Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Republic of Letters


in re...



            the COMTESSE DE LA FAYETTE

They order, said I, this matter better in France.”  That’s the opening sentence of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), a book that did as much as any to establish “travel writing” as a great literary genre.  That alone would make it a relevant epigraph for this expatriate post.  The sentence is furthermore an appropriate introduction for an essay concerning an aspect of civilization better ordered in France, indeed.  I mean the dignity of a national literature.

            Here in Paris the month began with a notable publishing event: a new edition of Les liaisons dangereuses of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in the prestigious “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.”  Laclos was a military officer and spare-time writer of the late eighteenth century.  He published Les liaisons dangereuses, perhaps the most famous of all epistolary novels, in 1782.  Fame (or infamy) was immediate.  Depending on one’s perspective the book was revolting pornography, brilliant psychological insight, or probing social critique.  When Laclos departed the scene in 1803 he had certainly achieved the whimsical aspiration of Hilaire Belloc:
            “When I am dead, I hope it is said, ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read’.”  

            You have probably read it yourself--or seen the Stephen Frears film (1988) of the Christopher Hampton dramatic adaptation with Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, which captures the work’s moral essence without challenging an audience with unfamiliar literary conventions.  
 Can you spot the dangerous ones?

            The point of this essay is not, however, the work itself.  What interests me is its exemplification of an essential difference between literary culture in France and America, a difference so marked that I can propose an analogy only by hypothesis, a what if sort of a thing.  What if one of the great trade publishing houses in New York were to bring out a magnificent edition of (say) Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, or some other classic work of early American literature already available in fifteen competing paperback editions and anyway generally regarded by our educational authorities as too difficult, too boring, or too monocultural for today’s students?  A book elegantly bound in thin leather-covered boards and printed on bible paper, with two Prussian blue silk marking ribbons?   An edition including in addition to Hawthorne’s relatively brief text a learned critical apparatus of about five hundred pages?  Imagine further that with realistic hope for commercial success the book be put on sale for a brief period at $50 as an early-bird special, before the price is jacked up to $65 for many more years of expected sales.   Imagine finally that the new edition be widely noticed not merely in specialized literary journals but in the major newspapers.
            You have to conclude that in France “they” take literature seriously in a way that “they” simply do not take it seriously in America.  And here’s another example.  The echo chamber of French intellectual life is if anything even more monophonic than in America.  If all the Republicans on the Yale faculty could dance on the head of a pin, all the Sarkozy voters teaching Sciences Humaines at Paris IV could probably have a picnic on the point of a needle.  But the parallel reaches an abrupt limit, as a recent political episode involving a work of even earlier French prose can demonstrate.

            In 1678 a brilliant writer named Marie-Madeleine de la Fayette (Madame de la Fayette, or Lafayette) published, anonymously, La Princesse de Clèves, an historical novel set in the Valois court about the middle of the sixteenth century.  The Princess of Clèves is a beautiful and virtuous young woman forced by conventional expectation to marry the Wrong Man, who then finds herself falling deeper and deeper in love with the Right Man.  There’s nothing more fraught than a love triangle, and the author’s delineation of this one is a masterpiece of emergent sentimentLa Princesse de Clèves is usually reckoned an important book for the development of psychological fiction.
            In France, as everyone knows, there is a large civil service.  One important group among civil servants are the attaché(e)s d’administration—roughly “administrative secretaries.”  Most of us are familiar with the highly competent mid-level “assistant” who actually runs the show for the appointed or elected “leader”, but in France there’s an actual job description.  Now President Sarkozy seems just as determined as President Obama to “win the future”.  In fact he was talking about it first, and he seems to think that winning the future for France might involve scraping the sclerosis out of the arterial system of the national bureaucracies.
            Some time ago President Sarkozy came upon a copy of the civil service exam devised for aspirants to the qualification of attaché d’administration.  He was amazed to find therein a question about this seventeenth-century novel—a question placed there, in his opinion, by “a sadist or an imbecile”.  How often, he wondered aloud, are you likely to discuss the Princesse de Clèves with the lady at the Post Office counter?
            Any literature professor can be indignant at the philistinism of a remark that indicates so thorough an ignorance of or disdain for the ideal of a liberal education.  But an American professor may not make it that far, having already succumbed to stupefaction at the evidence of a popularly elected politician who has read the Princesse de Clèves, even if he didn’t like it.  The implication that the local postal clerk might have read it is too radical even to entertain.
            The reaction to Nicolas Sarkozy’s off-the-cuff literary criticism was not limited to academic departments of literature.  There was a national reaction.  La Princesse de Clèves is a fine novel, but it’s really subtle.  Most of the action is mental.  It lacks the in-your-face sex of Les liaisons dangereuses.  It was perhaps fading a bit in the French national consciousness.  President Sarkozy changed all this.  There was an immediate spike in sales.  At least two publishers fast-tracked new editions.  Round tables of television pundits discussed Madame de la Fayette’s masterpiece.   At various places in the land there were public marathon readings.  Le Monde opined that among the President’s most conspicuous achievements to date was the “salvation” of La Princesse de Clèves.

 Volumes of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade: Read your heart out

They order this matter better in France.