Social Justice

Review of The Address Book by Deirdre Mask | Nonfiction

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and PowerStreet addresses are something most of us take for granted in this digital age, even though most forms still ask us where we live. For many, street addresses are a privilege. They are markers of wealth and poverty. They are also the first thing employers learn about a job candidate. Before reading The Address BookI had little considered the significance of my street address. I knew that gentrification was a problem in Cleveland and Philadelphia (especially West Philly) but it never occurred to me that employers might discriminate against job candidates based on their street addresses or that people without street addresses might not be able to apply for a job. I didn’t know that there are regions of the United States where homeowners don’t have addresses.

In The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, Deirdre Mask reveals how important street addresses are to our personal, social, and legal identities. Beginning in West Virginia, where hundreds of residents refuse to adopt street addresses, Mask explores the advantages and disadvantages of having a legal and traceable address. If some West Virginians fear the interference of the government in their neighborhoods, Indians living in the slums of Kolkota wish they had traceable addresses so that they could obtain government-issued IDs and register for social services. And then there’s the question of street names. What should communities do about streets named after Nazis or Confederate leaders? How do street names figure in the social visions of revolutionaries and totalitarian regimes?

For the past year, I have been living in Geneva, Switzerland, where streets are named after famous figures of Swiss history. There are streets named after Protestant Reformers, scientists, doctors, comic artists, and past mayors. In Paris, where the majority of streets are named after men, feminist activists have informally renamed street signs to better reflect the diversity of French history; the names of famous French women are scribbled over the official names.

Each chapter in The Address Book explores a different region of the world – Haiti, India, West Virginia, South Africa, Paris, Philadelphia, New York, Vienna, Germany, Japan, and Iran. Through a series of stories, Mask shows how street addresses and layout reflect the political concerns of those respective regions. She interviews activists who favor the changing of street names or work to give addresses to the homeless. Her writing is dynamic and personal. Mask does not hesitate to share her own personal views on a particular question, but only after she has given voice to the people directly involved in the politics of street addresses.

I flew through this book in a few sittings. If you are looking for a book that opens your eyes to the way people live around the world and has a strong voice, look no further than The Address Book. My only criticism is that chapters on a certain region were not always dedicated to that region. Paris, for example, features in several chapters despite those sections being about other nations. Perhaps, there should have been an earlier chapter dedicated to the influence of Paris on street addresses around the world.

The Address Book came out on April 14, but I read a review copy requested from NetGalley.

—Favorite Passages—

“Lots of people claim to want to go off grid forever, to seek out their own version of #vanlife. But the people Sarah interviewed desperately wanted to be on the grid with all that the grid entails: homes, bills, bank accounts – in essence, everything required for modern life.”

“We all have the need to confront the past, memorialize it, struggle with it, do something with it. That something often involves street names.”

Classics Club Events

Classics Spin #23 Result: La Thébaïde by Racine

So the result of the spin is out. We all got #6, which for me is La Thébaïde by Racine. It’s a play, so it will be a quick read. I enjoyed reading Phèdre, so I look forward to reading this lesser-known play by Racine.

11203162

The play is evidently inspired by the story of Euripedes about the two sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polynices. I expect a lot of violence. The subtitle is Les Frères ennemis, or the Enemy Brothers! The play was performed by Molière’s troupe at the Palais-Royal Theatre on June 20, 1664. I didn’t know that Molière collaborated with Racine. How cool! I look forward to this read.

Classics Club Events

Classics Spin #23 (Mostly French Classics)

Will THIS be the Classics Spin challenge I actually complete? Who knows. At least, it’s an excuse for me to make a list of 20 book on my physical TBR that I look forward to reading. I am currently living in Geneva and in a couple months I will have to move back to the US. Unfortunately, I lack self-control and have bought too many books. Therefore, I am including those books on this list. Thankfully, most of them are classics. May is going to be a play-heavy month.

1.  Robin des bois (the two novellas: Le Prince des voleurs and Robin Hood le proscrit) by Alexandre Dumas

Robin Hood 3 - Ivanhoe et l'arc de Robin - Historia Draconis

2. The Journey of Neils Klim to the World Underground by Ludvig Holberg

The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground by Ludvig Holberg

3. La Farce de maître Pathelin

La Farce de maître Pathelin - Poche - Takashi Imashiro, Livre tous ...

4. Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc by Charles Péguy

Le mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc (French Edition): Charles ...

5. L’Abbesse de Castro by Stendhal

L'Abbesse de Castro, Stendhal | Livre de Poche

6. Le Thébaïde by Racine 

Thebaide (Folio Theatre) (French Edition): Jean Baptiste Racine ...

7. Gouverneurs de la rosée by Jacques Roumain

Gouverneurs de la rosée - Jacques Roumain - Payot

8. Le Château de ma mère by Marcel Pagnol

Le Chateau de ma mere Buch jetzt bei Weltbild.ch online bestellen

9. La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol

La Gloire de mon père - Marcel Pagnol - Payot

10. L’Illusion comique by Corneille

L'illusion comique (Théâtre) (French Edition): Pierre Corneille ...

11. Clitandre by Corneille

Clitandre: Tragi-comédie by Pierre Corneille

12. The Origin of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Modern Classics): Amazon ...

13. Alexandre le grand by Racine

alexandre le grand eBook by jean racine - 1230001941302 | Rakuten Kobo

14. Andromaque by Racine

Andromaque - Jean Racine - Babelio

15. Les plaideurs by Racine

Les Plaideurs (Théâtre): Racine, Jean

16. Brittanicus by Racine

Amazon.com: Britannicus (Pocket classiques) (French Edition ...

17. Bérénice by Racine

Bérénice - Jean Racine - Babelio

18. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (I’ve decided that it’s a classic of modern fantasy. Good enough.)

Underground Reading: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay - Pornokitsch

19. Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson

Amazon.com: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption ...

20. Les Tragiques by Agrippa D’Aubigné

Les Tragiques by Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné

Regardless of the number selected, I will have to read these books soon. Otherwise, they will have to be donated unread.

Read-Along

Announcing Molière May 2020

In May, I am hosting a read-along of 5 of Molière’s most famous play.

Moliere

For more information, you can check out my announcement video (below) and the Goodreads group I created for the read-along.

For this blog, I will make reflection posts for each of the 5 plays.

I hope you are all staying safe and reading some great books 🙂

Miscellaneous

Escapist/Comfort Reading Recommendation

I don’t need to tell you why a list like this is necessary at the moment. If I could reread Anne of Green Gables for the next three months, I would. Unfortunately, I have too many books on my physical TBR here in Geneva that I need to get to before I move back to the US.

These books are in no particular order. They are all fantastic, escapist reads.

1. Anne of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery: 9780553213133: Amazon.com ...

I never expected this book to be so good. I read it for the first time in 2014 because I thought the book would be twee and superficial. Boy was I wrong! Anne Shirley is one of the most relatable female protagonists. If you want lifelike characters in a cosy setting, Anne of Green Gables is a must read.

2. Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heidi (Illustrated) (English Edition) eBook: Spyri, Johanna, Smith ...

Since I am currently living in Switzerland, I must mention Heidi. If you like twee, this is definitely the book for you. I found Heidi a bit too precious at times but the setting is breathtaking. I can’t dislike a book set in the Alps.

3. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & MR Norrell von Susanna Clarke. Bücher | Orell ...

If you are looking for a historical fantasy with a gothic vibe, I highly recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr NorrellSusanna Clarke is a master storyteller. The two title magicians are polar opposites of each other, but their stories complement each other well. You can read my review here. I recommend reading the ebook because this is a chunker.

4. Any of the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters

Amazon.com: A Morbid Taste for Bones (The Chronicles of Brother ...One Corpse Too Many (The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael): Ellis ...Amazon.com: The Heretic's Apprentice (The Chronicles of Brother ...

I have read three of the Brother Cadfael mysteries and they have all been wonderful reads. My favorite so far has been The Heretic’s Apprentice. The series follows Brother Cadfael and the Benedictines of the 12th-century abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. Cadfael is a former crusader of the First Crusade. When he’s not tending the abbey garden, he is investigating murders. These books are more than murder mysteries, however. Their secondary story lines are just as interesting. If I ever write a novel, it will be a historical murder mystery. My review of the first book is here.

5. Orlando Furioso by Ariosto

Matthew (Salt Lake City, UT)'s review of Orlando Furioso

This 16th-century epic is so much fun. Orlando Furioso is made up of several storylines, but the most prominent is Orlando’s obsession with Angelica. He quite literally loses his mind; his friend Adolpho flies to the moon on the back of a hippogryph to recover Orlando’s wits. This book has a wizard, magic rings, outrageous humor, and strong female characters. Orlando Furioso was Galileo’s favorite poem. It might become yours. I made a series of videos about this book on my BookTube channel “The Francophile Reader”.

6. The Lives of Christopher Chant by Dianna Wynne Jones

Amazon.com: The Lives of Christopher Chant (Chrestomanci Books ...

This is technically the second book in the Chrestomanci series, but it can be read as a stand-alone. I hope to get to the other books in the next year because The Lives of Christopher Chant was such a fun, comfort read. Christopher Chant has nine lives, but he keeps managing to get himself killed in an alternative universe. This book has amazing world building.

7. Bone by Jeff Smith

Out from Boneville (BONE #1): Smith, Jeff: 9780439706407: Amazon ...

I don’t usually read graphic novels, but the Bone series is a feast for the eyes and the heart. The characters are so adorable. Having read most of the books, I can safely say that the story gets better and better as the series goes on. Fone, Phoney and Smiley are three cousins who are driven out of Boneville because Phoney Bone is…well…phony.

8. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Keith Harrison

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight (Oxford World's Classics): Helen ...

This translation was my favorite book of 2018. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perfect from start to finish. A green knight arrives on New Year’s Day with a challenge for the knights of King Arthur’s court. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge of cutting off the green knight’s head. But the green knight doesn’t die. He picks up his head and rides away, leaving Sir Gawain to contemplate how he will maintain his end of the bargain. How will Sir Gawain survive getting his own head chopped off? This translation is remarkable! Keith Harrison manages to preserve the alliteration of the original English. To get the full experience, you should read the poem aloud.

9. Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda: Dahl, Roald, Blake, Quentin: 9780670824397: Amazon.com: Books

I was absolutely obsessed with Roald Dahl’s books as a child. No one knew more about his career than me. I could have included any of Dahl’s children’s books, but I chose Matilda because the film adaptation is equally delightful. This book also has a special place in my heart. When I was 14, I decided to read all of the books Matilda read at the age of 5. I got through many of the books on the list, but not all. It’s one of my bucket list projects to read all of the books on Matilda’s list.

10. Terre des hommes (trans. Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Best known for his book The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was also a mail carrier and fighter pilot during the early days of flight. He wrote several memoirs about the dangers of air travel in the 1930s. I recommend Wind, Sand and Stars because it is so hopeful. Like the pilot of the The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crashed in the Sahara desert. The story of his rescue is a welcome reminder that humans are capable of generosity and love. Check out my review here.

 

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Sanderson, Brandon

Review of Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson book coverWhen I was a child, I only read fantasy novels. I was totally obsessed with the genre. But in middle school, I abandoned fantasy for classical literature of the Victorian era. Then, at university I discovered the research library and I stopped reading novels altogether. Since starting this blog, I have obviously returned to reading fiction. But until about 6 months ago, I had not read an adult fantasy novel. This all changed with Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Yesterday, I finished my second major high fantasy: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Unlike Rothfuss, Sanderson finishes his series. He also appears to respect his readers more. I decided to try Sanderson’s works after following several of his live-streams. Sometimes, the personality of an author makes all of the difference.

Elantris was not Sanderson’s first novel. As he likes to tell his fans, he had written 6 novels before Elantris, but couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing them. So while Elantris was his debut, it was not the first book he had ever written. Not by a long shot. Nevertheless, there are certain clichés in the work that a more recent fantasy author would probably avoid, such as a “not like other women” protagonist and casual ableism (deformity as curse). Elantris was published in 2005, before readers went public with their criticism of these clichés.

Summary

Raoden, the prince of Arelon, wakes up cursed in the neighboring former kingdom of Elantris. 10 years earlier, Elantris had been placed under a curse by Lord Jaddeth, the god of this universe. The damned of Elantris suffer but never die. Raoden discovers that an early foot injury only becomes more and more painful as the months go by. Consequently, the new Elantrians lack all hope and only live by their belly. There are three major gangs that fight over the little food brought into Elantris. Raoden, however, has a different vision for the people. Always the optimist, he believes that giving people tasks – such as cleaning the slime from the stones of the city – will give the Elantrians a reason to live. It will restore their humanity.

Our second protagonist is Sarene, the woman who had been betrothed to Raoden before he had been taken by the Shaod to Elantris. She is a princess of the kingdom of Teod. Recently, a priest named Hrathen has arrived to convert Arelon to his version of the Derethi religion before the kingdom is cursed by Lord Jaddeth. Hrathen threatens the sovereignty of Arelon because his religion, Shu-Dereth, is also the official religion of the Kingdom of Fjorden. Sarene is bound and determined to prevent Fjorden from conquering Arelon and destroying Arelon’s alliance with Teod.

Reaction

My favorite character was actually a secondary character: Galladon. Galladon is Raoden’s friend in Elantris. He is a pessimist in the manner of C3PO. I hope to learn more about him in a spin-off series or a sequel. I loved how loyal he was to Raoden despite his reservations. Raoden and Galladon had an interesting friendship.

My least favorite character was Sarene. Like I said, I am not a fan of the “not like other women” cliché. She made some dismissive remarks about the other women in the Arlene kingdom. She also lacked flaws. A female character can be strong without being stoic and a master of martial arts.

I knew before reading Elantris that I would probably find a few elements lacking. This is not Sanderson’s most famous book and it is a debut However, I hoped that it would be a fun stand-alone and would encourage me to read more of Sanderson’s works. Elantris succeeded on both counts. The battle scenes were well-written and Hrathen was a fairly complex villain.

3 Stars.

Favorite Quote

Do not dash if you only have the strength to walk, and do not waste your time pushing on the walls that will not give. More importantly, don’t shove where a pat would be sufficient.

Literary Fiction, Tournier, Michel

Reflections on Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erl-King) by Michel Tournier (spoilers)

Le Roi des Aulnes book coverLe Roi des Aulnes (The Erl-King) is the second novel I have read by Michel Tournier. The first was La Goutte D’Or (The Golden Droplet), which I reviewed two years ago.

Michel Tournier’s novels are unsettling. The characters seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. This is especially true of The Erl-King. The protagonist Abel Tiffauges is a mechanic who admits in the first pages that he is an ogre. He’s a large man with an underdeveloped sexuality. His sexuality – or lack thereof – is a sign in this novel of his otherness. The first half of the novel is a series of journal entries. Tiffauges writes his secrets with his left hand. In these so-called “sinister writings”, Tiffauges describes his childhood at a boarding school. He meets a boy named Nestor who saves Tiffauges from many unpleasant situations. At school, Tiffauges develops an obsession with scatology and children. Yet, Tiffauges has no sexual interest in children. Instead, he turns to children as symbols of purity and innocence. Much like St. Christopher, the patron saint of his childhood school, Tiffauges dreams of carrying children to safety.

The Erl-King is ultimately a myth that explores Nazi ideology, especially its obsession with purity. Tournier suggests that this obsession with purity was not unique to the Nazi party but is behind all forms of hatred. Tiffauges is drawn to Nazi stories about a mythological Germany with Teutonic knights and boreal forests. These myths give Tiffauges greater meaning in his life. They also speak to his odd interests. He eventually kidnaps children for the Nazi Youth. The ogre of the first letters becomes the Erl-King of Goethe’s poem.

Tournier’s novels are highly philosophical. His characters explore the values that the Western world holds dear. The grotesque in The Erl-King exposes the carnavalesque nature of evil. The quest for beauty and goodness becomes complicity in the Holocaust. For all his unsavory characteristics, Abel Tiffauges has a child-like wonder that is unsettlingly human.

I’ve always been struck by Nazi Germany’s obsession with the Middle Ages, Joan of Arc, and fables. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales served to promote German nationalism in the 19th-century. Tournier suggests that the stories we tell each other can indeed be harmful.

The Erl-King is not a pleasant read. Abel Tiffauges is highly unlikable and some critics have condemned the book for humanizing and mythologizing evil.

But I think this novel remains relevant. I am concerned about the myths young men are taught on certain social media sites. These are vulnerable people whose personal challenges are exploited to further movements that promise a restoration of purity. In a dark, broken world the desire for purity is tantalizing but dangerous. It leads to the very subversion of goodness. I simply can’t wait to read more of Tournier’s novels.

Miscellaneous

The “I should Have Read That Book” Tag

It’s been a while since I did a tag, so I’m doing one today. The “I Should Have Read That Book” tag was created by Beth@BooksNest.

1) A book that a certain friend is always telling you to read.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Image result for the hours book cover

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read it several times. My last reread (and one of the very few Classics Spins I actually completed) inspired a creative review. But I haven’t read The Hours, which was inspired by Mrs. Dalloway. It won the Pulitzer and was adapted into an award-winning movie. I have a friend who’s always raving about this retelling, so I’d better get on it.

2) A book that’s been on your TBR forever and yet you still haven’t picked it up.

Image result for les miserables cover

This book has been on my bucket-list since high school. For the past few years I’m made it my resolution to read Les Misérables in French. I read the first few chapters, but I got distracted by other shiny books. Will 2020 be the year when I finally read this classic?

3) A book in a series you’ve started, but haven’t gotten around to finishing yet.

The Golden Wolf by Linnea Hartsuyker

Image result for the golden wolf

The series that I started but haven’t finished yet is Linnea Hartsuyker’s Half-Drowned King series. I read and loved the first two books, but haven’t yet read the last book in the trilogy: The Golden Wolf. The final book came out in 2018, so I should read it soon before I forget the plots of the first two. This is a historical novel set in 9th-century Iceland. We follow Ragnvald Eysteinsson and his sister Svanhild as they struggle to take back their father’s kingdom. Although this story is very violent (lots of content warnings), the female characters are written very well. There’s none of the misogyny of The Song of Ice and Fire.

4) A classic you’ve always liked the sound of, but never actually read.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Image result for doctor zhivago book cover

I’m not entirely sure why this classic appeals to me. Perhaps, it’s the wintery setting. Or maybe it’s the fact that this book inspired an award-winning film.

5) A popular book that it seems everyone but you has read.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Image result for 1984 george orwell book

I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who’s never read 1984. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm years ago and found it very disturbing. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. But since everyone has already read 1984, I feel like I already know the plot. I’ll get to it someday.

6) A book that inspired a film/TV adaptation that you really love, but you just haven’t read yet.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton

Image result for bedknob and broomstick book

I don’t watch many book-to-film adaptations, so it was hard for me to come up with an answer to this question. But I rewatched the Disney film “Bedknobs and Brooksticks” recently, so I’ll go with the book Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton, the author of the Borrowers series.

7) A book you see all over Instagram [YouTube] but you haven’t picked up yet.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Image result for the handmaid's tale book

I am hardly ever on Instagram, so I’m going with a book that I’ve seen discussed all over Booktube: The Handmaid’s Tale. I guess I’m not a huge fan of the dystopian genre, seeing that two of the books on this list are dystopians.

Mystery, Reflections

I’m Terrible at Guessing Mysteries

Gray Magnifying Glass and Eyeglasses on Top of Open BookAm I the only one who can never decode a mystery? I’ve been reading mysteries off and on for years, and I am still terrible at connecting the dots. At times, I manage to guess the identity of the perpetrator, but I never know why they stood out to me as guilty.

In the past, I have rarely been concerned about my inability to figure out mysteries. Good mysteries keep the reader guessing, anyway. That’s the fun. But my goals for reading crime novels have changed in the last few weeks. I now want to try my hand at writing a murder mystery.

The difference between reading a mystery and writing one is the difference between enjoying magic shows and performing magic yourself. As a spectator, you are expected to buy into the illusion. But a magician has to know how to create the illusion. I have always been impressed by the intricate plot structures of whodunit mysteries, but I am ignorant of the narrative tricks that mystery writers employ. I don’t know what is considered “fair” in the genre.

I recently finished my first Inspector Maigret mystery: Les vacances de Maigret (Maigret on Vacation). Like most readers, I found it a very fun read. I stayed up until 2 am, finishing the last 100 pages of the novel (basically the second half of the book). That is pretty typical for me. Once I get to the interviews, I don’t put the book down until I’ve reached the big reveal. But unlike many readers, I could not piece together the mystery. I asked myself several questions throughout: Which details are important and which details are not? What are the different characters’ intentions? Why do the characters behave this way? I was totally off.

Perhaps, I should reread the story with a pencil. I’ve enjoyed rereading Agatha Christie mysteries in the past. If I reread Maigret on Vacation, would I be able to piece together the plot like so many readers claim to have done?

Writing a mystery sounds fun. I love the detective-work of research. That is what I love about doing a PhD. But can a terrible detective write a good detective novel?

What are your suggestions? Am I alone? Have you ever tried writing a mystery yourself?

Poems, Reflections

La Fontaine’s “The Wolf and the Lamb” (Le Loup et L’Agneau)

I’ve been having a hell of a time finding something to blog about. But a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that I have never discussed my favorite La Fontaine fable “The Wolf and the Lamb” on my blog. Although “The Crow and the Fox” is the most famous French fable, “The Wolf and the Lamb” is my favorite because it gets at a disturbing social dynamic.

I am including both the original poem and an English translation.

                         Le Loup et L’Agneau
La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure :
Nous l’allons montrer tout à l’heure.
Un Agneau se désaltérait
Dans le courant d’une onde pure.
Un Loup survient à jeun qui cherchait aventure,
Et que la faim en ces lieux attirait.
Qui te rend si hardi de troubler mon breuvage ?
Dit cet animal plein de rage :
Tu seras châtié de ta témérité.
— Sire, répond l’Agneau, que votre Majesté
Ne se mette pas en colère ;
Mais plutôt qu’elle considère
Que je me vas désaltérant
Dans le courant,
Plus de vingt pas au-dessous d’Elle,
Et que par conséquent, en aucune façon,
Je ne puis troubler sa boisson.
— Tu la troubles, reprit cette bête cruelle,
Et je sais que de moi tu médis l’an passé.
— Comment l’aurais-je fait si je n’étais pas né ?
Reprit l’Agneau, je tette encor ma mère.
— Si ce n’est toi, c’est donc ton frère.
— Je n’en ai point.
— C’est donc quelqu’un des tiens :
Car vous ne m’épargnez guère,
Vous, vos bergers, et vos chiens.
On me l’a dit : il faut que je me venge.
Là-dessus, au fond des forêts
Le Loup l’emporte, et puis le mange,
Sans autre forme de procès.

                         The Wolf and the Lamb
The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best:
We now show how this is true.
A lamb was quenching its thirst
In the water of a pure stream.
A fasting wolf came by, looking for something;
He was attracted by hunger to this place.
—What makes you so bold as to meddle with my drinking?
Said this animal, very angry.
You will be punished for your boldness.
—Sir, answered the lamb, let Your Majesty
Not put himself into a rage;
But rather, let him consider
That I am taking a drink of water
In the stream
More than twenty steps below him;
And that, consequently, in no way,
Am I troubling his supply.
—You do trouble it, answered the cruel beast.
And I know you said bad things of me last year.
—How could I do that when I wasn’t born,
Answered the lamb; I am still at my mother’s breast.
—If it wasn’t you, then it was your brother.
—I haven’t a brother.—It was then someone close to you;
For you have no sympathy for me,
You, your shepherds and your dogs.
I have been told of this.I have to make things even.
Saying this, into the woods
The wolf carries the lamb, and then eats him
Without any other why or wherefore.
-Trans. Eli Siegel

Admittedly, this is a pretty pessimistic fable. But which Aesop or La Fontaine fable isn’t? French fables do not teach children how the world should be but how it really is. Consequently, children are forced to confront the injustices of the world from a young age.

In most La Fontaine fables, the first line is the moral. The first line of Le Loup et L’Agneau is “La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure”. A literal translation is “The reason of the strongest [person] is always the best.” The fable beneath tells the story of a wolf who chastises a lamb for troubling his water supply. Never mind that the lamb has done absolutely nothing to deserve the wolf’s wrath. The two animals are so far from each other that the lamb is not at all in the way. Nevertheless, the wolf claims that he is.

The wolf’s complaint is far from reasonable. The lamb was already at the stream before the wolf arrived. When the lamb defends himself, the wolf’s accusations become even more ludicrous. He claims that the lamb insulted him the previous year, even though the lamb hadn’t even been born.

So why is the wolf’s reason (ie. the reason of the strongest) the best? It’s certainly not the best because it is the most logical. It’s the best because the wolf has the power to get what he wants. The lamb, on the other hand, lacks the power to escape from the wolf; nothing he might say can prevent him from being eaten.

Thus, the reason of the strongest is the best because the strongest always wins. The irony of the moral points to an unpleasant social reality. Those with the power to get what they want, will.

Many scholars believe that La Fontaine’s moral was an allusion to the case of Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance under Louis XIV. Fouquet was an ambitious administrator and an extravagant spender. He built himself the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte, which eventually became the model for Louis XIV’s Versailles. Indeed, King Louis was so afraid that a subordinate might become a Richelieu-type premier ministre that he imprisoned Fouquet and confiscated his castle. Fouquet ended his days in prison.

Fouquet may have been one of the wealthiest men in King Louis XIV’s court, but his wealth could not save him. Nor could the reasoning of his friends and acquaintances. Of course, calling Fouquet a lamb is more than a little disingenuous. He certainly acquired his wealth through unjust means. Nevertheless, the moral of the fable holds true: “The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best” (trans. Eli Siegel).

People who get away with saying and doing the most ludicrous things are those who have the most power in our society.