work than understanding english. The slowness and mental effort can get frustrating, which is demotivational. It turns out that trying to learn spanish made french feel suddenly much more fun by comparison, and made me much more enthusiastic and brave about french. So my suggestion is: consider turning your “weaker” language into your “second best” language by learning little bit of a third one.

Intermediate french absurdist theatre: La Cantatrice Chauve

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Here’s a tip I got from my bookworm partner: reading a play is an easy win. Plays are much shorter in terms of word count than novels, yet for some reason reading a play feels like a big accomplishment.

This is especially true of La Cantatrice Chauve by Eugène Ionesco, which is both one of the most performed plays in France and entirely composed of parodies of the texts from Assimil brand language lessons. It’s as if it was invented to help beginner french readers feel like they are making progress.

This play is also straight-up hilarious, to the point that I was obnoxious to be around while reading it. Comedy is famously hard to translate, so reading the jokes in their original form felt like a great use for a second language.

La Cantatrice Chauve is a major work of theatre of the absurd, so odds are good your library will have or be able to get a copy for you. There are multiple productions of the play on YouTube that could make for good for listening practice, although I haven’t found a particularly excellent video yet.

Intermediate postcolonial francophone lit: Une Si Longue Lettre

Cover of 'Une si longue lettre

Shopping for french books led me to do something I’ve never done before: browse books by category on Amazon. This is how I learned that littérature francaise (from France) and littérature francophone (from the french-speaking former colonies) are sometimes treated as distinct literary categories. That is a stereotypically French thing to do, right? On the one hand, having enough pretension to consider French Literature as a world cultural treasure that needs to be distinguished from “literature in french”, and on the other hand having no shame about colonial racism. In any case, I found the categories helpful since one of my goals was to read literature in french from authors outside of France, but I didn’t know the special name for it.

Being only an intermediate reader, I started with Une Si Longue Lettre by Mariama Bâ. The english translation gets assigned in grade eight classes. I read it after getting through book 5 of Harry Potter (L’Ordre du Phénix), and I think I could have handled it after book 4.

Some things that make this an accessible read: it is a short book (165 pages, counting generously); each chapter is only a few pages and has a distinct topic, so you don’t have to follow long passages; and the entire book is a letter from a woman to her friend, so it uses mostly everyday language. Since the book is popular in classrooms there are lots of resources available online, including a DIY audiobook on youtube if you want to work on your listening skills.

I loved it. The narrator is a new widow living in Dakar, Senegal, writing to her friend to process her feelings and memories while she is housebound for the mourning period. She reflects on the post-independence generation in Senegal, the education and political rights of women, problems in her marriage and those of her friends, her relationships with her kids, how class and ethnicity work and how they are changing, and all sorts of interesting things. All of the social commentary comes up naturally during dishy gossip– the best possible format for a book?

Intermediate french queer graphic novel: Le Bleu Est Une Couleur Chaude

Image from 'Le bleu est une couleur chaude

I felt like a genius when I got this out of the library. What better way to practice reading in french than a picture book? That is mostly true, although I was surprised by how difficult I found the hand-lettering (and cursive!).

This story leaves me pretty meh– the pointless tragic ending, the characters who are probably intended to be relatable but to me just seem generic (at one point they discuss both loving “that book” but don’t say what it is), and the unhealthy tale of a high school kid falling in lifelong love with the only lesbian she’s ever met.

However, it’s a great beginner-intermediate french reading project. It is short, easy to follow because of the pictures, and full of things I wanted to learn, like dialog, slang, sex words, and queer activism vocabulary. You could follow it up by watching the movie in french with french subtitles, for listening practice.

As a difficulty reference, I tackled this before any Harry Potter books, using only the power of childhood fluency that I had neglected for 25 years, and a translation app.

Weird and fabulous intermediate french reading

As an adult trying to revive my rusty childhood french, I have struggled to find compelling reading projects. Most lists of intermediate french reading for adults cover Le Petit Prince, Harry Potter in translation, and then a bunch of bestsellers that I’m not very interested in. I hunted hard to find queer content, postcolonial literature, diverse authors, and weirdo art that was suitable for a learner like me (starting from approximately fifth grade reading level). I thought I’d post small book reviews here in case it helps someone else. I know a lot of people with half-assed french skills– you can probably read more cool books than you’d expect!

You can use the “keep intermediate french weird” tag to see all my posts about this.

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For starters, I have to agree that Harry Potter is a great beginner/intermediate reading project. The series starts at about a sixth grade reading level and gradually increases in difficulty, and reading the series in french I noticed that each book deliberately teaches you a few new vocabulary words.

Because the books are so popular, there is a lot of stuff available. There are good french dubs for all the movies, and the whole series is available as french audiobooks complete with wacky character voices that make for reasonably challenging listening. Google translate even knows all the creature names.

The only initial hurdle is that the books are narrated using the literary passé simple verb tense, which I had never encountered before. I made flashcards for the être and avoir conjugations and then muddled through the rest.

For adults, the Harry Potter reading experience might be superior in a foreign language. I think it is worth a try even if you haven’t enjoyed Harry Potter in english. I was in university when the books were first published, so I didn’t get caught by Pottermania and only read the series much later, at which point I found the kid-friendly plots predictable and dull. Reading them in french, my comprehension is diminished enough that I missed a lot of clues and foreshadowing, so I found the stories much more surprising and exciting!

Finally, the top reason to read Harry Potter in another language is to see how the translator handles the invented words. Muggles, golden snitches, nifflers, Slytherins… It’s a fun translation problem to witness. No matter how many clunkers got through, I will always respect the translator for turning Hufflepuff into Poufsouffle.

A gift of flashcards

As has been pointed out to me, I tend toward the most boring possible hobbies. Even before I got into dried beans, my interests included oatmeal, filing systems, composting, drone music. So it may surprise no one that when I set out to refresh my french reading skills I got a bit obsessed with a spaced repetition study app. Aka, flashcards. I’m really into digital flashcards now, you guys.

Clicking through a set of flashcards that are automatically calibrated so that you can get most but not all of them right is about as addictive as scrolling through social media, but instead of making you anxious it makes you, e.g., understand french. Like drone music and composting, flashcards are secretly quite exciting.

I thought I’d post a few flashcard resources since, for real, this keeps coming up in real life. Maybe you too want to learn a language or study for some kind of test?

Maybe you just want to quit the book of faces and need something else to do on the bus. You could make flashcards to memorize all your friends’ birthdays; then you really won’t need Facebook 😉

Bean Zine special feature: printable postcards

I’m sure you’ve all been wishing for a beautiful future where you can print unlimited bean-themed postcards for your personal use and/or to write to your elected representatives (no stamp required). The future is now, obviously. Each file is a moderately hi-res PDF containing one sheet of four different postcards.

Bean Zine: bookfair, six-packs, and oblivion

The Year of Bean Zine is coming to an end. Issue 6 will be the last one (for now).

To celebrate this occasion, I’ll be selling bean zines at the Victoria Anarchist Bookfair in September. This is your chance to pick up individual issues or six-packs of the entire run, plus some bean pins and loose postcards. Maybe bean zines make good gifts? I’ve had pretty good results mailing them to all my friends.


  • Saturday, September 16 & Sunday, September 17, 2017
  • 11am – 6pm
  • Fernwood NRG, Victoria, BC, Lekwungen Territory
  • Free admission, free workshops, free childcare, etc

Bean Zine #5

Returning to the usual format, this issue of bean zine contains 3 bean recipes, 2 bean dreams, and 2 bean postcards. Print your own copy from this Bean Zine #5 printable PDF. Sorry, no postcards in the PDF. (I am saving all the printable postcards for the end. Stay tuned after the next and final issue, #6.)