4

I’m reading a transcription of an interview with a writer (Alain Fleischer in case anyone is interested). The speaker explains that he postponed writing an autobiographical book until he’d written some fiction, and had thus acquired more experience as a writer.

This passage has been troubling me:

Je me serais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré a l’écriture: pourtant, avec ce souvenir d’adolescence en tête, il eut été facile de faire un premier livre.

I’ve concluded that il eut été facile de faire un premier livre should read il eût été …, and understand why the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif has been used. (But please comment if you think I’m wrong.)

I remain troubled by:

Je me serais bien gardé de commencer

I understand the idiom: he was very careful to avoid starting. But why the past conditional?

In English, we can say I would have been about sixteen when … rather than I was about sixteen when …. I’ve been trying to decide what the first usage conveys: uncertainty?; psychological distance?. Would the speaker's use of the past conditional be comparable?

  • You are right about the your first statement: that should be il eût été facile..., i.e. a plus-que-parfait du subjonctif. – jlliagre Mar 20 '18 at 13:12
  • "He was very careful to avoid starting..." would rather be "Il fut prudent de ne pas commencer..." – Chewie Mar 20 '18 at 13:21
  • 2
    Just a non-native guess, but since he did [successfully/fortunately] postpone writing L’Amant en culottes courtes (his first, in fact only, entirely autobiographical work) until 2006 (20 years after his first novel), I think your “careful to avoid” interpretation is close, but maybe he’s leaving room for doubt as to whether he successfully avoided it on purpose or whether he fortunately avoided it subconsciously: I apparently carefully avoided/ended up by refraining from starting with “L’Amant,” [in spite of how easy it would have been to do so with such memories fresh in mind].” – Papa Poule Mar 20 '18 at 14:44
  • 1
    @Papa: Thanks again for taking the trouble to do some research on my behalf. I read your response to an earlier past-conditional question, so I've seen that "apparently" interpretation before. Here it perhaps does leave us to guess the speaker's resolution at the time, presumably because the speaker is himself now unsure. But this makes the utterance so (wilfully?) obscure. Nor do these thoughts seem to aligh with Circeus's view. – justerman Mar 20 '18 at 17:58
  • @Papa: Since you're "non-native", should I assume that you are a native English speaker? If so, how do you interpret that "I would have been about 16 ..." idiom that I mentioned in my my original post? – justerman Mar 20 '18 at 18:00
4

"I understand the idiom"

No you don't, and that is the source of your confusion.

What that actually translates to is "I would much rather not have started with" (or in a less complex French form j'aurais de loin préféré ne pas commencer), hence the conditional required here to express a counterfactual wish since they did in fact not avoid what they did despite their wishing they had or could have.

  • Thanks for responding, but I'm more confused now. My dictionary has the following in the entry for "se garder de faire qch": "to be careful not to do something". So I thought "careful not to start" was a safe assumption. And the start of an autobiographical was avoided (for 20 years, says Papa Poule.) So would the counter-factual have been required? – justerman Mar 20 '18 at 18:09
  • The counterfactual is the default meaning of a past conditional in French. The construction sounds odds to an English speaker because the same meaning is expressed in English through what is essentially a simple past (applied to the auxiliary verb), e.g. j'aurais dû m'enfuir, "I should have run away", je n'aurais pas pu le faire toute seule "I couldn't have done it alone". Similarly the classic polite formula "you shouldn't have" translates literally into "vous n'auriez pas dû". – Circeus Mar 21 '18 at 0:00
  • I understand that counterfactual is the default meaning of the past conditional in French. What I don’t understand is why the past conditional was used when the content of the sentence (he refrained from starting) was factual. – justerman Mar 21 '18 at 15:12
  • In this particular case? Because it's a counterfactual wish, i.e. another valid translation could be "i wish I hadn't started with this text". – Circeus Mar 21 '18 at 16:10
  • 1
    But he did NOT begin with an autobiography. It still seems to me that you have not understood that. – justerman Mar 22 '18 at 9:10
2

For the sentence

Je me serais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré a l’écriture [...]

The fact already happened, he did began by his autobiographical book when he began writing. If we just take that fact and nothing else, the passé composé would have replaced the conditionnel passé and the sentence would have been something like this:

J'ai commencé par un texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré à l'écriture [...]

So now for the past conditionnal. Let's take this part here:

Je me serais bien gardé de [...]

Here the meaning of that part of the sentence, and it is implicit, is that he regrets to have begun his writting by an autobiographical book.

Think about it that way: when you regret something, you ask yourself what you could have done to not have regrets. That's hypothetical, as you have no way of knowing the outcome since the action already happened, hence the conditional.

You can see that easily if you use the keyword Si to introduce the condition. That also clarifies the condition and makes it explicit:

Si j'avais pu changer le passé, je me serais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré a l’écriture [...]

Since Si j'avais pu changer le passé is generic and doesn't add anything to the sentence, you can remove that part and juste have it implicit:

Je me serais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré a l’écriture[...]

edit to complete with the clarification from justerman in the comments

If he did not write an autobiographical book and it is true, rather than being hypothetical, the right use for the sentence would have been with the plus-que-parfait.

Je m'étais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré a l’écriture[...]

However, if the conclusion (he did not write and autobiographical book) is true, the conditional could still be used if the condition he used was hypothetical.

Example of conditions:

He did not write an autobiographical book because:

  1. He was too young (hypothetical, not the real reason)
  2. He wasn't experienced (true)

With the same conclusion, you could have the use of both the plus-que-parfait and the conditional, depending on the condition.

Je m'étais demandé si j'étais trop jeune. Je me serais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré a l’écriture [...]

En réalité, je n'avais pas d'expérience. Je m'étais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis consacré a l’écriture [...]

other edit with the provided source (sentence in question at the 55th paragraph): http://books.openedition.org/bibpompidou/1048?lang=fr

I will quote a larger block that contains that sentence in question:

Dans le récit autobiographique, il ne s’agit pas d’explorer l’inconnu, de l’inventer, mais de fouiller dans la mémoire pour retrouver par l’exercice d’écriture ce qui a eu lieu réellement. Ce sont deux positions mentales très différentes, voire opposées. Par contre, il est certain que je n’ai pu écrire ce livre autobiographique que parce que j’étais passé par l’apprentissage de l’écriture romanesque. Paradoxalement, c’est parce que j’ai appris à écrire de la fiction que j’ai pu sans trahir ma mémoire à mes propres yeux, évoquer un épisode précieux de ma vie. Je me serais bien gardé de commencer par ce texte autobiographique quand je me suis enfin consacré à l’écriture : pourtant, avec ce souvenir d’adolescence en tête, il eut été facile de faire un premier livre. Je me suis méfié de cette fausse facilité, je sentais que c’eut été un trompe-l’œil sur mon projet d’écrivain et que, par ailleurs, je n’étais pas prêt – presque techniquement… – à traiter ce sujet sans l’abîmer, à restituer les événements, leur contexte, l’époque, dans leurs finesses, leur poésie, leur émotion… C’est alors, par absence de métier, que j’aurais échoué à être fidèle à la mémoire, et à rester dans l’exacte autobiographie.

To summarize that block he gives the reasons why he didn't began with an autobiographical book. What is particular about that particular sentence you highlighted is that he talks about himself as a kid, and not as the "him" of today. The conditional is used in that sentence in that way:

Si quand j'étais petit, j'avais pensé à écrire un texte autobiographique, je me serais gardé de le faire.

When he was a teen he did not thought about writing the text, but even if he did, he would still not have written the text, because of the reasons mentionned after the highlighted sentence.

  • 1
    Thanks for responding. I appreciate that you have tried to explain. But he did NOT begin with an autobiography. It seems to me that you have not understood that. – justerman Mar 22 '18 at 9:03
  • Yeah you are right sorry, I focused too much on the first part. I've edited my post to cover what you just said. In brief I can't see how "conditional" could be justified if the condition to the conclusion is true and did happen. If the condition was hypothetical, it must have been said earlier or after that sentence, implicitly or explicitly. – Alexandre Fernandes Bartolomeu Mar 22 '18 at 14:23
  • Do you have the transcript or a link where I could read it by chance? It would be really helpful for me to understand the exact situation and not just making assumptions. – Alexandre Fernandes Bartolomeu Mar 22 '18 at 14:33
  • Try this: books.openedition.org/bibpompidou/1048?lang=fr – justerman Mar 23 '18 at 8:50
  • Thanks you! I've added another edit to my answer. Does that explains well to you the use of the conditional for the sentence? – Alexandre Fernandes Bartolomeu Mar 23 '18 at 15:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.