This past weekend I attended an intensive three-day workshop on the apparently much debated, highly-regarded Germaine de Stael. I audited this because Stael (pronounced, according to these folks, Stahl) is going to be a central figure in my alternate history.
Well, not “going to be”, she is, but so far she’s been mostly in the background. In the second book, she will be onstage, although in slightly bizarre, nonhistorical form (this is SF after all), but in the third book she will be central—my protagonist will be in her entourage from 1797 until her death in 1817.
Germaine de Stael nee Necker was at one time one of the most popular and well known intellectuals in Europe. After the fall of Napoleon, the quip was made that “there are three powers in Europe now—Russia, England, and Madame de Stael.” When I began researching her, I had no idea. Never heard of her. I was told this weekend that in France, she is still widely regarded and talked about, but here in the U.S.A. I’d never heard of her until an odd paragraph in a Napoleonic biography—which did little to illuminate just how significant this woman was. (I’m particularly annoyed at the short shrift Simon Schama gave her in his otherwise marvelous history of the French Revolution, Citizens.) Well, this is the sort of thing that feminist writers are always complaining about, and rightly so. Napoleon’s ultimate fall can be directly laid at Germaine de Stael’s feet—she brokered the Grand Alliance that defeated him (the first time).
(She was instrumental in keeping the Republican spirit alive even in the face of Napoleon’s destruction of everything the Revolution had aimed at achieving—and largely missed, to be sure. She was a networker par excelence and a philosopher of the first water.)
In that she will be a major character in my trilogy, I wanted to know as much about her as I could find out, and through the machinations of internet serendipity I found a blog that led me to a woman who is a specialist on Stael and got me invited to attend this conference, which fortuitously was held at Washington University right here in my home town. It may be two years before the material I gathered will be required, but the conference—only the Second International one, the last held 11 years ago—was now, so I had to go.
Very worthwhile, extremely informative, I have a wealth of data to work on and several contacts who will gladly answer emails, etc etc, and maybe even one or two new friends. My head feels stuffed to bursting. My thanks to the co-organizers, Karyna Szmurlo from Clemson University in South Carolina and Tili Boon Cuillee here at Washington University.
I say all this up front because I want it clearly established that 80% of this conference was worth the money and the time and I am delighted that I went.
One problem. And this is an academic problem. It has always annoyed me in books, but this weekend I ran into it in lecture form and it just, well…
At least four of the presentations and virtually all the direct quotes in the course of two and a half days of lectures were done in French. Without translation. I was apparently the only person out of about 35 or so attendees that could not speak or read French. I did not make a fuss—what would be the point?—and I ended up blaming myself for never have acquired another language, especially when one lecture was conducted partly in Italian as well. I missed what were evidently excellent talks through being hopelessly monolingual.
But what really annoyed me was that in two or three of these instances, handouts were passed around containing the major quotes from the lecturers, and these were likewise all in French. No translations. I have the papers, I have at least three friends who can read them to me.
As to the rest, well, like I say, it was excellent and I have much to work with. So it’s a minor complaint, really. I sat there, expression neutral (I hope), feeling stupid, and said nothing, then or later.
This practice really annoys me in history texts. I wonder if it is done that way in other languages—say, for instance, a book published in Brazil and written in Portugeuse, but with direct quotes in another language without benefit of translation. I realize Americans are notoriously monolingual, but I doubt everyone everywhere with an interest in history is multilingual. Making that assumption is, forgive me, rude.
At the final banquet, we were treated to an address by another scholar who is working on a book about the French experience in North America, and he began the talk in French, and I thought “shit, not again…” But he switched to English after a few paragraphs and the rest of the speech was fine.
The thing that really bothered me about not understanding the French parts? I missed the jokes. Sitting there, listening to the musical meanderings of the presenters, all of a sudden the room would erupt in laughter. I didn’t get it. Obviously.
But. I think now I ought to go to work on the alternate history. I feel charged up now.
What was also nice was the reception by these folks of the idea behind my novel. You know, you’re never sure how that’s going to go over. But generally, there was sincere interest and a little excitement. Even the suggestion by one of the organizers that when I finished the project, perhaps I could come to a future conference and read from the novel. Well. Not too shabby.
I am thoroughly mentally exhausted, though. I am not a formal scholar and “keeping up” can be something of an effort—a lot of assumptions get made and acted upon in such a narrowly-self-defined group. But I managed to “decode” enough that I kept up and even, finally, contributed a modest remark or two. All in all, really great stuff.