Not understanding the structure of a sentence in my book.
Hello. While reading my book in French, ‘Dans la dèche à Paris et à Londres’ (Down and out in Paris and London), I came across a sentence whose grammatical structure isn’t really resinating with me, and would appreciate if someone could help me understand.
Here it is:
Sentence: Comme c’était le premier chemineau qu’il m’ait été donné de connaître d’assez près, je crois devoir en livrer un portrait.
Everything in this sentence makes sense to me, except for the “qu’il m’ait donné de connaître” part. Obviously, this is an impersonal “il”, but what is this expression “impersonal pronoun + donner + infinitive verb”. Is this use of “donner” some sort of expression? Thank you for your help.
"Le premier" is the trigger to the subjunctive mood in the relative clause, together with "le dernier" and superlatives: le meilleur, le pire, le plus beau, le moins beau, etc.
Yes, it is subjunctive past and passive.
Past and active: qu'il m'ait donné
Present and passive: qu'il me soit donné
Present and active: qu'il me donne
And I thought I was done being surprised by the subjunctive.
Shouldn't the writer know whether this chemineau was the first he got to know? Wouldn't that certainty make the indicative more appropriate in this sentence?
This sentence could work with a verb in indicative: "Comme c'était le premier chemineau qu'il m'avait été donné de connaître...". (indicative pluperfect), with a higher degree of certainty.
There is a stylistic effect in the use of the subjunctive in the original sentence, as if you hinted "as far as I know/until I hear of the contrary". It is working as an understatement because as you said, he should know whether or not this man was his first tramp.
Thank you, that's perfectly clear. The translator is taking the understatement of "at all well" and investing it into the choice of voice and mood. Now that I see it, it's quite wonderful.
I highly recommend the French dictionary at larousse.fr for questions like this. I mean the actual French dictionary, not the bilingual ones, although those can be helpful as well.
In this case, look for the entry "donner à quelqu'un (de)". That's the use of "donner" we're seeing here.
Tentative translation: Seeing as how he was the first vagrant I was able to get to know closely, I feel I should describe him to you.
Well, that's the gist of it, anyway.
My question about that sentence is why the second part is in the subjunctive. What's the reason for that?
Edit: No doubt you know that the book you're reading was originally written in English? Here is the original sentence: "...as he was the first tramp I had known at all well, I want to give an account of him."