THOMAS NAGEL, an American philosopher, wants to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Ian Anderson, a Scot who performs with the band Jethro Tull, sang of a slightly less intractable difficulty: “wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick.” In “School Blues” Daniel Pennac, a prize-winning French writer, describes what faces a school dunce when the teacher before him cannot recall what it felt like to be ignorant.
Mr Pennac was once such a child (he uses the French cancre, as in Cancer, the crab: a creature that scuttles sideways instead of advancing forwards). But despite becoming a teacher, he can remember what it was like not to understand lessons. The voices in his head remind him of it. They taunt him throughout his semi-autobiographical novel, which partially traces his sorry academic career as the child of high-achieving parents whose three older brothers excelled at school. Luckily for him, his parents did not let him flee the system but instead persisted in finding a teacher who would help him to succeed. The breakthrough came aged 14 when his latest tutor–“no doubt amazed by my increasingly inventive excuses as to why I hadn’t done my homework”–commissioned him to write essays and then a novel.