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What's All This Then?

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Les Miserables
by Victor Hugo

Field-Tested by Lauren Groff

in Notre Dame des Landes, France

I was a Rotary Exchange Student in France for the year between high school and college. Though I’d wanted to be in Paris or Aix-en-Provence, I ended up assigned to Nantes, with my first host placement in a tiny village 20 kilometers from the city called Notre Dame des Landes; a far cry from the chic Paris I’d been picturing (absinthe! cobblestones! silk scarves!). It was an earthy, one-church village in the midst of cow country, and would have been a fairy-tale placement had it not been for my host sister. She was 14 and a nightmare. She was so ashamed of her stonemason father — he smelled funny and would show up at breakfast with a brace of bloody quail — that she referred to him as le paysan, or “peasant.” Nice gal, that one.

She also refused to speak French with me. This was problematic because I had to spend with her all the hours of the day that I wasn’t sleeping or scribbling away my sorrows. I’d been a nerd in high school and thought I had a good grasp of the French language, but I was wildly wrong. I was my host sister’s fiercely guarded American pet at school, isolated from everyone else by my lack of workable French. Because of that, I was sinking into a very low period in my life.

Thank goodness, then, that I found a Maxi-Poche bookstore, where for ten francs (about two bucks), you could get the classics in paperback. My first purchase was all three volumes of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Overambitious, maybe, but I’d seen the musical three times, so I knew some of the story.

Whenever I could, I stepped into the glorious, ranging tale. I wept with Éponine, felt nauseated when I read of the cat-eating rats in the giant belly of the elephant where Gavroche slept, and learned more French than I would have even if my host sister had actually spoken with me. Hugo awoke my empathy and made me stop narcissistically brooding on my own misery. Books can color the world, and under the influence of Hugo, France took on almost mythical proportions and made even the winter in Brittany less bleak than epic-seeming, a noble struggle. Which, as low as I’d been, was a deliverance.

I finally moved to my next placement, a beautifully welcoming family of caterers, where I gained 35 pounds from their food and fell in love, at last, with spoken French. By then, though, I’d picked up enough strange, 19th-century syntax and wording from all those books I’d read that, when I spoke, I sounded — and, to be honest, still sound like — a sloppy, first printing of an obscure, 19th-century novel. To me, though, that beats miserable, broody, and half-mute, any day.

Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, a novel, and Delicate Edible Birds, a short story collection that will be out in January 2009. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, and can be found at her website.

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