Where Modern Languages can still take you: Catching up on Graduations in 2022
In June 2022 teaching staff in Modern Languages finally caught up with our graduates from 2020. Alessia, Alice and I spent several joyful hours with those who had studied Italian as part of their degree, most often alongside a range of other languages. It felt like a long time since that dreadful March 2020 when we had last seen them, just before life as we knew it was blasted apart by the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, at least as far as education was concerned, that cohort of students were the lucky ones. They had nearly made it through university without anything resembling an online lesson. It was the year after that we were really to descend into the madness of endless hours on Zoom, with cameras off or on, wondering who on earth that student using their Mum’s Zoom account was. Nonetheless, what characterized those early days in March 2020 was total disorientation for students and staff, not the ideal experience just as you are about to embark on final exams. The sudden intimacy of seeing students or staff you have always seen in a neutral classroom sitting in their home environment, family figures and pets often hovering around us, altered the chemistry of how we related as humans. Rather than driving us apart, it brought us closer, strengthening our usual bond with students, and explains in part why we were so moved to see them in person two years later.
In the graduation address, invited speaker, alumnus and sports commentator Rob Walker entertained us with his breathless recreation of the Tokyo mens’ 100 m commentary. But he also reminded us that what is most important about university are the friendships you forge there; friendships that can last you a lifetime and carry you through all life’s major events. How many of us have fallen back on those friendships these last two years? I certainly have, and I hope for our students that they get to keep those bonds too. One of the nicest things about meeting up again is to see how many are still in close contact, or even still living together.
‘So, what are your plans for the… ehm… summer?’. Normally as staff we tend to be quite cautious, in the graduation get-together that follows right after final exams, in enquiring about future plans. No-one wants to add to the high anxiety that often accompanies the big question: What am I going to do with my life? At that age I felt like what I did next would determine everything, and forgot the maxim that life, if we’re lucky, is long and offers us many potential new turns, and even u-turns. This time, however, not only did we meet old friends, but different people. These graduates were forged through two years of experience and experimentation in the ‘real world’ during a moment of global crisis. It had clearly marked them and shaped them dramatically. Sometimes we stood open-mouthed at their maturity and confidence, but it was the diversity of their work choices that reminded us why Modern Languages is such a positive door-opener. The fields of work our 2020 graduates are currently engaged include: recruitment, financial services, communications for Visa, data analysis, interior decorating for an international company, subtitling for ITV, further study in translation, but also in speech and language therapy. It is encouraging to know that at least seven of the eighteen students we met with are going on to teach Modern Languages in schools, often introducing Italian onto the curriculum or via a film club. We can’t wait to meet the 2021 graduates! Watch this space for an update.
Danielle Hipkins (with Alice Farris and Alessia Risi)
A Flâneur on campus
The original understanding of a ‘flâneur’ was an upperclass 19th century Parisian man who sought to wander the streets of Haussmann’s new Paris relishing in its rhythms.
Being a 17 year old work experience student I am neither male, upperclass or even Parisian, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still relish. As, to my understanding, to ‘flâneur’ (or should that be flânerie? Or fleurinate?) is to people watch, basically. Earwig. Good old fashioned ‘nosy parkering’.
I’m here visiting Exeter University French Department for the week. I had never been to this university before, didn’t know the history, didn’t know the geography, didn’t know anybody. Or anything. I was clueless. A nosey country girl in the city.
But, boy did I learn! In one lecture I was taught about Francois Mauriac’s novel Thérèse Desqueroux which follows the smothering married life of a woman in the 1920s. A wife trapped by the bars of rain, bars of pine and bars of stubborn traditional etiquette.
In many ways, for this week, I was that wife. Similarly grappling with the bars of stubborn university etiquette. I, the visitor. The newcomer.
The complex language of student etiquette is more foreign to me than the degree level french in which I was to be taught.
For example, I’ve never seen so many gender neutral toilets, and let alone use one! And what is this place Timepiece everyone was talking about…?
My first lecture ‘experience’ was by Fiona Cox. I learnt about the way in which Patrick Modiano is haunted by the spectral atmosphere of Paris in his novel Dora Bruder. This biography is an enigmatic blend of the past and the present, a confrontation of trauma – defined by two isolated concepts; one related to place, the other, observation. Nobel laureate, Modiano suggests that some places, some streets are imbued with the legacy of those who had been there before. In his words, “On se dit qu’au moins les lieux gardent une légère empreinte des personnes qui les ont
These words resonate most on analysing the ‘Reflected Vision’ art installation on the Streatham campus. It’s a multidimensional sculpture that reflects the rich multicultural past, and present of Exeter University.
Which got me thinking about its future. It’s a profound notion that no matter how transient a student’s life may be at Exeter, somehow somewhere, someplace, they leave a legacy or even just merely a mark. A shadow of themselves here.
But then what does that mean for me? I am after all just, what Virginia Woolf described as, the ‘street haunter’, a ‘flâneuse’, an outside observer, desperate to know more. Without a shadow of a doubt I can see the enjoyment, the education, and the pleasure that can be gained from within these hallowed Exeter walls. So all I can say is, thank you for letting this 19th century Parisian in. You’ve opened my mind to how learning should be done. Inspired.
Kitty Fisher – Colyton Grammar School
Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables
Les Misérables achieved global success and fame as soon as it was published. In exile on Guernsey Hugo would receive fan mail and begging letters from all around the world. The popularity of the work has never dimmed; indeed it has been one of the most filmed and adapted works of all time. The latest film entitled Les Misérables to come out of France is of particular significance, since it was directed by Ladj Ly, the Mali-born French film-maker, who comes from the banlieues in which he set his work. It is by no means an adaptation of Hugo’s book; rather, it is a response to it which, at first sight, has only a few, rather tenuous connections. The strongest of these is that Ly sets the film in Montfermeil, now one of the banlieues in Paris that is inhabited predominantly by those of African heritage, who are, for the most part, poor. We are in the same world as that depicted by Kassovitz in La Haine and, twenty five years after that exploded onto our screens, the tensions are as febrile as they ever were. In literary terms, however, Montfermeil evokes memories of Cosette’s ordeal at the hands of the Thénardiers, whose inn was located in Montfermeil, at that time a village not far from Paris. Then, as now, it was a place inhabited by les misérables; all that has changed is the demographic that represent the outsiders, the wretched within France. Ruiz, a policeman and one of the main characters in Ly’s film, observes laconically that not much has changed, whereupon his colleague observes that Cosette would now be called ‘Causefe’ and Gavroche ‘Gaveroche’.
The film opens with a vision of the twenty-first century Parisian urchins triumphantly celebrating France’s victory in the 2018 World Cup. A young, black boy strides forth, swathed in a tricolore, and grinning triumphantly. Blink for a moment, and you could almost be looking at the exultant Gavroche standing boldly on the barricades, hailed with encouraging yells and whooping. (It is worth noting that the shooting of Gavroche foreshadows the way in which the twenty-first century police end up accidentally shooting a young black boy, Issa, in Ly’s film.) The opening scene welcomes these black children into the national celebrations – they experience fraternité, as they speak excitedly about the possibility of their heroes such as Mbappé scoring a goal. Football offers an arena where the young people in France’s black community can rejoice in the successes of their own. They happily join in the singing of la Marseillaise, the bloodthirsty brutality of which is highlighted through being sung at an event of national celebration and cheer.
As the black children return from the football match to their homes in the banlieues the happiness and the optimism immediately leaches from the film. They live in a world that is scarred by poverty and in a constant state of alert, poised for visits from and tensions with the police. The film focusses in particular on a trio of policemen who periodically visit the banlieues, both inflaming the tensions longterm, while cracking down hard on them as short-term measures. As a newcomer to the force the policeman Ruiz becomes part of a team that monitors tensions in Montfermeil, and works with Chris, a goading, mean-spirited bully and Gwada who tolerates the way in which Chris targets certain demographics. It is Chris who insists on stopping the car, so that he can go and harass a group of black teenage girls, who are simply waiting for a bus at the bus-stop. When one of them films the harassment as evidence, he smashes her mobile phone. Though he lacks the integrity and self-discipline of Javert, his role of difficult, antagonistic policeman echoes Javert’s capacity to pursue and to hound Jean Valjean. And the targetting of the teenage girls, whose only crime was the colour of their skin, reminds us that nineteenth-century France could be just as gratuitously unjust, as is evidenced at Champmathieu’s trial, when a court official observed that: ‘Je ne sais plus trop son nom. En voilà un qui vous a une mine de bandit. Rien que pour avoir cette figure-là, je l’enverrais aux galères.’ (206). (I can’t quite remember his name any more. But he looks like a brigand, that one. I’d send him to the galleys just for having that face.) Then, as now, the wrong appearance is enough to make individuals vulnerable to arrest. Furthermore, as Gwada and Chris introduce Ruiz to the area, they point out that one of the problems besetting the region is the number of Nigerian prostitutes, reminding us that ‘la déchéance de la femme par la faim’ (the fall of women through hunger) remains one of the evils of the twenty-first century, just as it had been identified by Hugo as one of the core failures of the nineteenth century also.
Les Misérables is a text that is obsessed with falling – there is the moral fall of Jean Valjean from grace, indicated by the title of an early section in the novel ‘La Chute’ (The Fall), which anticipates his literal fall from a ship into the sea; we see Fantine’s fall into prostitution, and Javert’s fall into the Seine, when he commits suicide. Hugo employs the imagery of precipices and vertigo throughout to evoke heart-stopping fear or the annihilating terror of absolute abandonment within the universe or, as in the case of Fantine, the corrosive anxiety of falling so far into poverty that it will prove impossible ever to climb back up and build a life to herself or for her child. ‘Vertige’ ‘escarpements’ ‘chute’ (Vertigo, steep slopes, fall) are words that recur time and time again, highlighting the fragile footing that les misérables have within the world. Ly cleverly mirrors the vertigo within Hugo’s work by situating chunks of the film up on the rooftops, and by following the loops and swoops of a drone, through which we can acquire a bird’s-eye view of the city. Such a vision looks back not only to Les Misérables, but also to Notre Dame de Paris and its famous evocation of Paris in the chapter entitled: ‘Paris à vol d’oiseau’ (A bird’s eye view of Paris). The arrival of the circus in Ly’s film offers an air of carnival that also recalls Notre Dame.
The echoes of Hugo’s works are fleeting yet pervasive. Apart from the fact that the school in Montfermeil is named after Victor Hugo, and Ruiz is thereby prompted to comment on the history of Montfermeil in Les Misérables, we have to wait until the end of the film for a direct reference. The film closes with a close-up of Hugo’s words: ‘Mes amis, retenez bien ceci. Il n’y a ni mauvaises herbes, ni mauvais hommes.Il n’y a que de mauvais cultivateurs.’ (My friends, take heed to what I am going to tell you. There is no such thing as a bad weed, or a bad man. There are simply bad cultivators.) But the overlaying with Hugolian imagery of a story set in the Parisian suburbs inhabited primarily by black people serves as a useful reminder of the fact that Hugo explicitly identifies within Les Misérables with a black man, when he names one of Enjolras’s allies ‘Homère: Hogu nègre.’ The sobriquet is important because it indicates Hugo’s epic ambitions – his epic is the culmination of a tradition extending from Homer to Hugo himself, but also because it enables Hugo to identify with a particular demographic, already vulnerable to exclusion and brutal treatment. Later in the book he indicates that the anguish of les misérables would be experienced amongst peoples and in lands far distant from the France that he evokes, when Thénardier announces that he is going to seek his fortune in America as a slave trader. By opening doors within his novel for such communities Hugo facilitated Ladj Ly’s response, a work depicting communities, technology and weapons that would have been utterly alien to him, even as the conflicts and tensions would have been all too chillingly familiar.
Black History is widely disputed; sometimes, even the most canonical narratives of Black lives are challenged and critiqued. The autobiographical Narrative of the great abolitionist campaigner Frederick Douglass has been contested by some historians for not going far enough in its condemnation of the American state for tolerating slavery; the life story of the poet (and freed slave) Phyllis Wheatley was appropriated and re-told by a white woman fifty years after Phyllis’ death. Yet other historically important Black life stories are not even read today, let alone critiqued. Nancy Prince, although less well-known today than Douglass or Wheatley, told her astonishing life story in her own words while opening a window onto St Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century. Her Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs Nancy Prince (1850) is still fresh and relevant today, as a page from Black history and as an unexpected view upon Russian history and culture. Extraordinarily, this uneducated Black woman from Massachusetts lived in Russia for nine years (and six months) between 1824 and 1833. She knew two Russian Tsars, or Emperors, and their wives personally. Later in life, after her husband’s death, Nancy travelled in Jamaica, then became a teacher in her native New England, finally writing her memoirs in order to share her inspiring experience and keep food on her table.
Almost two hundred years ago, Nancy Gardner Prince arrived in St Petersburg with her husband, Nero Prince. Nancy was born free in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1799, making her the same age as the poet Aleksandr Pushkin. Since her family was poor, she spent her young adulthood – after her stepfather’s death – doing menial work to support her mother and six younger siblings. Nero had been born in Marlborough, in England; he signed on with a merchant seaman and visited America and Russia several times. A Russian noblewoman hired him as a servant; later, he was given a role on the staff of the Tsar in St Petersburg. This was why Nero returned to the city in 1824, bringing Nancy. His new wife reported her first meeting with his employers at one of the Imperial palaces:
As we passed through the beautiful hall, a door was opened by two colored men in official dress. The Emperor Alexander stood on his throne, in his royal apparel. The throne is circular, elevated two steps from the floor, and covered with scarlet velvet, tasseled with gold; as I entered, the Emperor stepped forward with great politeness and condescension, and welcomed me, and asked several questions; he then accompanied us to the Empress Elizabeth; she stood in her dignity, and received me in the same manner the Emperor had. They presented me with a watch, &c.
Nancy notes: ‘there was no prejudice against color’. Later she describes Russian social conditions in the countryside: ‘The village houses are built of logs corked with oakum, where the peasants reside. This class of people till the land, most of them are slaves and are very degraded. The rich own the poor, but they are not suffered to separate families or sell them off the soil. All are subject to the Emperor, and no nobleman can leave without his permission’. It’s hard not to read comments such as these as implicit critiques of slavery back home in America, where families were routinely separated (like the infant Frederick Douglass from his mother) or sold on to distant farms.
Nancy’s stay in Russia was not all about critical race theory, however. She also gives us enthralling spectator portraits of two major historical events: the Decembrist rebellion of 1825, when a group of liberal Russian officers refused to accept the inauguration of the new Tsar, Nikolai I. In December 1825, they protested in Senate Square, St Petersburg, in favour of the Tsar’s brother, Konstantin; they also demanded a constitutional monarchy and an end to the practice of owning workers and peasants as ‘serfs’ (more soon on the difference between serfs and slaves). Their rebellion was firmly put down within a day, and the ringleaders and their families were executed or sent into Siberian exile. Nancy describes the excitement of that long December afternoon of insurrection, although she gets some details wrong (the Decembrists’ wives were not flogged, and no-one was burned on the scaffold). Even more vivid is her account of surviving the great St Petersburg flood of 1824, when the River Neva burst its banks, drowning an estimated 700 people, mostly in the poorer parts of the city where houses were flimsier (although the whole city was submerged as the waters rose by almost four metres). Most students of Russian learn about this flood when they read (in Russian or English) Aleksandr Pushkin’s famous 1833 poem The Bronze Horseman, in which his hero Evgenii survives by clinging to a stone lion (Evgenii’s fiancée is not so fortunate). Pushkin was not an eyewitness to the catastrophe, but Nancy was. Here is her story:
The morning of this day was fair; there was a high wind. Mr Prince went early to the palace, as it was his turn to serve; our children boarders were gone to school; our servant had gone of an errand. I heard a cry, and to my astonishment, when I looked out to see what was the matter, the waters covered the earth. I had not then learned the language, but I beckoned to the people to come in. The waters continued to rise until 10 o’clock, A.M. The waters were then within two inches of my window, when they ebbed and went out as fast as they had come in, leaving to our view a dreadful sight. The people who came into my house for their safety retired, and I was left alone. At four o’clock in the afternoon, there was darkness that might be felt, such as I had never experienced before. [At 10pm that day…] I then took a lantern, and started to go to a neighbor’s […]. I made my way through a long yard, over the bodies of men and beasts, and when opposite their gate I sunk; I made one grasp, and the earth gave away; I grasped again, and fortunately got hold of the leg of a horse, that had been drowned. I drew myself up, covered with mire, and made my way a little further, when I was knocked down by striking against a boat, that had been washed up and left by the retiring waters; and as I had lost my lantern, I was obliged to grope my way as I could, and feeling along the wall, I at last found the door that I aimed at. […The next day] I went to view the pit into which I had sunk. It was large enough to hold a dozen like myself, where the earth had caved in. Had not the horse been there, I should never again have seen the light of day, and no one would have known my fate. Thus through the providence of God, I escaped from the flood and the pit.
(The poet Pushkin was also Black; you can read more about his heritage here.) Although Nancy had developed a thriving business as a childminder and as a seamstress of high-quality baby linen (the TotsBots of her day, one might imagine – even Empress Aleksandra Federovna (left) ordered Nancy’s layettes for the little Grand Dukes and Duchesses), she couldn’t adjust to the cold, damp northern climate. She decided to leave St Petersburg and Russia for good in August 1833; by October, she was back in Boston. Her husband planned to remain another two years ‘to accumulate a little property […] but death took him away’. Nancy never married again or had children of her own, but her own extraordinary life and her social history of Russia and other nations keeps her memory alive. You can read more about her life here.
Arguably, Nancy oversimplified the similarity between Black slaves in America and Russian serfs. Their legal status was different: both were chattels (owned by other people), but serfs, unlike slaves, had legal status. They were responsible under the law for their own behaviour; they could (in some cases) sign contracts; and they even paid taxes.* Slavery was abolished in Russia under Tsar Peter I (the Great) in the 1720s, but at the same time serfs’ legal rights (including freedom of movement) became much more restricted. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were 22 million serfs in Russian – more than one-third of the population. (Compare the slave population of 3,953,762 in the US estimated by the 1860 census.) Tsar Aleksandr II finally abolished serfdom in 1861, but peasants continued to be economically disadvantaged (with heavy debts to their former owners) and some peasants were even (until 1907) legally obliged to remain on the farms where they had been born. Contrast President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 which formally ended all slavery in America. As with Russia’s serfs, however, official and unofficial restrictions on the lives and legal rights of former slaves lingered on perniciously. Clearly, there was enough shared experience – and shared injustice – between American slaves and Russian serfs to make the Russian ruling classes uncomfortable, despite the lack of ‘prejudice against color’ that Nancy noted. America abolitionism was a political issue in the Russian Empire because the potential emancipation of one oppressed group would signal that the serfs, too, needed to be freed. This was, as John MacKay argues, probably why Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so hotly discussed by Russian writers and intellectuals throughout that decade, and also why a Russian translation failed to appear until 1857 – much later than translations into other European languages (including Hungarian).** Like Nancy Prince, the Russian censors considered the parallels between slavery and serfdom to be too close for comfort.
In today’s Russia, a young female novelist called Evgeniia Nekrasova is writing a novel called Kozha (Skin). She is publishing the book in serial instalments, just as many nineteenth-century novelists, except that her book is appearing online – you have to subscribe to the BookMate platform to read her it. Nekrasova’s Skin tells the story of a young female Black slave, Hope, and a female serf called Domna, whose paths cross in nineteenth-century Russia. The two women discover that they can ‘exchange skins’ – to find out what that means, you’ll have to sign up to BookMate. As a white Russian woman, Nekrasova is aware that her novel might appear exploitative or ignorant; she insists, however, that ‘literature by Black women seems much closer to me, as a Russian-speaking female reader and writer, than 97% of all Russian literature’. According to Nekrasova, the collective female experience of oppression in patriarchal society gives her insight into the collective history of slavery – reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved inspired her to write about a Black slave. Nekrasova also studied Nancy Prince’s Narrative to inform Hope’s impressions of Tsarist Russia. Whether or not Nekrasova’s novel is successful, no doubt Nancy Prince would be happy that she is still inspiring Russians to think in creative, intersectional ways about Black history – and about their own…
Dr. Muireann Maguire, Senior Lecturer in Russian
*For more on the differences between (and co-existence of) slavery and serfdom in Russia, see Ralph Hellie, ‘Slavery and Serfdom in Russia’, in A Companion to Russian History, ed. by Abbott Gleason (Blackwell, 2009), pp. 105-20.
**See John MacKay’s True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).