A sometimes funny, sometimes bitter memoir of a scholar's fruitless efforts to master spoken French. Watson (Philosophy/Washington Univ.; Niagara, 1993) had been specializing in the work of Descartes for 25 years when he was asked to deliver a paper in French at an international conference and decided to finally learn to speak the language. Although he compares himself here to the professor in Don DeLillo's White Noise--the world's foremost authority on ""Hitler Studies,"" who can neither speak, read, nor write German--Watson could, in fact, read French fluently (although he couldn't pronounce the words he read). When he begins to study spoken French, however, he finds his reading ability a hindrance rather than an aid: He is bored with necessary beginning exercises; he thinks too much about what he is saying; he cannot apply what he knows from reading French to speaking it. After months of lessons--three times a week at first, then every day as the conference date nears--Watson is able to read his speech in French but is unable to respond to questions following it. Rather than give up, he becomes even more determined. He enrolls in a four-month intensive beginner's course at the Alliance Franâ€¡aise in Paris, for which he just barely qualifies, but ultimately fails to win a certificate of proficiency. Watson admits that he is a less able student in his middle age than he used to be, but he assigns blame for his inability to pass elsewhere--to French pedagogy, the Alliance, and the fact that American men are uncomfortable with the unmacho sounds and facial expressions required to speak French. He also takes the opportunity to examine everything French, from toilets to Cartesian scholars, and finds much to criticize and much at which to be amused. Just this side of charming.