There were a lot of things I liked about going to French schools as a youth, but one that stands out is the discipline of recitation. A student prepares a poem and delivers it in front of the class. You were graded on tone and inflection, on cadence and emphasis. The French take their language seriously, and you are to deliver the words just so.
Scratchy pencil markings on Le Rat de ville et le Rat des champs show where to slow down, where to come to a full stop. Scribbled in are indications of the rhythms. While holding the little book in front of my peers, I most likely kneaded my sweaty fingers into the cover as I plied back the binding. The activity may have alleviated some trepidations of being front of a crowd.
It is delightful to say the words just right, to have them tumble out and be heard amongst an audience. It is not the same as reading the text in one’s head, in the same way as reading a play falls short of a production. It’s really a shame that the US school system lacks this emphasis on performance and language. Completely contrary to saying there is only one way to get one’s tongue around the words, as perhaps the French do, it is about how words are articulated to add meaning. The delivery is a disclosure of more than the words themselves.
Fables, whether by Aesop or by La Fontaine or La Fontaine’s version of Aesop, are subtle in their meaning. Some might say Straussian. There are of course the sweet little creatures having adventures. The Tortoise and the Hair, or the Lion and the Mouse. Creatures not like each other interacting to tell us that outcomes are sometimes unexpected. That we should not presume to know everything.
La Fountaine along with his contemporary Moliere were well known for cloaking messages, designed to instruct without offense. Both were successful in their lifetime for although their subject matter thrived on human foibles, the ruse of concealment let each audience member interpret the piece as they desired.