There's nothing surprising about walking into a writer's house and finding the first room you enter lined floor-to-ceiling with books. Hardbacks, paperbacks, a couple of shelves of the Pléiade library of French classics, along with a picture of Proust, other photos and assorted knick-knacks. More surprising is that this booky room off a Paris courtyard is home to someone who, as a child learning to read, struggled a full year to master the letter "A". Just 25 years' more endeavour, commented his father dryly, he might get to grips with the whole alphabet. To his teachers, this boy was a failure, a no-hoper. A dunce.
But this didn't stop Daniel Pennac, who was, he said, "born among books", and became a writer through being a reader. Like most European writers, he says, "even if they'd rather not admit it". By the time he had reached boarding-school he was escaping into Dickens, Stevenson, Dumas. And by the end of his school career, he was constantly writing, too – he'd translated Chekhov's The Bear into alexandrines, and traded essays for his schoolmates' maths homework. "My first entry into writing," he says, "was through contraband."
Pennac has published over 30 books now, including acclaimed novels for adults and children, comic-books, picture-books and essays. He has won major prizes, been a consistent bestseller across much of Europe, and translated into more than 30 languages. But that childhood doubt, bred from years of scholastic failure, is still there. "Yes, I'm hooked up to doubt just like people are hooked up to gas or electricity".
"I master my doubts now," he explains. "I have fun with them, they're my travelling companions." Whenever he embarks on a new book, the first step he takes "is not a movement of confidence, it's a movement of defiance."
His latest work, Chagrin d'école, published this month in English as School Blues, (translated by Sarah Ardizzone; MacLehose Press, £16.99), is not a book about "school" per se, but "a book about dunces". He describes it as "about the pain of incomprehension and the damage it can do."
Pennac's own memories of his schooldays are, he says, memories of shame and fear – "fear of the question I was going to be asked, that I wouldn't be able to answer." The book anatomises the dunce he himself once was.
So the young Daniel Pennacchioni, that dunce – the French word is cancre, an antique word, now seldom used – is at the heart of his book, and more than once confronts the narrator indignantly. But Pennac's credentials for writing School Blues were earned, too, in a quarter of a century spent as a teacher, where he regularly encountered pupils whose problems echoed his own. From that teeming quarter-century he has distilled his examples, putting faces and names to the general ideas developed.
So there's Nathalie, who's already 12 1/2 and still hasn't done anything with her life, and can't even understand subordinate clauses; Emmanuel, who finds exams boring ("You've no idea how this bores the shit out of me, sir!") and eventually becomes a famous magician; and Rémi, whose homework to "Describe Yourself at 40" imagines him as a chef. The essay gets 13/20, and decades later Pennac bumps into a 40-year-old Rémi at his restaurant. Pennac insists, of course, that his teaching methods worked for some, not for others. "I don't have the solution for every cancre out there."
One of the most arresting images in School Blues is a description of the flocks of swallows that in the early days of September journey south past Pennac's house in the Vercors. His bedroom has skylights facing north and south, directly across the migration path, and the mass of the flock hurtles right into the room and out the other side – but inevitably a few individuals don't make it out. Fooled by the transparency of the skylight's fixed panes, they crash into them, falling, dazed, onto the carpet.
The teacher's job, Pennac explains, is to take up these stunned creatures, to locate some spark of life and nurse them out of their educational comas; to find some kind of access-point to each student.
He won't learn English the usual way? You try nursery rhymes, or nonsense verse, quotes from Woody Allen or Churchill, or get him acting out scenes in a play or singing Beatles songs. The good teacher, faced with a "dunce" – a pupil failing to engage with learning, a stunned sparrow – has a passion for finding these points of access, will try as many as it takes. Also, good teachers go to bed early. This is apparently important. And the other sort of teacher? "It doesn't take adults long to believe a child is stupid."
"All it takes is one teacher – just one," Pennac writes in School Blues, "to save us from ourselves and make us forget all the others."
For him, there was the egg-shaped Mr Bal, a maths teacher; there was Miss Gi – "a tornado that wrenched us out of our straitjacket of laziness, dragging us into the tumultuous tunnel of History"; and the philosophy prof Mr S, "who would leave me buzzing with questions as evening fell".
Looking back on them now, Pennac can see how their lessons "proved to be the antechambers to my life... It wasn't just their knowledge that these teachers shared with us, it was the desire for knowledge itself. And what they communicated to me was a taste for passing it on."
Pennac has talked about this subject all over the world. "Each country thinks its school is in a specific crisis, without ever linking the school's crisis to that of the society around it." Unlike the world of his youth, today's consumer society "churns out children who turn up at school as customers. The teacher is commodified, the school is a shop, the subjects are consumer goods. To read, to think, to reflect, isn't a question of want, it's a question of need. We [teachers] have to go through intellectual gymnastics to change this need into desire."
Anywhere you go, says Pennac, there will be pupils who need rescuing. School Blues is not about a particular inadequate school system in a particular country at a particular time, but about a character – the dunce – who is eternal and ubiquitous.
Indeed, while Pennac was in school in the southern French village of La Colle-sur-Loup, failing to learn his alphabet (or indeed much else), his contemporary, the English children's novelist Michael Morpurgo was at a similar school in England. As another self-described "dunce", he recalls only too vividly "how isolated I felt by a sense of failure, how failure begets failure, begets hopelessness and a huge lack of self-worth."
"I should have sat side-by-side with Daniel Pennac in the same class, at the same desk," Morpurgo continues. "We would have encouraged one another, and that's a great start. Then instead of staying the dunces we were we might have grown up and written books that made children feel good about themselves, books about how children matter, how tender shoots can so easily be ignored, derided and destroyed. Of course it turns out that Daniel Pennac didn't need me. He's done it anyway time and time again. I'd still like to have sat beside him, though. We could have made paper aeroplanes together and told one another stories." Morpurgo, too, would become a teacher.
The foreword to School Blues is written by Morpurgo's fellow former Children's Laureate – and fellow-storyteller – Quentin Blake. Several Blake pictures hang proudly on Pennac's walls. It's noticeable that Pennac, somewhat straggle-haired, with round glasses and a quick grin, could pleasingly be a Quentin Blake creation himself.
Blake's foreword recalls attending public events with Pennac and witnessing the extraordinary rapport his friend has with an audience. Even when his audience is no more than a couple of eager interviewers in a little book-lined room in the 20th arrondissement, Pennac is all energy – speaking with passion, gesticulating emphatically, responding sometimes with a mischievous wit but always taking his questions seriously, and taking his time to formulate an answer.
Like the fine teacher he clearly was, he talks to us each apart, while still talking to us together. He remembers our names immediately, and casts us in scenes to explicate his theme. "Imagine Sam is trying to teach me English...". A teacher can only rescue each struggling pupil individually – picking up one swallow at a time – but he simultaneously retains the whole class of individuals constantly in his sights.
"Teaching is not a military art," says Pennac, "it's an orchestral art. A good teacher is a good conductor... He can't just neglect the third violin. The orchestra is made up of all the instruments, some of them extremely simple instruments, but they participate in a general complexity."
Some of Pennac's most fervent passion is reserved not for discussing the plight of the struggling dunce, but rhapsodising on the French language he adores. The narrator's voice in the book may seem deceptively unwriterly – direct, conversational – but it's full of a novelist's storytelling skill, and a sparkling linguistic playfulness.
Inevitably, such playfulness will challenge a translator. Sarah Ardizzone was a veteran of Pennac's work: she has translated four previous books, winning the 2005 Marsh Award for children's literature in translation with one. So she embarked on School Blues with some forewarning of what to expect.
"It's so rare to have the privilege (and hair-raising test) of translating writing of this quality," says Ardizzone, "of straining to do Technicolor justice to a voice this idiosyncratic."
She reports that "Pennac goads any translator to tackle his contradictions head-on, making language buckle under the strain of his outrageous humour while loading it with impassioned beliefs; his relish of words is infectiously erudite, yet he explores them with humility".
Pennac is due in London next week for a series of events to launch School Blues. While in town he will also be visiting Norwood School in south London, his first time at a British school. But for now, this evening he gets on a train back to the Vercors. Where – this being September – there may be a new generation of swallows requiring his attention.
Daniel Pennac will be in conversation with Michael Rosen at the Institut Français, London SW7, on Wednesday 22 September, and with Quentin Blake at the Free Word Centre, London EC1, on Friday 24 September
Win a trip to ghent with the children's bookhow
Next week, the annual Children's Book Show begins, with a tour of British and visiting authors in 16 events across the country between 22 September and 17 November, from Liverpool to London, Newcastle to Bristol, Plymouth to King's Lynn. Children's authors and illustrators taking part in this year's programme of "Stories from around the world" include Michael Rosen, Elizabeth Laird, Quentin Blake and Malachi Doyle from the UK, joined by guests such as Gunilla Bergstrom from Sweden, François Place from France and Carll Cneut from Belgium. To celebrate, The Children's Bookshow, 'The Independent' and Tourism Flanders-Brussels are offering in this year's competition a family trip to the medieval city of Ghent in Belgium for two adults and two children, with ferry travel, two nights' accommodation, museum passes, a canal trip, a castle visit - and tea with leading writer Carll Cneut.
To enter, answer the questions in the 'Competition' section of The Children's Bookshow website: www.thechildrensbookshow.com. The site also gives full listings for this year's events.
Entries should be sent by 30 November 2010 to The Children's Bookshow, PO Box 66314, London NW6 9PS, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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