What Our Faculty Are Reading: French Teacher Dr. Chris Semk

Headshot of Dr. Chris Semk

April 10, 2018

Chris joined Walker’s from Yale University where he was a French professor and recognized as an excellent teacher in both French and the humanities. With a Ph.D. in French Literature, Chris has brought the French language program back to Walker’s. In addition to French, Chris teaches a class on Dystopian Literature as well as a Latin class. He also works with Walker’s cross country team and advising the Middle School Garden Club. Deeply committed to social justice, Chris serves as the advisor of Wings (Gender and Sexuality Alliance). He is actively involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy and serves on the board of directors of AIDS Project New Haven. Chris lives in Hartford with his partner Jonathan.

“What I’m reading:

The Arabian Nights (Penguin, 2010). A few friends and I have been getting together to read and discuss long books. Our current selection is The Arabian Nights, also known as 1001 Nights, a series of tales (and tales within tales) whose characters run the gamut from merchants and thieves to princes to supernatural beings. In the frame narrative, the sultan Shahryar marries and kills a different woman every night until the vizier’s clever daughter Shahrazad puts an end to his brutality by marrying him and spinning tales to occupy him each night. Such ingenuity is on display in many of the stories themselves, as the various characters attempt (not always successfully) to talk their way out of sticky situations. It’s an entertaining read that celebrates our ability to talk ourselves out of anything, even as it evinces a firm belief in fate or destiny as unavoidable.

L’allée du roi (Gallimard, 2006), by Françoise Chandernagor. This book imagines the memoirs of Françoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon, who was Louis XIV’s second wife. A fascinating historical figure, Françoise d’Aubigné was born into a Protestant family in 1635 and, despite a tumultuous childhood with an uncertain future, managed to position herself in the center of French society. For those of us interested in girls’ education, it is worth noting that Madame de Maintenton founded the first school for girls in France, la maison royale de Saint-Louis, in 1686. She wrote a rule for the school as well as a series of didactic plays that the girls would perform. From a historical perspective, L’allée du roi is thoroughly researched. From a narrative point of view, however, it can be somewhat dry, probably because it remains too close to the original sources, which include Madame de Maintenon’s letters.

I recently finished reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (New Directions, 2016), which follows an unnamed female protagonist through five successive lives beginning during the Habsburg Empire and wrapping up in the 20th century. Each section imagines how life could have unfolded differently had the protagonist not died at the end of the previous section. Erpenbeck attends to detail throughout, noting how even something as small as a misstep or a creaky door can alter one’s life in ways that only a novelist can capture. It’s incredibly engaging and, I think, ultimately offers a profound meditation on the innumerable little pieces that make up a life.

Finally, I’ve been reading The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with my meditation group. Trungpa fled Tibet in the 1950s and was instrumental in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West (his students included the poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman). Although he was a controversial figure, his work presents the Buddhist teachings (dharma) in a straightforward, accessible way. Mindfulness has become something of a buzzword these days and this book helps to anchor that term in a long tradition with a rich history.”