Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song

I am already a confirmed lover of grammar. I have studied five languages besides my own and taken three linguistics classes, I've been writing for years, and I've edited many an essay. For the most part grammar comes instinctively to me. This book, therefore, is for me not so much a discovery as an affirmation.

Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song, by Erik Orsenna, translated from French by Moishe Black, is the story of two children shipwrecked on an island. Fourteen-year-old Thomas and ten-year-old Jeanne, the narrator, are on an ocean liner to New York to visit their father when a storm sinks their ship. The storm leaves them in shock, and when they wash up on the island they are unable to speak. They are taken in by an islander, who shows them the sights of the island--at the Word Market they look for rhymes to buy, at the town hall in Word City words are married. At the "most vital factory of them all," sentences are made. By visiting these sights and discovering the wonder of grammar, Jeanne and her brother regain their ability to speak.

The blurb on the back of the book compares it to The Little Prince, and it does have distinct similarities. Both books are about discovering the wonders of life. It also reminded me of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Aside from having that indescribable quality common to all the French literature I've read, Jeanne's voice reminded me a lot of Paloma's in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Two smart, matter-of-fact preteen girls.

I can see this being assigned in a French class, because it does a very good job of explaining basic French grammar. This is occasionally odd in translation, because the gender of words is part of the story and English words have no gender. The translation is never particularly jarring, though.

I loved this. It's short, sweet, French, grammatical, and wonderful. My favourite bit was the answer to the question, "What is a great writer?":

"Someone who, with no regard for trends and modes, constructs sentences solely to help him explore truth."

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