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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Class

François Bégaudeau

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To purchase The Class

Title: The Class
Author: François Bégaudeau
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 264 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Class - US
The Class - UK
The Class - Canada
Entre les murs - Canada
Entre les murs - France
Die Klasse - Deutschland
DVD: The Class - US
The Class - UK
  • French title: Entre les murs
  • Translated by Linda Asher
  • The Class was made into a film in 2008, directed by Laurent Cantet and starring ... François Bégaudeau

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Our Assessment:

C : frustrating

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Class is a (school-)year-in-the-life story, narrated by a fairly unenthusiastic ninth grade French and Literature teacher at a Paris public school. The first thing he does before the term begins is figure out how long his sentence is: with Fridays off (apparently they're very accommodating making up teachers' schedules in France) he figures out:

the number of days my presence would be required. One hundred thirty-six.
       The narrator is not a born pedagogue -- but then he would presumably argue that the group of kids he's charged with minding is hardly fit to be taught anything anyway. Mostly immigrant children, they have their share of behavior problems -- and those that don't, like the well-behaved Chinese kids, don't have adequate command of the language to accomplish much. So it's a constant struggle, for everyone involved -- or rather it is fairly laid-back educational warfare, an us vs. them mentality prevailing on all sides (students and teachers), everyone just hoping to coast to the end of the year when they can all be rid of one another, at least for a while. There's little idealism here, and very little ambition, with most more worried about their pride than anything else.
       The narrator hardly paints himself in a particularly good light, acknowledging that his heart isn't really in this. Rare opportunities at actually imparting knowledge generally go something like this when, after class is over, he's in a rush to get some coffee:
     "M'sieur, I wanted to ask you, what's a semicolon ?"
     Coffee with no sugar, strong enough to set the tastebuds screaming.
     "Look you know very well what a semi-colon is. It's a dot over a comma."
     "I'm asking how you use it. You're so stupid sometimes, m'sieur."
     No sugar, very hot.
     "I've already explained how you use it."
     "Yes, but I didn't understand."
     Really steaming.
    "Okay, it's less strong than a period and stronger than a comma, that's it."
     "Well, okay but when do you use it ?"
     "Alyssa, I'm very sorry but I have to meet with a parent, we'll talk about this some other time."
     "When ?"
       If this were the exception it would be one thing, but it is par for the course: like Alyssa, his students are constantly kept hanging. But then there's his side of the story: he may be obtuse -- "so stupid sometimes" --, but it's nothing compared to the black holes of ignorance most of these students are. They may not be stupid, but between their language skills (extremely limited) and lack of any education it's no wonder he constantly feels like he's banging his head against a wall (well, he doesn't -- but that's just because he really isn't trying very hard: everyone is fairly well resigned to how things are).
       The Class is made up of brief dialogue-heavy scenes. The narrator doesn't try to connect much, or develop any real storylines -- appropriately enough: the purpose for everyone, after all, isn't any sort of development or advancement, but merely getting through each period, each day, and ultimately the school year. Few of the characters are developed in any way, either: the teacher -- and hence also the reader -- doesn't get to know them well. Beyond clothing quirks (the teacher has a thing about students wearing hats and caps and the like), national backgrounds (Mali ! China ! Morocco !), and a few personal titbits -- one student loses a family member, another has a mother who is threatened with deportation -- the characters remain none too distinct members of a big blur that is the class (again, perhaps, appropriately enough -- perhaps that's all he wants to/can see them as).
       There's a fair amount of disciplining going on -- of a peculiar French type; here it involves the teacher walking various students to the principal's office (and, yes, leaving the class behind unattended -- suggesting discipline can't be that big of a problem) and students forced to write notes of apology to the teachers (yes, stunningly much here revolves around matters of personal pride). Several students get expelled, though not so much for specific infractions but rather their general attitude and lack of respect (and for occasionally acting out -- though it all seems extraordinarily tame by American public school standards).
       Obviously, Bégaudeau is doing all this on purpose, i.e. this must be exactly the light he wants to show the school environment in, one where indifference, and a willful blindness to everything that doesn't directly affect one, prevail. Typically:
     "You know that Ali, one of the monitors ?"
     "Yeah yeah, the one who's kind of heavy with square glasses."
     "No, a thin guy with no glasses."
     "Oh yeah, I remember"
       There are, indeed, no memorable characters here -- and few whose physical descriptions the narrator bothers with. They are mere names -- and voices.
       Yes, there are voices -- lots of voices: The Class is a babbling novel of unembellished dialogue. This, too, is for effect -- since part of the point is how poorly these kids express themselves.
       The narrator is a French teacher, which allows him to hammer home the point about their illiteracy home even more directly. They don't understand grammar well, and few speak proper French. (Some of this is difficult to convey in translation -- especially the grammar lessons -- but most of it comes across adequately enough.) Yet despite being a literature teacher as well, and the occasional mention of some reading going on, book-titles are studiously avoided (among the few that's hinted at is, oddly enough, Georges Perec's Je me souviens -- but since the teacher obviously has little interest in remembering anything of this nightmare it's not that much of a surprise that he brushes that aside). Examples of the kids' writing are put on frequent display, though it's unclear whether Bégaudeau means this to be affecting or to show, again and again and again, how poorly the youngsters express themselves. (And yet if what he's after is that awful youthful inability to convey one's emotions and thoughts, especially at the remove of a second a language ... well, he does a piss-poor job of that as well.)
       A rare ray of hope comes when a student asks the teacher about Plato's The Republic, and he's actually able to enthuse: "really, it's terrific you're reading that" (though he also has to add, in that pseudo-playful manner that hasn't worked well for him: "It's weird because usually that's not a book for skanks"). Needless to say, however, nothing more is heard about Plato and the like.
       Sure, this is a book about the frustrations of being a teacher -- and in a way it's comforting to find a book that is truer to life than the usual movie-of-the-week representation of that profession. But in its screenplay-like presentation The Class is two-dimensional and flat. In one sense, this works perfectly: the teacher's (and the students') indifference is now mirrored in the reader's own: in this presentation it's close to impossible to even have sympathy for anyone here (because Bégaudeau doesn't let the reader get close enough (by learning enough) about any of the characters -- not even the narrator, who remains a complete cipher (we never learn about his life outside school, for example)). But it's obvious that there is more to this dreadful state of affairs -- and more to these characters.
       The Class was made into a successful and acclaimed film, and it is well possible that on-screen presentation of the figures adds that third dimension so conspicuously absent on the page. It is not, however, a good book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 April 2009

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The Class: Reviews: The Class - the film: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author François Bégaudeau was born in 1971.

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