Shall we talk about ‘otherness’ in Othello? No? How about ‘flux’ in The Wild Palms? Doesn’t appeal either? Oh, well. It’s true they’re hardly topics for a natter on the phone, nor even a dinner party. In fact they were essay subjects back in the days, long ago, when I took the agrégation. And you can’t just write whatever comes into your head – they give you a whole five hours to come up with something profound.
You take the agrégation, or its slightly less gruelling cousin, the CAPES, if you want to be a teacher in France. Which, as a matter of fact, I didn’t. But I’d been running a café-theatre which the council decided to demolish (but that’s another story), so Mrs. B., afraid no doubt that I might say, ‘Right, I’m going to be a novelist,’ said, ‘You could always take the agrégation.’ I looked at her askance. Did I really want to spend the rest of my life teaching English to 35 adolescents who had no wish to be there? No, I wanted to write. In the end, though, the principle of reality won the day, which is why I ended up scratching my head as I struggled for an enlightened definition of ‘otherness’.
If you pass the written bit, you’re rewarded with an oral, where again you’re given five hours to prepare. As I took my seat and cleared my throat, about to hold forth on ‘women’ in Of Human Bondage, one of the (French) examiners said, ‘Have you Eno flight?’ I asked him to repeat the question. When I still didn’t understand, there followed an awkward silence. Clearly I couldn’t ask him again, so my brain whizzed into panic mode. He’s asking if I’m going to fly back with Brian Eno. Must be a trick question. What the answer? ‘Oh, is he in town? I didn’t know.’ No, that’s no good. ‘No, I came by train, I’m afraid.’ Hmm… Maybe something more neutral. ‘I suppose it’s always possible.’ Fortunately, at that point, the examiner saw my perplexity and pointed to the window. Dusk was falling. And I understood. Have you enough light? ‘Oh, I’m fine, thank you,’ I said. Phew! ‘Now, Mildred in Of Human Bondage is one of the most…’
Obviously, being a native speaker is an advantage. But just so you don’t walk away with it, they make you demonstrate mastery of French as well. And considering I still haven’t got the hang of those genders, that’s quite a tall order. ‘What?’ said my five-year-old daughter when I showed her what I’d written. ‘La carrosse? But everyone knows it’s masculine!’
‘Why is it la carotte, then? Where’s the logic in that? Smarty pants.’
But you’ll find as much logic in the French gender system as thoughtfulness in Donald Trump’s brain.
There are good things about the agrégation. You come away knowing a lot more than when you started. Of course, it isn’t easy to strike up a conversation about religious symbolism in Swinburne’s later poetry, but if someone’s getting on your nerves, I highly recommend it. The biggest boon, though, is that you become a fonctionnaire. Depending where you stand, a fonctionnaire is either a lazy, whingeing parasite or a selfless servant of the Republic. I was the latter (natch), but I must admit the holidays aren’t to be sneezed at if you want to write.
Every so often there are attempts to overhaul the agrégation, which may enable you to become a teacher but sure doesn’t teach you how to teach. But this year it celebrates its 250th anniversary and it seems as entrenched as Bastille Day and camembert. After all, where else can you get to jabber away about flux in The Wild Palms and actually have people listen to you?
See more posts about French life and France at Phoebe’s link up, AllAboutFrance: