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French language in Infinite jest?
March 7, 2009 1:56 AM   Subscribe

Why is French language so mangled in David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest?

Infinite Jest contains a lot of French words. However, most of them are more French-sounding than actually French: imaginary words (le rai pays, fauteuils rollents), literal but incorrect translations of English (demi-maison, après-garde), bad spelling, grammatical and syntactic errors (Personnes à qui on doit surveiller)... Given DFW's love for language, I guess that these mistakes are intentional (one of them, the nonsensical "à du nous avons foi au poison" actually comes after a discussion about linguistics). But what do they mean? Has any DFW scholar noticed this? (also puzzling is that some online sources have corrected the most blatent one. For the record I have the 1996 UK Abacus edition.)
posted by elgilito to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It might be a riff on Québeçois French?
posted by thisjax at 4:58 AM on March 7, 2009

I mean, Québécois.
posted by thisjax at 4:59 AM on March 7, 2009

I mean, Québécois.

From what I see, emphasis on "riff". Nothing in there bear much resemblances to "joual" (the traditional form of spoken french in Quebec)

Here's an attempt at the nonsensical: "we have faith in poison"
posted by bluefrog at 6:31 AM on March 7, 2009

It makes sense that they'd be intentional for some reason, but I also noticed with some dismay that the math in the book is pretty bad as well. I read it over ten years ago, so I don't remember the details, but there are a couple of times he tries to do some mathematical analysis of some situation and totally botches it. (Pynchon, in contrast, pretty much always knows what he's doing.)
posted by dfan at 6:38 AM on March 7, 2009

I grew up in Montreal and spent half of my life there. And, I have not read the book.

The sentence snippets above are definitely not Quebecois. Could it be that the character saying these words is somehow deficient in French, maybe speaks it as a second language?

When I was growing up in Montreal, I heard all kinds of ways to mangle French. There was joual, yes. There was Quebecois French too. But there was also tentative, non-grammatical manglings by non-native speakers who didn't have a good grasp on the language. What I read above definitely belongs in the third category.
posted by seawallrunner at 8:53 AM on March 7, 2009

French from France, and been living in Montreal (Québec) for 8 years.
These sentences/words appear to make no sense at all. They sound more like a wordplay or a simple attempt to "sound like" french (I do not know the book though).
posted by Bio11 at 9:12 AM on March 7, 2009

No, it's not Quebecois French. While some words are said by Quebecois characters, many others are unrelated to the Quebecois subplot. What it really sounds like is the kind of foreign language one can hear in English-speaking cartoons and comedies when a character speaks this language for comedic reasons (see Pepé Le Pew for examples). If this wasn't intentional, I don't believe this could survived the editing process.
posted by elgilito at 10:04 AM on March 7, 2009

It makes sense that they'd be intentional for some reason, but I also noticed with some dismay that the math in the book is pretty bad as well. I read it over ten years ago, so I don't remember the details, but there are a couple of times he tries to do some mathematical analysis of some situation and totally botches it. (Pynchon, in contrast, pretty much always knows what he's doing.)

I don't have the mathematical knowledge to comment, but my understanding was that the errors were deliberate. I mean, the guy wrote a book on mathematics. There's a discussion of maths in IJ here - the site might be worth browsing for discussion of the French language issues too.

But I'd go with 'inside joke' as the most likely explanation. There are plenty of other examples in the book, from other fields.
posted by Infinite Jest at 10:57 AM on March 7, 2009

Infinite Jest:..but my understanding was that the errors were deliberate. I mean, the guy wrote a book on mathematics.

I fear you may be putting too much blind faith in DFW. The math book you link to was not very well received by the math community - by the people who understood it. It is riddled with errors. It is a mess. I do have a background in math and I'd advise anyone to stay far, far away from DFW's math books. Here's one typical review - by a mathematician:

Wallace maintains that if he were "after technical rigor rather than general appreciation", he would provide more detail. This suggests he has mastered the subject at hand. Alas, this is manifestly not the case. It is bad that Wallace's garbled exposition, posing as style, merely serves to obscure. But even the reader bold enough to untangle the copious footnotes and asides will fail to be enlightened, because Wallace gets some of the most basic concepts wrong.

Reviewers who write of Wallace's "justified confidence in his mastery of the matter" and call him a "trustworthy and knowledgeable guide" probably skipped substantial parts of the book and consort with Wallace in degrading mathematics to magic symbolism.

This may or may not be relevant to the French issue, but it probably is.
posted by vacapinta at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2009

Is the narrator supposed to master French or just to have smatterings of the language ? I suppose - not having read the book but just gathered some information - that these mistakes could reflect something in the narrator's psyche (it may reflect some sort of confusion) or in the state of the language itself. If the book is set in the future, this kind of wordplay might be used to make the reader feel that the language itself has evolved and changed and thus to give a firmer sense of futuristic background.
posted by nicolin at 1:44 PM on March 7, 2009

This is a particularly bad book to be making guesses about if you haven't read it.

Throughout IJ the authorial voice slips into different idioms depending on which character is in focus; if I'm remembering right there are even some transitions where the narrative voice starts to change over even before the character in question shows up. Many of the english-speaking characters are vastly ungrammatical, both in their own speech and in the non-dialogue text when they're around. So I think it'd be really difficult to make the argument that the ungrammatical French was accidental, even if this wasn't DFW we were talking about.

My reading of the book (and this is just my little pet theory which may not be correct or even justifiable) is that there's a whole spectrum from reality to hallucination, centered on the tennis academy: everything that happens at the detox center is absolutely real, and everything that happens in Canada is absolutely unreal; all the other locations and settings are somewhere in between.

Canada may not actually exist, in other words: it's just a dark nightmare of mutant hamsters and wheelchair assassins. So I read the badly-phrased French as not at all intended to represent the way an actual Quebecois would speak, rather the way a hallucinating or dreaming American (presumably Steeply) who only speaks a little French imagines a Quebecois would speak.
posted by ook at 2:46 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Vacapinta, that's interesting to know, thanks. Been thinking about this some more, and I still agree that it can't be an accident. I'll add to what ook said by mentioning that there's a strong emphasis on language and grammar in the book: Avril Incandenza is both French-Canadian and a member of a group called the Militant Grammarians, Hal is sent to a conversation specialist, Orin deliberately makes spelling/grammar mistakes to annoy Avril, one of the tennis players spends his time thinking up synonyms for 'defeated'...there must be many more examples. In a book with such an emphasis on language, I can't see the errors as being anything other than deliberate - part of the 'jest' that the book is playing on us as readers.

Interesting point about Canada, too, ook. That would explain a few things. (Except that the wheelchair assasins (Maraithe, anyway) turn up at Ennett House....)
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:07 PM on March 7, 2009

ook: that's a good theory but the mangled French appears everywhere, including at the tennis academy (for instance 'Hal lies back and lets Smith's ballet de se loosen his facial muscles everywhere', p.113 in 3 November YADU. Ballet de se is made of French words but unrecognizable as a term).
However, your remark makes me think that the French language is IJ could be some sort of alternate-reality French (just like everything else but the detox center). This only can explain oddities like the "Front de Libération de la Québec" (Québec being then female in IJ) when there used to be a "Front de Libération du Québec" in real life (where Québec is male).
In any case, I just found that DFW addressed the problem in a conversation between Marathe and Steeply (p. 529; Pre-dawn and dawn, 1 May YDAU): Marathe rarely yielded to the temptation to correct Steeply, whose horrid pronunciation and syntax as well Marathe could never determine for sure either was or was not an intentional irritant, intended to discomfort Marathe.
posted by elgilito at 4:04 PM on March 7, 2009

Except that the wheelchair assasins (Maraithe, anyway) turn up at Ennett House....

Ah, but he is in disguise! He is Swiss! And also veiled!

No, really you're probably right that the idea wouldn't stand up to real scrutiny -- but actually it was when I hit the scene where Marathe shows up at Ennett House and has that first loopy conversation with one of the residents, who's clearly far enough out of it that he could just as easily be talking to himself, that I first came up with the idea. His purpose is to disseminate the Entertainment, so he's just another vector for addiction, so infiltrating the halfway house is just another one of these addictive desires sneaking into the grim "real" world.

Much too tidy a theory, now that I write it out like that. And I had completely forgotten that Avril is Canadian too, which doesn't fit at all... Oh well. So much for that idea. There is definitely something sinister about Canada, though; I'm just not smart enough to piece it together.
posted by ook at 8:12 PM on March 7, 2009

Infinite Jest is set in an alternate America -- science fiction, I suppose, but not worked out in rigorous detail; fantastic and somewhat hallucinatory. Quebéçois Canada is a generic Third World country without the racial aspect, to which America practices "Experialism," forcing Canada to accept America's toxic waste deposits. Jest in general avoids race -- to make this huge baggy monster of a book publishable, Wallace had to omit something -- though it thus makes the decent point that many, many Americans with substance abuse problems, contrary to media images, are white.
posted by bad grammar at 9:15 PM on March 7, 2009

I always felt that quite a bit of the bad french appeared mostly in instances where the focus was the tennis academy, in the Hal-narrative-voice. I think Hal's french is probably pretty shaky, (as is his math) and that fits with the french in the book.

Hal is also the only character (I think) in the book who ever overtly narrates in the 1st person.
posted by cmyr at 8:32 AM on March 8, 2009

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