Source File: cat.cs004.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 4

The Hidden French in Willa Cather's English

One of the French translators of Willa Cather, Marc Chenetier, once remarked playfully that he found translating Cather's work relatively easy because her language was almost like French to begin with. In saying so he was modestly putting aside his talent for rendering Cather's work faithfully in his beautiful translations but he also captured an essential characteristic of Cather's style, one that I wish to analyze here. Keeping in mind that Cather taught Latin, read French literature (both past and contemporary) in French,[1] and had a French cook who hardly spoke English, read the beginning of the chapter entitled "Hidden Water" in Death Comes for the Archbishop:

An hour later, as darkness came over the sand-hills, the young Bishop was seated at supper in the mother-house of this Mexican settlement—which, he learned, was appropriately called Agua Secreta, Hidden Water. At the table with him were his host, an old man called Benito, the oldest son, and two grandsons. The old man was a widower, and his daughter, Josepha, the girl who had run to meet the Bishop at the stream, was his housekeeper. Their supper was a pot of frijoles cooked with meat, bread and goat's milk, fresh cheese and ripe apples.

From the moment he entered this room with its thick white-washed adobe walls, Father Latour had felt a kind of peace about it. In its bareness and simplicity there was something comely, as there was about the serious girl who had placed their food before them and who now stood in the shadows against the wall, her eager eyes fixed upon his face. He found himself very much at home with the four dark-headed men who sat beside him in the candle-light. Their manners were gentle, their voices low and agreeable. When he said grace before meat, the men had knelt on the floor beside the table. (Later Novels 290)[2]

This beginning refers to the Spanish culture rather than to the French one. It is therefore foreign to an American reader as well as to Latour and introduces a series of linguistic displacements from English to Latinate languages. As a former teacher of Latin, Cather was well-equipped to be aware of the common root the French and Spanish languages share. In choosing to place the setting in a Spanish settlement first, she has the readers discover the American countryside through the eyes of some Spanish settlers, as they are themselves observed by a Frenchman, and her language reflects the Latinate perception of the world.

The English translation of the Spanish "Agua Secreta" comes after the original expression because it conveys only a vague idea of the place. The Latin etymology is secretus and means more than the word "hidden." Primarily, it means "separate, distinct," and then "isolated, secluded," and finally, "secret, hidden." The Spanish word, in which the Latin root still resonates, conveys this meaning of an isolated place, which is lost in the English translation. This is probably what motivated Cather when she gave the original version of the name first and then drew her readers' attention to it with her translation. She thereby acknowledges the validity of the Spanish settlers' vision of the American landscape and her translation underlines the fact that each language betrays one particular perception of reality.

From the prologue in Death Comes for the Archbishop, we know that the choice of a language is crucial, as is the fluency in any foreign language, for missionaries. When the cardinals meet in Rome, the language they use conveys a different orientation from their previous use of Latin as a spoken language, "The language spoken was French—the time had already gone by when Cardinals could conveniently discuss contemporary matters in Latin" (Later Novels 278). And in the course of the novel, even if the priests learn Spanish and English, they remain French in their outlook on the world around them. Here, I will attempt to trace the remnants of French that can sometimes be heard in the English the narrator uses to convey another vision of the New World.

Cather, needless to say, did not write in faulty English nor in a form of English that may sound odd to a native speaker. On the contrary, she plays the crafty game of writing in perfectly correct English that still manages to "sound" French or Latinate. In the passage quoted above, Spanish compensates for the lack of differentiation between genders in English. Indeed, just as the young woman does not sit down at table with the men, gender roles are clearly marked linguistically by the masculine "o" ending of the name "Benito" and the feminine "a" of "Josepha." The same gender marker can be found in the name of the place, Agua Secreta, whereas the gender difference disappears in the English translation of "water"—where the"-er" ending is the same, independently of gender, in such words as "daughter," "housekeeper," and "widower." However, the masculine ending in "o" seems to be disseminated in the assonances in "o" that surround the masculine crowd in the family, "his host, an old man called Benito, the oldest son, and two grandsons" (290). The Germanic root of the word "son" makes this vowel parallelism possible between the two languages. The feminine "a" is neutralized into the subsuming "-er" ending, whereas the masculine "o" persists in an alliterative form. This linguistic framework provides a representation of the sexual roles in the microcosm of Agua Secreta, where a small Spanish society lives in seclusion in the midst of another country.

In this old village the past has been preserved without the slightest change, enshrined as a religion, set out of time and transmitted by the elders in an act of memory. There are "old men trying to remember their catechism to teach their grandchildren" (294). What matters here is that their faith has been transmitted in the forms it had before the French Revolution: "Benito did not know what year his grandfather had settled here.. . . 'But it was soon after the time when the French killed their king. My grandfather had heard talk of that before he left home, and used to tell us boys about it when he was an old man' " (291). The connection with the Old Regime in France is made through storytelling. And reading the passage as if the story told here had something to do with French prose, we will notice how closely its rhythm resembles that of classical seventeenth-century French prose.

Indeed, the style of the passage seems to be an invitation to mark the rhythm of the sentences as in French poetry or prose, in which every syllable is a unit independent of any stresses, while taking into account punctuation marks such as the comma. It sounds as if Cather flattened out the stresses of the English language the better to emphasize the syllabic and syntactic rhythm of her prose. In "A Chance Meeting" (published in Not Under Forty [1936]), as Cather remembers her meeting with Flaubert's niece, she is as sensitive to the rhythm of Flaubert's sentence as his niece is (and this proves that she read his work in French): "When I happened to speak of the splendid final sentence of Hérodias, where the fall of the syllables is so suggestive of the hurrying footsteps of John's disciples, carrying away with them their prophet's severed head, she repeated that sentence softly, 'Comme elle était tres lourde, ils la portaient al-ter-na-tiv-e-ment' " (Stories 823-24).

Her commas often take all the importance of a caesura in French verse, for example, in binary sentences: "From the moment he entered this room with its thick whitewashed adobe walls, Father Latour had felt a kind of peace about it." The sentence makes this peace heard in the stability in the sequence of the one- or two-syllable words in the sentence. Several sentences present a similar structure: "Their manners were gentle, their voices low and agreeable. When he said grace before meat, the men had knelt on the floor beside the table." There are six syllables in the first half of the first sentence and twelve in the second half of the second sentence. This rhythm is not lost in the French translation since the sentence almost becomes an alexandrine (a twelve-syllable line, with the caesura usually after the sixth): "Leurs gestes étaient doux, leurs voix basses et plaisantes"(La Mort 40). And the following sentence in translation is an alexandrine,with the caesura in the middle: "Leur colonie, dit-il, était bien peu connue." Here again, in the English original as well as in the translation, the regular rhythm and the binary structure of the sentences convey an impression of peace in the whole passage. If Cather's text translates so well into French, it is because the rhythm of her prose and her syntactic structures often coincide with their French equivalent, which is that of the seventeenth- century aesthetics and literature dear to Father Latour.

The priest enjoys reading his favorite authors again and again—Madame de Sévigné, Pascal, and St. Augustine, whose Confessions were widely read in the seventeenth century (and later) in translation by Arnauld d'Andilly (1649-71). "Bernard read aloud to him the rest of the morning; St. Augustine, or the letters of Madame de Sévigné, or his favorite Pascal" (444). The common point shared by these three authors is that they profess an ideal simplification of style and narrative truth. St. Augustine states in the Confessions, "How his pride gave him a disgust for the Scripture, because of the simplicity of its style" (trans. d'Andilly 96).[3] And St. Augustine explains his first reaction when reading the Bible: "I was not able to penetrate such sublime secrets, neither to belittle myself to appreciate its elocution, which is simple and humble. . . . In my pride I scorned its simplicity, and my eyes were not clear-sighted or piercing enough to discover its secret beauty" (96).[4] In the course of his confessions, St. Augustine illustrates his conversion from an oratory style to his search for biblical truth in a simple style devoid of pride. In a similar way, although in a very different context, Madame de Sévigné pays a compliment to her daughter on the style of her letters: "Your words only serve the purpose of making yourself clear; and in this noble simplicity, they are endowed with a power one can not resist"(74).[5] As for Pascal, the clarity and simplicity of his style are legendary for a philosopher. His writings on "The Art of Persuasion" must have been on Cather's mind when she wrote, "The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification" (Stories 836). Although strictly speaking it is unproven, it seems highly probable that Cather had read more than just Les Pensées by Pascal, as she draws a lot from his other works and, in particular, from his texts relating his scientific discoveries.[6] (Pascal proved the existence of the vacuum in physics, and Cather uses his biography and personal writings extensively to build up the Pascalian character, Tom Outland, in The Professor's House, for example (Palleau-Papin). In any case, she was familiar with the seventeenth-century ideology and rhetoric of the group called Port-Royal, in which Pascal was one of the most famous figures.) In "Concerning the Art of Persuasion," Pascal writes: "The best books are those which readers believe they could have written. Nature, which alone is good, is quite familiar and common. Hence I do not doubt at all that these rules, being true, must be simple, naive, and natural as they are. . .. I should like to call them humble, common, familiar. These names suit them better" (211).

The simplicity of Cather's style is connected with her highly classical conception of the French language, in which she sees an unencumbered lightness, as she characterizes it in her expression "the light and elastic mesh of the French tongue" (Death, 444). A process of narrative simplification is certainly at work in the passage with which I began. The pastoral simplicity of the meal is suggested in the predictability of the enumeration in pairs, "Their supper was a pot of frijoles cooked with meat, bread and goat's milk, fresh cheese and ripe apples" (290). The peaceful binary rhythm of this sentence echoes that of the whole passage. And as far as the syntax goes, it is also highly simplified and therefore in keeping with seventeenth-century French aesthetics.

In this passage Cather's unencumbered syntax makes it easier to compare the English text to its French translation and reach certain conclusions regarding her style. In most cases her syntax does not present any strictly English structure that would be difficult to translate literally into French, using the same grammatical framework. The paragraph quoted above, describing the settlement of Agua Secreta, translates into the same groups of words of the same grammatical function in French. To take but one example, the following sentence presents the traditional structure of a subject, a verb, and complements, with the time and place complements on either side of the subject-verb group and a relative clause ending the sentence: "An hour later, as darkness came over the sand-hills, the young Bishop was seated at supper in the mother-house of this Mexican settlement—which, he learned, was appropriately called Agua Secreta, Hidden Water" (290). This grammatical structure is kept word for word in the French translation: "Une heure plus tard, alors que l'obscurité envahissait les dunes, le jeune évêque était assis à souper dans la maison mère de cette colonie mexicaine, qui, apprit-il, s'appelait justement Agua Secreta, I'Eau Cachée" (La Mort 39).

Stretching the comparison, it sounds as if Cather avoided the most idiomatic structures of the English language and conformed her expression to its French equivalent, or the structures that both languages share. According to the comparative linguist Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher, "the proportion of main, independent or subordinate clauses is not the same in the two languages" (111). She explains how "subordinate or adjunct elements" and relative clauses in French are often "turned into main clauses" in English (113-14). Usually an English text and its French translation present a difference in the order the adjunct elements are placed regarding the main clause, whereas in Cather's case, the order is the same because mainly postpositions and antepositions, which do not disturb the sentence structure in either language, are used.[7] Occasionally Cather will include a discreet interpolated or incidental clause within a main clause, which is a process slightly more common in French than in English; she will often use antepositions and accumulate elements at the opening of the sentence, which is common in French and tolerated in English; and finally, she will use postpositions, common in both languages, in English in particular. "If in English postposition is generally preferable to anteposition, on the other hand anteposition is preferable to imbrication, which delays the introduction of the main clause but does not dismantle it"(Guillemin-Flesher 125). In the sentence studied here, there are two antepositions ("An hour later, / as darkness came over the sand-hills,"), two postpositions ("which . . . was appropriately called Agua Secreta, / Hidden Water"), and one brief imbrication, discreet enough not to dismantle the sentence ("—which, he learned, was appropriately called ..." [italics mine]). This imbrication ("he learned") interrupts the structure of the sentence in English, which is stressed by the use of the dash introducing the relative clause with the adjunct elements. The dash is a way to stress the separation between the clause and the intrusive expression, making it more acceptable in English. Finally, it is as if Cather were following a middle course between both languages, almost excluding from her use of English the structures that do not translate into French easily or as if the French translation were already part of the original text, as a negative image waiting to be developed.

Reading Death Comes for the Archbishop or Shadows on the Rockcould be an exercise in sharpening our perception of what Henry James calls"a faint shade of strangeness" in The American: "Here and there Madame de Cintré's utterance had a faint shade of strangeness, but at the end often minutes Newman found himself waiting for these soft roughnesses. He enjoyed and he marveled to see that gross thing, error, brought down to so fine a point" (124). It is hardly a coincidence that this novel is mentioned, albeit in another context, in The Professor's House.[8] Cather plays with her mother tongue as if she had a new ear for it, sensitive to all its shades and even strangenesses, as if she were transcribing it, rather than translating, from another language. The philosopher and critic Gilles Deleuze explains the genesis of one language from within another:

It is neither a case of bilinguism nor multilinguism. One may mix two languages, going back and forth from one to the other, and yet either one will still be a homogeneously balanced system and mix words only. But this is not how great writers proceed. . . . They do not mix two languages, not even a minor and a major language, even though many of them are part of a minority as a sign of their vocation. Rather, what they do is invent a minor usage of the major language in which they express themselves exclusively: they set this language to a minor key, as in music the minor mode stands for dynamic combinations in perpetual imbalance. . . . One might as well say that a great writer is always a foreigner in the language he uses, even if it is his native tongue. (137-38)

One cannot say that Cather mixes both languages but she invents a transposition of English in the minor key of the classic French writers she mentions in her text. The French missionaries Cather's narrator often uses as focalisers transfer their cultural and linguistic heritage onto the country they discover. Deleuze believes that "what is exceptional in American literature is that its writers have the faculty of telling their own memories as those of a universal people made up of immigrants from all countries." Every American writer submits English to certain linguistic transformations that take one step further the process of "inventing a new universality (14, 93).

It is as if a "ghost" language (Deleuze 149) ran beneath Cather's English, enabling her to convey another vision of the New World through the minor mode of the French language, even for readers who do not speak any French, as Peter, in Cather's story by the same name, understands the language of Sarah Bernhardt in spite of the language barrier: "He did not know French, and could not understand a word she said, but it seemed to him that she must be talking the music of Chopin" (Collected Short Fiction 542). In the music of her prose, Cather has brought English closer to the French rhythm and syntax to transcribe a North American reality. When Vaillant says to Latour, "During your absence I have found how particularly precious is that shrine to all Catholics in New Mexico" (emphasis mine 304), the basic structure of his sentence sounds predominantly French compared to what would be the more "normal" English formulation: "I have found how particularly precious that shrine is to all Catholics in New Mexico." Similarly, the following sentence shows a structure that is fairly rare in English, though common in French,"His wooden bird he had bought from an old man" (329). The translation of this sentence sounds very natural in French, "Cet oiseau de bois, le Padre I'avait acheté" (La Mort 110). Or again, the following question is more familiar in French; the intonation and the question mark alone can be enough to indicate a question form in an affirmative sentence, as when Noël Pommier asks Jacques, in Shadows on the Rock, "You will be very content with fine new shoes, my boy?" (Later Novels 514). The more correct interrogative form in English would be, "Will you be happy with your new shoes, my boy?" In writing like this, according to Deleuze's analysis, Willa Cather follows the tradition of the great American writers who, like Melville in Moby Dick,"invent a foreign language which runs through the English language, and carries it along—it is the OUTLANDISH, or the Deterritorialized, the language of the Whale" (93). And yet Cather's English, like Melville's, is perfectly correct English but English taken to a limit defined by each author.

As for the vocabulary, Cather injects French words or passages into Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock in particular, thereby conveying a vision of the French culture linguistically. For example, Latour says to Vaillant, apropos their difficult transaction with Madame Olivares to get her to confess her age in public, "I don't think I ever assisted at anything so cruel" (394). This seems to be a word-for-word translation from the French "assister à," whereas the usual English translation of this expression would be "I ever witnessed" or "saw" or "attended"—all the more so that the English meaning of "assisting," although possible here (because Father Latour lends a hand to influence the lady), is not as probable as the meaning of the French "assister." Another kind of example can be found in Shadows on the Rock: "she made the ménage for her father" (469). This phrase is translated directly, yet partially, from the French "faire le ménage," instead of the more correct "did the cleaning."

The narrator seems to be playing with the various meanings of a word, according to the language in which it is understood. The word "citron," for example, as it is used in the description of the glass fruits: "Between the tall silver candlesticks stood a crystal bowl full of glowing fruits of coloured glass: purple figs, yellow-green grapes with gold vine-leaves, apricots, nectarines, and a dark citron stuck up endwise among the grapes"(501). The words "figs," "apricots," and "nectarines" are very close to their equivalent in French, even in the spelling. Under the effect of accumulation of French words this enumeration produces and in the francophile context of the novel, in which many French words are not even italicized, one may hesitate when coming across the word "citron." Does it have the English meaning of "a yellow, thick-skinned fruit resembling a lime or lemon but larger and less acid" (Webster's New Universal Unabridged), or the French meaning of a lemon? The context hardly clarifies this, as the Saracens who made the glass fruit were familiar with both the English meaning and the French. Only its color could be an indication as to the right meaning since the English citron may be darker than the lemon. The North American meaning of the word sounds less probable here considering the eastern origin of the fruit. And yet, in her other fictions Cather certainly means it to be the North American melon that is the size of a large apple and dark green in color and can be made into sweet pickle. Cather may not have known that citron melons were exclusively North American and would not have been represented in glass fruits by the Saracens.[9] However, beyond any possible mistake, the effect of this word in the enumeration of the glass fruits is that of a linguistic flow between the different meanings, in which the word seems to fluctuate from one language to another, giving a particular depth to the linguistic sign. Cather invites the reader to decipher her slight variations from a strict usage of the English language to grasp the new freedom she breathes into her American expression.

Another passage in Shadows on the Rock presents a more intricate switch from English into French. It begins with the description of Jacques Gaux, who is "a chunky, rather clumsy little boy of six, unkept and uncared for, dressed in a pair of old sailor's breeches, cut off in the leg for him and making a great bulk of loose cloth about his thighs. His ragged jacket was as much too tight as the trousers were too loose, and this gave him the figure of a salt-shaker" (495). As far as the story goes, the old breeches that give him the ridiculous "figure of a salt-shaker" probably come from the sailors who go to his mother's house. And from a linguistic point of view, the very existence of the boy is inscribed in his resemblance to a "salt-shaker," as the narrator immediately makes clear in the rest of her description of Jacques's family: "Antoinette was Canadian-born; her mother had been one of 'the King's Girls,' as they were called. Thirty years ago King Louis had sent several hundred young Frenchwomen out to Canada to marry the bachelors of the disbanded regiment of Carignan-Saliéres" (emphasis mine 495). Here, Cather is playing on the word "saliére," "salt shaker" in French, to establish a connection between the caricature of the boy's figure and the political decision that decided his genealogy. Jacques is the victim of a linguistic determinism in that he was shaped into the name inscribed in his family's history. The play on words across languages is as casual as the political decision to marry off soldiers en masse and reflects Cather's dry humor, as she turns a French name into a caricature in English.

In the case of a minor character whose name is "Madame Renaude," Cather gives away the pun immediately, explaining her nickname:"Renaude-le-liévre, she was called, because she had a hare-lip, and a bristling black moustache as well" (493). The two facts given as an explanation for her nickname draw our attention on two elements: first, she is called a "liévre" or hare because of her "hare-lip"; but the fact that the word "liévre" is always masculine in French is not enough for the narrator, who adds a gender-oriented comment on the woman's manly (or harely?) moustache, thereby pinpointing the perfect adequacy between the name and the character, which the French language, with its use of gendered nouns, renders more convincingly than a translation would. Similarly, the narrator often gives French nicknames first, followed by their English translation, to emphasize their unexpected but appropriate depiction of the character, as in the case of "La Grenouille et L'Escargot" in Shadows on the Rock: "They were commonly called La Grenouille and L'Escargot, because, every summer, when the ships from France began to come in, they stuck in their window two placards: 'FROGS,' 'SNAILS,' to attract the hungry sailors, whether they had those delicacies on hand or not" (496); Cather also describes Joseph Vaillant as "Blanchet" in Death Comes for the Archbishop: "His hair, sunburned to the shade of dry hay, had originally been tow-colored; 'Blanchet' ('Whitey') he was always called at the Seminary" (298).

Another example of punning with French names remains hidden in the text, unexplained by the narrator. In Shadows on the Rock, when Cécile visits the Harnois family on the Ile d'Orléans, she escapes to a beautiful meadow after her first sleepless night. "She felt she had escaped for ever from the Harnois and their way of living" (586-87). "Harnois" was the old French spelling of "harnais" (that is, a "harness") which prevailed until the eighteenth century (just as the French were called "les François" or "les Français" in modern spelling). Thus Cécile's feeling of having escaped from the rigid harness of those rural people is emphasized in their name.

Sometimes the French words depicting the geography of Quebec or of France contain discreet puns as well. For example, Pierre Charron comes from the Languedoc region in southern France, which is a sunny area, and this explains the classic pun in English between the words sun and son, applied to a French reality here, "For Charron, that evening, the apothecary brought up from his cellar some fiery Bordeaux, proper for a son of Languedoc, and the hours flew by" (576). Cather's narrator gives a clue in her use of the adjective "fiery," which draws our attention to the sun shining on this "son of Languedoc." Or elsewhere, the meaning of the French name "Beaupré" infiltrates the English sentence in which it is used: "On one shore stretched the dark forest, on the other the smiling, sunny fields that ran toward Beaupré" (582.). The name of "Beaupré"—or "beautiful meadow"—seems to be putting the fields under the obligation of being "smiling" and "sunny" under the happy eyes of Cécile and Pierre.

More generally speaking, passing from one language to another, from one signifier to another, entails a shift in the signified and another vision of the world. When Cécile tells Jacques about the life of Saint Edmond, she begins, "He was an English saint, and he became Archbishop of Cantorbéry. But he died in France, at the monastery of Pontigny" (518).The balance between the English nationality of the saint and his death in a French monastery is exemplified by the choice of languages in the expression "Archbishop of Cantorbéry." In this sentence in English, the English name "Canterbury" is given in its French adaptation in an interesting collusion of languages that sounds fairly illogical at first. In doing so, the narrator Cécile brings about a subtle reorientation of her speech and clearly endorses the French viewpoint, even though she expresses herself in English. This odd word "Cantorbéry" is here as a reminder that the original language in which the character would have expressed herself, had she had a life outside the text, would have been French.

The authorial voice makes this linguistic adjustment all the clearer when she has Cécile read the story of Saint Edmond in French from the original text, without giving any translation in the original edition of the novel.[10] Cather seems to be ready to drown the American reader who does not know French in this language, as if immersion were her answer to cultural differences. And just as the French hagiography appropriates the life of Saint Edmond, the overall narrator of Shadows on the Rock makes hers the(fictional) French origin of the story she tells in English, while constantly reminding the readers that this is only a translation or at best a transcription. The lengthy quotation Cécile makes from the French version of the saint's life is given as such, without any translation, with all the power and authority of an original version reproduced in its entirety. The long quotation from the French is reproduced in italics and is clearly delineated from the rest of the narration, as if the narrator also wanted to mark a certain distance from this foreign text grafted onto the body of the novel.

Shadows on the Rock is not, after all, a hagiographic story even if many passages refer to the lives of saints as a background picture of the times. It functions as a reminder that a given language conveys its particular vision of life, religion, and its own construction of the world. It is no accident if Cécile later repeats in her own speech a passage from the French she has just read: "But I expect He is often near you and keeps you from harm, as He said to Saint Edmond; moi qui suis toujours à vos côtés et vous accompagne partout" (519). These quotations from the French remind the readers that in the novel the Canadian world of the late seventeenth century is perceived through the medium of early-twentieth-century American English. They show that another language operates from within the narrator's English, conveying an incidental view now and again, in a text that appeared so homogeneous at first sight, without disrupting its wholeness and coherence.

As the narrator sprinkles her text with many words in French, sometimes in italics, sometimes not, she draws our attention to the French reality they define. The French word "grille," for example, is mentioned many times to describe the numerous railings that bar the view of many characters in Shadows on the Rock, signifying the many barriers of the seventeenth-century French culture, as between the secular and the sacred world. In the convent, grilles shelter the nuns from the rest of the world: "Their voices, even when they spoke to one through the veiled grille, were pleasant and inspiriting to hear" (526). There are also the grilles barring Jeanne Le Ber from the profane world: "In the basement cubicle was the grille through which she spoke to her confessor, and by means of which she was actually present at mass and vespers, though unseen" (549). Or the grilles stand between well-to-do people and other classes, when as a little boy, Auclair observes the town house of the Count de Frontenac in Paris. "Every morning he looked out from his window on the same stillness; the shuttered windows behind their iron grilles, the steps under the porte-cochère green with moss" (474). The meaning of these "grilles" become clearer on the following page. "Three young men were leaning out over the grilles beating rugs, shaking carpets and wall-hangings into the air" (475). Here, the "grilles" stand in front of the windows but do not fully bar them. Such architectural elements are presented in French in Cather's text because the various meanings of the word "grille" all convey the French reality of the time, and yet it is easily understandable, as the word has passed into English.

Moreover, the names of people, places, and political and ecclesiastical functions all give the configuration of seventeenth-century France, which would seem "incomprehensible" to us were it not for the context in which Cather brings them to life, just as the French reality is beginning to be "incomprehensible" to the Canadian settlers. "Indeed, Auclair's chief service to his patron was not to administer drugs, but to listen occasionally, when the Governor felt lonely, to talk of places and persons,—talk which would have been incomprehensible to anyone else in Kebec" (614-15). While the Canadian settlers see in the mother superior of the convent only her ecclesiastical function, the narrator chooses to convey more information to the readers in parentheses, as Cécile Auclair herself would well have understood: "The Reverend Mother (Jeanne Franc Juschereau de la Ferté was her proud name) held rather advanced view son caring for the sick" (486). Her full name, given in parentheses, serves several purposes. First, it stresses her French filiation, even though she identifies with Canada, with the name "Franc" or "French" in old French. It also plays across languages on the word "Ferté" when it is described as a name full of "pride," or "fierté" in French. And finally, the ear of Cather's narrator is sensitive to the alliterative strength of the sound doublets in "j" with the words "Jeanne/Juschereau" and in "f" with"Franc/Ferté." The words seem to resonate their pride, as in alliterative poetry.

In her choice of subject matter in Death Comes for the Archbishop as well as in Shadows on the Rock, Cather chose to "deterritorialize" her use of English, to borrow the expression Deleuze coined, especially in her mention of ship names in the last part of the novel. The names are given in italics and signify the worldview of those who baptized them, as well as the orientations of the narrator, in the way she orchestrates their appearance in her text. The following ships are named, sometimes several times: La Bonne Espérance(465), La Gironde (495), La Licorne (532), La Garonne (592), Les Deux Frères, Le Profond (594), La Reine du Nord, Le Faucon (595), Le Saint Antoine (603), Le Duc de Bretagne, Le Soleil d'Afrique (608), La Vengeance (614), La Manon (634), and La Seine (635). Several remarks can be made from such a list, which Cather drew from actual ship names of the time. To begin with, the titles of nobility are here placed on the same footing as common names such as "la manon" which is a standard name for a woman and may connote loose behavior as well. Moreover, the names of southern regions in France such as the Garonne or the Gironde seem to coincide with a country defined more by the intensity of its sunlight than by a very precise geographical concern, as the name "soleil d'Afrique" seems to indicate. This latter name coincides with the southern opening at the end of the novel,which begins with the theme of the parrot Captain Pondaven brought back from his southern voyages and ends with the mention of the exotic seashells Jacques brings to Auclair from his own voyages. The names of the ships recall the mapping of a world that no longer exists as such but in a fragmented way, underlying the fact that the French words of a foregone era have already become exotic for American readers as well as French. Indeed, the names of the ships are moveable in time and place, and their transfer into an American story of the 1930s displaces them as strange importations and linguistic remnants having escaped all translation attempts.

Cather "deterritorialized" her own language for the so-called French novels because she saw in seventeenth-century French aesthetics something akin to her own. Her characters may read Pascal because she found in this author some of the principles she had formulated in her famous essay "The Novel Démeublé," in which she used a French past participle to impart her meaning in an English expression. We could finally read Pascal again, in "Concerning the Art of Persuasion," keeping Cather in mind: "Nothing is more common than good things; the only question is how to discern them; it is certain that all of them are natural and within our reach and even known by every one. But we do not know how to distinguish them. This is universal. It is not in things extraordinary and strange that excellence of any kind is found. We reach up for it, and we are further away; more often than not we must stoop. The best books are those whose readers think they could have written them. Nature, which alone is good, is familiar and common throughout" (446). Cather submits her use of English to the restraint of a foreign language the better to impose an order on her expression and to incorporate other cultural references in an American text. What she wrote of Sarah Orne Jewett could be applied to herself and to her special ear for the French language: "The 'sayings' of a community, its proverbs, are its characteristic comment upon life; they imply its history, suggest its attitude toward the world and its way of accepting life. Such an idiom makes the finest language any writer can have; and he can never get it with a notebook. He himself must be able to think and feel in that speech—it is a gift from heart to heart" (Stories 852). Cather seems to have thought and felt in this language, midway between French and English, in which her characters of French background speak and feel, conveying a new, displaced, and incidental view of their surroundings.

Cather's sensitivity to the French language and her conscious linguistic effort to strain the limits of English and submit it to an encounter with a more Latinate language are not wholly isolated if we consider some other modernist writers of the time. The critical works of T. S. Eliot come to mind, in which he analyzed the importance of Latin and the Romance languages in English and American literature. We could apply his remark on Milton's use of Latin to Cather's use of French, when he writes, "An acquaintance with Latin is necessary if we are to understand, and to accept, the involutions of his sentence structure, and if we are to hear the complete music of his verse" (149). In an essay on Ezra Pound, Eliot emphasizes the importance of Pound's immersion (and fluency) in the Romance languages, including French, and in particular the dialect of Southern France or Provençal: "He was supersaturated in Provence; he had tramped over most of the country; and the life of the courts where the Troubadours thronged was part of his own life to him." He goes on to analyze the most Latinate work by Pound. "His Canzoni are in a way aside from his direct line of progress; they are much more nearly studies in mediaeval appreciation than any of his other verse; but they are interesting, apart from their merit, as showing the poet at work with the most intricate Provençal forms" (166-68). This echoes Cather's early admiration for the "pastoral" people of southern France and their seemingly natural ability to achieve a poetic expression in their "songs," as she recorded her first journey to Provence. "They make songs as they make wine down in this country; it grows up from this old red soil that bred the first troubadours ages since, it distills from the pines, it breaks from the red grapes" (in Europe 171). And as for Eliot himself, notwithstanding the influence of French on his English verse, he wrote several poems in French, among which are the 1920 poems "Le Directeur," "Mélange Adultère de Tout," "Lune de Mid," and "Dansle Restaurant."

In the literary context of her time, if some of Cather's later novels are steeped in the French culture and language, her experimenting with a foreign expression and worldview is yet part of the modernist experience of the 1920s and 1930s (and continuing well into the 1940s and later with Pound's successive Cantos). Yet she played at "deterritorializing" her native tongue with subtlety and did not write in a way that would make the novels incomprehensible to someone with no knowledge of French; neither did she write in an obscure manner that would necessitate an abundant use of footnotes to make her text understandable. As always, her art is such that she either explains her allusions, blends them invisibly into the flow of her own prose, or when she quotes French words and sentences without translating them, manages to clarify the whole passage in context. No matter how sophisticated her prose and intertextual references, Cather is accessible at all levels of reading and immensely enjoyable in all cases,whether we are trying to trace all the intricacies of her style or simply reading her as a wonderful teller of tales.


 1. She was one of the few people who read and admired Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). She mentions the book by its French title (although it had been translated by the time she wrote about it) in a letter to Zoë Akins dated 30 December 1937 and comments on one of her favorite parts, in which Odette's drawing room is described as always being full of chrysanthemums and their cool smell, which Cather herself loved (letter from the Bernice Slote Collection, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives). The first English translation, by C. K. Scott Moncrieff of the first part of the novel, entitled Swann's Way, was published in London in 1922; translation of other parts of the novel came out later. (Go back.)
 2. Unless otherwise noted, all Cather references are to the Library of America edition. (Go back.)
 3. "Que son orgueil lui donna du dégoût pour l'Ecriture sainte,à cause de la simplicité de son style." Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine. (Go back.)
 4. "Je n'étais pas capable d'entrer clans ses secrets si sublimes, ni de m'abaisser pour goûter son élocution, qui est simple et humble....Mon orgueil méprisait sa simplicité, et mes yeux n'étaient pas assez clairs ni assez perçants pour découvrir ses beautés cachées." (Go back.)
 5. "Vos paroles ne servent tout au plus qu'à vous expliquer; et dans cette noble simplicité, elles ont une force à quoi l'on ne peut résister." (Go back.)
 6. There is enough evidence of her having read this particular work, as she even transforms a passage for her own use in Death Comes for the Archbishop, adapting freely from page 553: "Jésus est clans un jardin, non de délices comme le premier Adam, où il se perdit et tout le genre humain, mais dans un de supplices, où it s'est sauvé et tout le genre humain." She turns this into "He often quoted to his students that passage from their fellow Auvergnat, Pascal: that Man was lost and saved in a garden" (438). Cather's adaptation from Pascal is well-documented in John March, A Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather, 569. (Go back.)
 7. Webster's gives the following definitions: "anteposition: in grammar, the placing of a word before another, which, in general usage, would follow it; postposition: a word placed after another word; especially a word that has the function of a preposition but follows its object." (Go back.)
 8. "Louie," St. Peter spoke with deep feeling, "do you happen to have read a novel of Henry James, The American? There's a rather nice scene in it, in which a young Frenchman, hurt in a duel, apologizes for the behaviour of his family. I'd like to do something of the sort. I apologize to you for Rosamond, and for Scott, if he has done such a mean thing" (201-02). (Go back.)
 9. I am indebted to David Stouck for his enlightening comments on this particular matter. (Go back.)
 10. Edmond était tout enfant un modèle de vertu, grâce aux tendres soins de sa pieuse mere. On ne le voyait qu'à l'école et à l'église, partangeant ses journées entre la prière et l'étude, et se privant des plaisirs les plus innocents pour s'entretenir avec Jésus et sa divine Mère à laquelle il voua un culte tout spécial. Un jour qu'il fuyait ses compagnons de jeu, pour se recueillir intimement, l'Enfant Jésus lui apparaît, rayonnant de beauté et le regarde avec amour en lui disant: "Je te salue, mon bienaimé." Edmond tout ébloui n'ose répondre et le divin Sauveur reprend: "Vous ne me connaissez donc pas?- Non, avoue l'enfant, je n'ai pas cet honneur et je crois que vous ne devez pas me connaître nonplus, mais me prenez pour un autre.-Comment, continue le petit Jésus,vous ne me reconnaissez pas, moi qui suis toujours à vos côtés et vous accompagne partout. Regardez-moi; je suis Jésus, gravez toujours ce nom en votre coeur et imprimez-le sur votre front et je vous préserverai de mort subite ainsi que tous ceux qui feront de même." (518) (Go back.)


Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. Arnaud d'Andilly. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.
Augustine, Saint. Les Confessions: Traduction nouvelle. Trans. Joseph Truhucco. Paris: Garnier, 1960.
Cather, Willa. La Mort et l'archevêque. Trans. Marc Chénetier. Paris: Ramsay, 1986.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather: Later Novels. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. Ed. Sharon O'Brien. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather In Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey. 1956.Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.
Deleuze, Gilles. Critique et clinique. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1993.
Eliot, T. S. To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings. 1965. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
Guillemin-Flescher, Jacqueline Syntaxe comparée du français et de l'anglais: Problèmes de traduction. Paris: Ophrys, 1981.
James, Henry. The American. 1877. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Sévigné, Marie. Lettres. Paris: Garnier-Hammarion, 1976.
March, John. A Reader's Companion to the Works of Willa Cather. Ed. Marilyn Arnold. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1993.
Pascal. Great Short Works of Pascal. Trans. Emile Cuilliet and John C. Blankenagel. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1948.
Palleau-Papin, Françoise. "Le Figural Bans l'oeuvre de Willa Cather." Diss. Université de Paris 3-Sarbonne-Nouvelle, 1995.
Proust, Marcel. Swann's Way. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff. London: Chatto and Windus, 1922.