The question is on the sentence as highlighted in this excerpt from L'Étranger by Camus.

J’ai dit qu’il [le chien] était de belle race et Salamano a eu l’air content. « Et encore, a-t-il ajouté, vous ne l’avez pas connu avant sa maladie. C’était le poil qu’il avait de plus beau. » Tous les soirs et tous les matins, depuis que le chien avait eu cette maladie de peau, Salamano le passait à la pommade.

Question

How does the sentence mean what it means?

Background

From English translations I understand that it means that the coat of hair was the best thing about the dog.

But how does it come to mean that?

Perhaps a way to rephrase the question is to ask how much freedom I have with the form of expression.

Can I substitute another adjective for beau? For example, could I say the following of someone with many charming qualities, but none more charming than her voice?

Elle a la voix de plus charmante.

Or can I even use any verb and any adjective? For example, if someone could gulf down any food, but hamburgers faster than anything else, could I say this?

Il mange les hamburgers de plus rapide.

Or perhaps I could even get rid of plus and say something like:

C’était le poil qu’il avait de beau.

Meaning that it was the coat that was a good point about the dog. (Suppose someone says the dog had good teeth, and you contradict it by saying the above.)

If I have all the freedom (the form of expression being flexible and not set), how could I say that it was in the coat that the dog outdid another? Supposing our dog was male, and the other female, could we say:

C’était le poil qu’il avait de plus beau que elle.

But that would mean de plus beau has to mean sometimes the superlative (as in Camus) and other times the comparative (as in our last example).

I realize that some of these questions may not make much sense. I am only trying to illustrate the sort of confusion caused in a beginning student by an unfamiliar form of expression.

  • Another instance, found in an 1818 grammar book: "Racine a imité Euripide en tout ce qu'il a de plus beau dans sa Phèdre." (The grammarians were pointing out the ambiguity in il.) – Catomic Dec 15 '15 at 3:50
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Maybe you'll find the question–answer version easier to understand:

Qu'est-ce qu'il a de plus beau?

C'est le poil !

To formulate an affirmative sentence directly (without the question being asked) one cannot escape this phasing :

C'est … qu'il … de plus … .

or

Ce qu'il … de plus …, c'est … .

or

… est ce qu'il … de plus … .

It could also be preceded by the following complement, which could improve the readability of the sentence and does not change its meaning.

De toutes choses, c'est le poil qu'il avait de plus beau.

With the same question–answer reasoning you can find out that the following sentences are correct as well :

C'est le poil qu'il avait de beau.

C'est le poil qu'il avait de plus beau qu'elle.

And you are perfectly right to notice that the two last sentences are about one single thing that is beautiful or more beautiful for the dog than for the bitch. It is not about the dog's most beautiful feature (characterized by a superlative) anymore.

  • Thank you. And avoir de plus charmante and manger de plus rapide? Are these acceptable, or should I not venture beyond avoir de beau and avoir de plus beau? – Catomic Dec 14 '15 at 0:55
  • @Catomic: You can say Ses yeux est ce qu'elle a de plus charmant or C'est le dessert qu'il mange le plus rapidement for example. – Stéphane Gimenez Dec 14 '15 at 9:21
  • I don't need to worry about de plus charmant agreeing in number or gender with the thing said to be had de plus charmant? (Is it always masculine singular?) – Catomic Dec 14 '15 at 15:21
  • @Catomic: Indeed, we say La bouche est ce qu'elle a de plus charmant, neutral agreement with ce. – Stéphane Gimenez Dec 14 '15 at 15:33

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