The Class is a novel about the everyday life of a Paris public school literature teacher who thinks that his current position is a bit useless. The teacher who narrates this book paints not only a picture of his depressing life but of those other educators who are in the same position. Through weighty dialogue, Begaudeau also highlights the struggles that come along with placing a mixture of cultural backgrounds in a single room to learn basic concepts of French literature. The outcome of this situation and overall message of the book seems to be that sometimes teaching can be less than rewarding when you are placed with a rowdy crowd of kids.
The middle-aged narrator comes across as angry, impatient man unwilling to go out of his way to capture the much needed attention of these adolescent teens. His interaction with these ninth graders is less than intolerable and seems more of an obligation than a passion to inspire. At times his behavior even comes into question.
“M’sieur you see how he shoved me?”
“I don’t care.”
The novel is one long string of fight after fight from the students and complaint after complaint from the faculty. The chapters are interchangeable, going from classroom scene to faculty lounge and back. This setup flows, but sometimes it can take a few paragraphs to understand what the complaint or complication (because it has to be one of the two) is for a particular chapter.
Begaudeau does a remarkable job getting the point across that the life of a teacher can be very hectic and unruly at times. However, there is a lack of characterization among both the faculty and the students, which causes everyone to blend together into a huge blob of chaos. Begaudeau might have done this on purpose to help further the point that the narrator has no passion for teaching “The Class” and no sympathy for the whiny staff. This lack of character description makes it very difficult to identify with the teacher, who is just a blurred vision of annoyance. And on the other side of the equation, it’s hard to understand the struggles of these teenagers without being able to connect with them in some way. Or even identify them—oftentimes the focus is more on a clothing detail than anything substantive or permanent about the students:
Frida now had long hair and red letters spelling GLAMOUR appliquéd on her black T-shirt.
Which goes to show how little the narrator cares about his students.
The so-named sat down, a glaring welt in the middle of his forehead.
The ending, possibly the most “happening” scene from the book, is a bit confusing for a couple reasons. There is a soccer game going on outside and one of the literature teacher’s “9-A’s” comes to tell him that they have been disqualified from the game. The teacher’s attention automatically zero’s in on the soccer game, with a play by play description, and just when you think that this is the point where he will defend these kids and let down his guard; the end. You leave the novel the same way you entered it; confused1.
1 This novel was put on the big screen in 2008 and even played at the opening night of the New York Film Festival. It was the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee and seems to fill the it the gaping holes in the novel. Michael Dargis from the New York Times says that it’s “an artful, intelligent movie about modern French identity and attempts to transform those bodies into citizens . . .” The struggle that comes about when you place so many characters into one book is learning how to express identities and knowing how to connect the reader with the characters. The movie makes those connections and allows the audience to paint the whole picture, furthering their understanding of The Class.
Went to the Sebald panel that the Mercantile Library hosted to kick off the publication of The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald (Seven Stories), edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. First of all, the library is beautiful, and I can’t believe I didn’t even know about its existence prior to last night. It caters almost exclusively to fiction, its shelves stuffed with great fiction and literary journals. Check out their events and book groups if you’re in NYC. One hundred bucks per year will get you membership and access to the space, well worth the price, I think.
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