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The question is on the highlighted words in this passage from chapter 6 of La porte étroite by André Gide.

Le jour suivant, je me réveillai courbaturé, grippé, si souffrant que je ne me décidai qu’après midi à retourner chez les Bucolin. Par malchance, Alissa n’était pas seule. Madeleine Plantier, une des petites filles de notre tante Félicie, était là – avec qui je savais qu’Alissa prenait souvent plaisir à causer. Elle habitait pour quelques jours chez sa grand-mère et s’écria lorsque j’entrai :
      – Si tu retournes à la Côte en sortant d’ici, nous pourrons y monter ensemble.
     Machinalement j’acquiesçai ; de sorte que je ne pus voir Alissa seule. Mais la présence de cette enfant aimable nous servit sans doute ; je ne retrouvai pas la gêne intolérable de la veille ; la conversation s’établit bientôt aisément entre nous trois et beaucoup moins futile que je ne l’aurais d’abord pu craindre. Alissa sourit étrangement lorsque je lui dis adieu ; il me parut qu’elle n’avait pas compris jusqu’alors que je partais le lendemain. Du reste, la perspective d’un très prochain revoir enlevait à mon adieu ce qu’il eût pu avoir de tragique.

QUESTION

  1. If aurais pu becomes eusse pu, what does it change? (E.g. the result is ungrammatical; is grammatical but means something different; means the same thing but does not sound as good.)

  2. If eût pu becomes aurait pu, what does it change?

  3. Why was it the best choice to use the conditional (aurais) for one, but the subjunctive (eût) for the other?

P.S. If the change would be meaningless, i.e. either works fine in both cases, I would also appreciate hearing that.

P.S. 2. Please note that, according to Lambie, the highlighted verbs are both forms of conditional past, and neither of them subjunctive. Please see the comments section. (No longer there.) Do not rely on the labeling in this question or its title!

P.S. 3. I have asked this related question.

  • @Catomic - also know that the uses of subjunctive and conditional can be fluid. There are some rules, and also a whole lot of margin for using or the other in some cases. It seems to be really thorny actually. Even just knowing when it would be "correct" to use the subjunctive seems tricky, beyond a few rules. – Frank Jan 18 '17 at 1:38
  • @Catomic - you might want to look into when to use a subjunctive or a conditional, which is not so obvious, apparently. – Frank Jan 18 '17 at 3:12
2

First, that's a register we only see in books, us French aren't used to it at all, so it's hard to say if this or that "sounds good" or not.

Quick answers, from the top of my head (before research):

  1. I wouldn't say that, but I'm not 100% sure the result is ungrammatical, I guess it just doesn't sound as good.

  2. I think I would have used aurait pu if I had written that. Both seem good to me, eût pu sounds more literary (you basically have to be a writer to know how to use this tense properly)

  3. Like I said, one sounds more natural (spoken), the other one looks more literary, so for a book it would be better to use what the author used.

Now look what I found : a page about Conditionnel passé vs plus-que-parfait du subjonctif !

Long story short, plus-que-parfait du subjonctif is interchangeable with conditionnel passé in this context.

Here are some explanations:

Dans une phrase hypothétique comprenant une subordonnée de condition introduite par si, on emploie généralement le plus-que-parfait de l'indicatif pour exprimer une condition non réalisée dans le passé et le conditionnel passé pour exprimer une conséquence de cette condition non réalisée.

So :

  • Plus-que-parfait de l'indicatif -> Unachieved condition in the past
  • Conditionnel passé -> Consequence of that unachieved condition

However,

Dans la langue littéraire, on exprime parfois la même idée en employant le mode subjonctif. En effet, le plus-que-parfait de l'indicatif et le conditionnel passé peuvent tous deux être remplacés par le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif dans ce contexte.

Both of these tenses can be replaced by plus-que-parfait du subjonctif in this context (only in literature).

They explain why:

Le conditionnel n'existant pas en latin, c'est le mode subjonctif qui permettait d'exprimer les faits irréels et la possibilité, le mode indicatif étant réservé au probable. Le conditionnel a introduit la notion de possibilité à l'intérieur du mode indicatif et c'est généralement ce temps qu'on emploie aujourd'hui pour exprimer la conséquence d'une condition.

Before conditional existed, there was already a way to express hypothetical facts and possibilities. Now we use conditional but using subjonctif is still possible.

Dans la langue littéraire, on emploie encore parfois le subjonctif dans ce contexte; on peut alors l'employer pour exprimer la condition et la conséquence – contrairement au conditionnel, qui ne peut exprimer que la conséquence.

In literature, subjonctif can be used in this context, to express both the condition and the consequence, while the conditional can only express the consequence.

For a long time, plus-que-parfait du subjonctif was even called "conditionnel deuxième forme" in this context, it's mostly dropped now, because it added unnecessary confusion.

  • 3
    See also research.jyu.fi/grfle/417.html – jlliagre Jan 17 '17 at 10:40
  • Thank you. I believe English too has the (literary) option of, "If not for her I had perished." / "à l'intérieur du mode indicatif"--so Office québécois de la langue française also considers conditional part of indicative. / For the same issue in English grammar: english.stackexchange.com/questions/21283/… @jlliagre – Catomic Jan 17 '17 at 12:38
  • @Frank No you're right it's a mood, did I say otherwise ? – Teleporting Goat Jan 17 '17 at 19:18
  • "If not for her I had perished." = not grammatical in English. /If not for her, I would have perished/ or /Had it not been for her, I would have perished. – Lambie Jan 17 '17 at 20:29
  • @jlliagre. Finally I read the article you linked, which was very instructive. Thank you. / However, you don't mean that I should have found in it an explanation of why Gide might have used form 1 vs. 2, right? It seems to me that both Gide's aurais pu and eût pu are irreal in the context of formal narration, viz. the article's section 1a. So Gide could have used either Form 1 or 2 on any given occasion. / Probably he was sensitive to the frequency of Form 2 so as not to overuse it? If so, not only the given occasion but the whole text was relevant to his decision. – Catomic Jan 19 '17 at 9:36

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