I was recently asked in an interview if my French quest had allowed me to to read any of the French classics in the original. Actually, that was one of my goals in learning French, but when I tried, I came across an unexpected obstacle that no one had warned by about: the passé simple. This is the past tense that was once use exclusively in writing, with the more common passé composé reserved for spoken French.
That's right, French has two past tenses, equivalent in meaning: one for spoken French and one for written! Quelle langue!
When I first encountered the heretofore unknown passé simple in a Balzac story or something, I couldn't figure out what the heck it was. It looked a lot like the future tense, but I knew the conjugations for the verb in question, and it wasn't the future; it wasn't the imparfait; it was just bizarre looking, and I learned later, that is how to recognize the passé simple. If it's weird and doesn't match anything else, it's probably the simple.Which is, trust me, anything but simple!
By the way, the passé simple wasn't the only obstacle to reading French classics. It's often repeated that 90% of a language uses just 2,000 different words. Je pense que non! After a year of study, I couldn't make my way through Le Petit Prince.