Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Car nous l'avons tant aimée, la Princesse

There will always be a France. Sarko doesn't like La Princesse de Clèves, so, hop, thousands of his concitoyens have suddenly discovered that they do, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie. There is a marathon reading of Mme de La Fayette's ouvrage at the gates of the Panthéon.

My old haunts--not the Panthéon but the neighborhood. In 1978 I was an habitué of the Café Soufflot, just down the street, and lived at 214, rue St. Jacques, just around the corner. I can't say that I was struck at the time by a passion for 17th-c. literature--none that was evident in the streets, at any rate, or in the bookstalls, where one was more likely to find a beat-up copy of L'Ecume des jours with its cover torn off, or the latest Barthes in paperback.

But with characteristic genius for illuminating forgotten corners of French history (Georges Mandel, anyone?), Sarko has put the forgotten Princesse back on the map by making an example of her (see the clip at the first link above). If you want to take the exam to be a cop, you shouldn't have to memorize La Princesse de Clèves, the president argues. Seems reasonable enough, no? I mean, did you really have to memorize La Princesse, that model of exquisite delicacy and finesse, to qualify to swing a billy club or nab turnstile jumpers in the Métro?

In any case, the president chose to make an example of the princess. He was speaking off the cuff, joking--bullshitting, we might say in English (pardon my French)--and offhandedly committed a crime that innumerable guardians of the flame of French culture evidently regard as lèse-majesté. His joke was taken as a revelation of his supposed deep antipathy to things literary.

And no doubt it may have been, but his point remains a valid one, open to reasonable debate. Is it perhaps the case that a literary or at any rate verbal competence has been overemphasized in the French meritocracy, selecting for the wrong attributes in a world in which any exception to strict egalitarianism must be licensed by some demonstrated merit deemed to be in the public interest? Is it not the case, in fact, that literary merits have already been deemphasized in many areas of the meritocracy? Isn't the math-science filière (rather than the literary) the one most likely to lead to the grandes écoles these days? Perhaps nonverbal cops deserve the same break as nonverbal financiers and physical chemists--a different sort of examination.

I don't know. Maybe Sarko is just dredging up some childhood trauma of his own that has nothing to do with the realities of civil service examinations in France. Maybe his franc-parler populaire et populiste is entirely beside the point and is making him only enemies, eager to line up outside the Panthéon to read Mme de La Fayette in the winter cold. But his political instincts are usually pretty good. Maybe he's not the only person in France who prefers Marc Lévy to La Princesse de Clèves. But nobody stands on a soapbox outside the Panthéon to read Lévy. You don't win points as un ami de la culture française for doing that.


bernard said...

funny that. I lived next door myself in 1978 and can tell you, being the same age as Sarkozy, that we all read la princesse de clèves. Now, the question you should ask yourself, Art, is how come you found second hand Barthes and Vian, and no second hand La Fayette. There are two possible answers, and you have only touched one. Could be we kept it as reference literature that you don't want to part with, who knows! Barthes on the other hand...Are people still going to be reading Barthes four centuries from now?

Passerby said...

La Princesse de Clève is part of the classics that one have to cover going through the French curriculum. I did just like my parents before me (I actually used my mother's copy of the book back from her high-school years).

It's a classic, apparently you can't really go against it. Even if it's extremely boring and most people don't recall anything about the plot.

Tom Holzman said...

Sarko can only wish he could be half the person that Mandel was.

Leo said...

I'm certainly not a fan of Marc Lévy, but am ready to bet the farm that apprentice cops read him more often than Madame de La Fayette.

MYOS said...

Sarko actually explained that his Première French teacher had made him very very angry (back when he was 17) by forcing him to read the dreadful thing, which was boring, no plot, no action, he really did not want to read it and still does not see why that novel is forced down the throats of poor students (I am paraphrasing here but NOT exagerating).... and so, reading about the poor cops having to read 10 lines of the novel and answer a few questions, he snapped. I ought to find you the quote.
Overall, he's right: "c" level jobs theoretically only require a high school diploma (I translate culturally, roughly - for nitpickers: officially, the C-level exam requires the school-leaving certificate for Level V) but in truth, most candidates have a Bac (level IV) and many who are successful have completed some college! This is madness.
However, the quote came on the heels of "the State ought to focus its funding to useful subjects, such as management, economics, engineering"; disparaging comments over humanities or social sciences; widely expressed disregard for literature or reading...

BTW, nowadays French students no longer read it fully, they only read a few pages, and may even watch the modern adaptation where M. de Nemours is a philosophy professor and Mme de Clèves a student (Mme de Clèves, in the novel, is a teenager who was married to an older guy, something I had never realized.) The professor/student was chosen because it's an equivalent taboo, apparently.

MYOS said...

Count on Marianne to dredge it all up!

David said...

Sarkozy's joke is not as much a revelation of his antipathy to things literary as it's a revelation of his total ignorance of things literary, or even just cultural including the history of literature and the importance of it.

If his joke draws such a reaction it's because La Princesse de Clèves is not just any novel, but he's too ignorant and uneducated to even realize that.

"Isn't the math-science filière the most likely to lead to the grandes écoles these days?"

Yes it is, and this may be the very reason why the newer generations of politicians and other graduates from Grandes Ecoles are such ignorants when it comes to a general understanding of things.