I read. It’s like a disease

L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. 2004. Not translated into English but really easy to read in French. The title means The Illiterate.

Je lis. C’est comme une maladie. Je lis tout ce qui me tombe sous la main, sous les yeux. Journaux, livres d’école, affiches, bouts de papiers trouvés dans la rue, recettes de cuisine, livres d’enfants, tout ce qui est imprimé. J’ai quatre ans et la guerre vient de commencer. I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes into my hands, everything within eyesight. Newspapers, text books, posters, pieces of paper found in the street, recipes, children books, any printed thing. I’m four and the war has just begun.

This is the start of L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. I can’t tell you whether it’s a paragraph or just a few sentences as I borrowed the audio book from the library. It’s only fifty minutes long and it’s read by the actress Marthe Keller. I can relate to that first quote. I remember how I was impatient to learn how to read, how I wanted to read and like her, I used to read everything I could. L’analphabète is a short text in which Agota Kristof narrates her relationship with writing and reading. She was born in a poor village in Hungary in 1935 and she says she always loved reading and inventing stories.

After the war, she attended a boarding school for destitute girls and she started earning money by writing and playing sketches for the other students. She was so poor that she had to fake illness when her shoes were at the cobbler’s because she didn’t have another pair to walk to school.

Then she fasts forward and she’s twenty-one, fleeing Hungary through the mountains with her four-month-old daughter and her husband. They cross the border from Hungary to Austria. She relates the journey from Austria to Switzerland, the fresh start in a new country and how she became a writer. Two things struck me in her book, the behaviour of Austrian and Swiss populations and her simple but deep relationship with books.

The Austrian villagers welcomed the refugees and helped them reach Switzerland. They gave them food, shelter and train tickets. Everything was under control, they knew the process. She describes how the Swiss were waiting for them at the train station, offering tea and coffee. As refugees, the Swiss first brought them to special homes. Then they dispatched them in different cities and helped them find an apartment, a job in a factory. She remembers the controller in the bus, sitting by her and telling her she shouldn’t be afraid, that the Russian tanks wouldn’t come to Switzerland. That kindness struck me and it struck me that it struck me. I thought “What? We, Europeans, didn’t always treat illegal immigrants the way we do now? When did we start treating refugees as criminals?” I thought about Lampedusa and its sad reputation as the destination to escape misery. And I thought about what the candidates who run for the French presidential election say or avoid saying about immigration.

I was also really moved when Agota Kristof tells her need to read and write and also her relationship with other languages. There’s a chapter entitled Langues ennemies (Enemy languages). It tells her first encounter with a foreign language when she and her parents moved to a German speaking part of Hungary. German, the language of the former dominating empire, Austria. Then Russian is the language imposed by the new communist regime. It’s an enemy that kills Hungarian culture and smothers the cultural life. Then comes the French, the language imposed by fate when she finds solace in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Agota Kristof explains she became illiterate, living in a country whose language she couldn’t speak, cut out from the society because of the language barrier and living through a long cultural desert. She depicts how she eventually managed to speak French but still couldn’t read or write. It lasted six years until she went back to school and learnt how to read and write. She was delighted to read again and overwhelmed by the new reading possibilities, all the foreign books available in French. I don’t know how I would cope with a situation like that: no book during five years except for the rare ones she could find in Hungarian from the Geneva library. Five years without reading anything new, without understanding newspapers, cereal boxes or administrative correspondence. I can’t imagine it. The French is also an enemy language for her because it slowly kills her native language in her and because it’s a constant fight to speak it and write it properly. Even after thirty years, she still needs a dictionary. It has imposed itself as her writing language but not without collateral damages for her Hungarian self.

This book is written without pathos. Its tone is factual, descriptive but the absence of expansive feelings doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t feel strongly for her. Marthe Keller chose to read it with a foreign accent and it enforced the impression of listening to Agota Kristof herself. I listened to it twice and the second time, I finished it in my car, after a working day. When I started the engine, I was stressed by the accumulation of the tiny details of a whole working day. Deadlines to be met, suspicion of incompetence from someone I need to rely on, fear to disappoint. Then Agota Kristof’s literary voice invaded the small space in the car and erased my worries. They seemed so futile compared to what she was telling. Again, it’s a simple description without complaining but I felt compassion for her, awe for her perseverance, her ability to face difficult times. And my problems shrinked back into their appropriate size and kept the right proportion. I owe her one.

Alas, it’s not translated into English…It’s available in German (Die Analphabetin: Autobiographische Erzählung) and if you know French, you can probably read it in the original, it’s not very difficult and it’s short.

PS: I think the cover of the French edition is irrelevant.

Update in 2017: It’s been released in English in 2014. The title is The Illiterate.

  1. Brian Joseph
    April 21, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Thanks for another interesting review Emma. This sounds like a very appealing memoir. I think that I would really relate to the parts pertaining to Kristof’s near compulsive reading. as I often devoir all text within my sight including owner manuals for appliances and ingredient labels.

    Reading your commentary on these books that are only available in French provide additional reasons for me to acquiesce to my wife’s urgings that I learn the language!


    • April 21, 2012 at 11:32 pm

      I have the disease too. I can’t go out without a book in my bag, even if I know I won’t have any chance to read where I’m going, it’s compulsive, it’s like I’m naked if I leave the book or the kindle at home. I also read packagings and ingredients but not manual for appliances. You got it worse than me 🙂

      If I had to leave for a desert island I’d take In Search of Lost Time. It’s long, rich, can be read, re-read, re-re-read and still be interesting.

      I’m sorry about the reviews of not-translated French books. This blog is my reading journal, I write about everything I read, even when I don’t like it. Fortunately several regular readers are either French-speaking natives or can read French.


      • Brian Joseph
        April 22, 2012 at 6:15 am

        Oh, please do not apologize for the reviews of non translated French literature! It is beneficial to hear about and discuss various literary works no matter what languages they are available in. It is my shortcoming for not knowing the language. It is a glaring omission for me as my wife is a native French speaker.


  2. April 22, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Terrible cover for the subject matter. The main problem I have with this is the idea that reading is a disease. Obsession, compulsion what-have-you, but to phrase it as a disease sounds as though it’s coming from someone who doesn’t read, and doesn’t understand the need (a very real need may I add) to read.


    • April 22, 2012 at 12:39 am

      Perhaps I chose the wrong English word. In French, an addiction is a “maladie” too. That’s how she meant it.
      It’s compulsive and she says that she would have kept on writing, whatever the circumstances.


      • April 23, 2012 at 3:30 am

        An addiction I can agree to, but there are worse things in life.


        • April 23, 2012 at 3:43 am

          That’s from a reader’s point of view. And of course I agree with you.
          For non-readers, we are sometimes a little strange.


  3. April 22, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Marthe Keller is Swiss German, maybe that’s why they chose her? I suppose her Fench has an accent. I just watched a movie with her the other day. I like her very much.
    In the book shops here there are so many books by Agota Kristof but for some reason I was never tempted. I like the sound of this one and might try it.
    Yeah, I can see how using another language can kill your native language. I find it hard to imagine though that hse would still need a dictionary. That’s probably why the book is written in simple French.


    • April 22, 2012 at 10:43 am

      I guess you’re right, she must have an accent in French.

      I was never tempted by Agota Kristof either too, I borrowed this by chance…Now I’d like to try one of her books but I don’t know where to start. Any suggestion?

      I can understand why she still needs a dictionary, the grammar and spelling are difficult. I’m sure her spoken French was excellent but writing is different.


      • April 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

        I see the rows of books at the book shop but I have no idea about her writing at all.
        I know she is highly regarded in Switzerland.
        I ordered Emilie est chauve btw


        • April 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm

          Will you review Héloïse est chauve or just read it?


          • April 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm

            Once I’ve read it, I will probabaly review it, although, I’ve read so many books lately and have never reviewed them.


  4. April 22, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I’ve been meaning to read Agota Kristof for a long time (sound familiar?). Is it true that her name is a penname, a sort of distortion of Agatha Christie? I’m sure I heard that somewhere. This is a beautiful review and it makes me keen to read this particular book of hers as I’m very interested in language acquisition, and happier to read memoirs of war atrocities rather than literary fictions about them.


    • April 22, 2012 at 11:16 am

      I don’t know about her name. Her memoir isn’t very detailed, it’s short and she relates to her life only through the prism of literature. You understand the background at a corner of a sentence, when a detail is thrown to explain the rest.


  5. April 26, 2012 at 11:58 am

    The opening paragraph is nicely done (and I could read the French which surprised me). I too read whatever, and if needs must cereal packets, adverts, it is a curious thing. My family when I was a kid (most of them, not all) would frequently castigate me for “having my nose in a book” and tell me to go out and play instead. I’m not from a family of readers.

    Regarding untranslated books, it’s a reading blog, so it covers what you read. Besides, even if I can’t read them it’s still interesting to hear of them.

    Why does she still need a dictionary after 30 years? That seems a little odd. French isn’t that hard. I wonder if she’d need a dictionary in any language, regardless of time, simply because as a writer she is constantly pushing the boundaries of her vocabulary.


    • April 26, 2012 at 6:56 pm

      I see I’m not the only one to read ingredients and cereal boxes ! My mother reads a lot, so I’ve never had any comment on the time I spent in books.

      I’m glad you could read the quote in French, I wasn’t so sure about the translation.

      Regarding her use of the dictionary. I can understand that, some people still make mistakes in French although they’ve lived here for years. (especially mixing genders for words). Plus, spelling is difficult when you come from a phonetic language. In French, there are lots of letters you don’t pronounce and in Hungarian, you pronounce everything. She says that’s why she couldn’t read in French even when she knew how to speak.

      I also think that we’re not equal when it comes to learn another language. For some it is easier than for others.

      As far as I’m concerned, I think I could live in England for years and still need a dictionary to check spelling, grammar and the meaning of words.


  6. April 27, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! I love the French word for ‘illiterate’ – it sounds so poetic. It is a shame that this book is not translated into English. I should maybe get the French edition and then dust my French dictionary and try to use it to read the book. I love that first paragraph that you have quoted. Most readers will identify with it, I think. Have you seen the French movie ‘588, Rue Paradis’? For some reason ‘L’analphabète’ reminded me of that movie. Your comment on French spelling being difficult if one comes from a phonetic language made me smile 🙂 When I first learnt French when I was in school, I was puzzled by the pronunciation because most consonants were either softened or weren’t pronounced and one had to know the pronunciation alongwith the spelling to know a word fully. English is also like that, but I think French is more complex. When I learnt Russian later, I discovered that it was pronounced as it was written and I found that quite easy-to-learn. The Russian teacher killed us with the grammar rules, though – it was like learning Ancient Greek!


    • April 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm

      I haven’t seen ‘588 rue Paradis’, sorry.

      For a French, English is difficult to pronounce for “r”, “th” and also for inflexions within a word and/or a sentence. French has a rather flat tone whereas in English you need to accentuate a specific syllable in the word.

      The grammar, well, the main difficulties are to know:
      – when to put “ing” to verbs. We learn lists and lists like “to prevent someone from doing something”,
      – what is the right postposition (for, to, in, into)… Still difficult for me, I’ll never stop using a dictionary for this. We also learn lists and lists by heart.
      – when to put “a”, “the” or nothing. (hours of exercices in the firt years)
      – how to differenciate the two present times (also hours of lessons in the first years) because there is only one in French,
      – what is the right word for notions that are only covered by one word in French (must/have; make/do ; jump/leap ; birthday/anniversary…)


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