Saturday, November 10, 2012

Of Presidents and Princesses - and books

November 8, 2012 - Posted by   - The New Yorker


Could a seventeenth-century novel bring down a twenty-first-century presidency? Nicolas Sarkozy, as the French head of state and even before he ascended to the role, developed an odd habit of publicly bad-mouthing Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 work, “The Princess of Clèves,” one of the first modern French novels, which is obligatory reading in schools across the republic. It tells the story of a young aristocratic woman who struggles between her obligation to a devoted husband she does not love and a dangerous extramarital passion, amid the intrigues and affairs of a royal court that makes contemporary French politics look relatively dull. At a meeting in Lyon in 2006, Sarkozy declared that “either a sadist or an idiot” had included it on the cultural-knowledge exam required to become a public functionary, which applies to lower-level positions, like postal workers “I don’t know if it happens to you often that you ask a counter clerk what she thought of ‘The Princess of Clèves,’ ” he smirked. In another address in 2009, Sarkozy argued that when considering candidates for public positions, community service should trump an ability to recite “The Princess of Clèves.” He reflected for a moment, then added what has become a notorious Sarkozyism: “I’ve suffered greatly by her” (possibly a reference to his alleged difficulties as a schoolboy, though in French the phrasing has an oddly sexual ring). Jump ahead to the recent election, in May, 2012, where Sarkozy’s impertinence toward much of what French culture and tradition hold dear played no small role in his defeat.

During the Sarkozy years, the French obstinately defended “Princess,” a book that, regardless of whether or not they actually liked it, is a pillar of their heritage, and therefore, according to tradition, should be read and appreciated by everyone. A semester-long university strike in the spring of 2009 gave students the free time to stage public readings of the novel in front of the Panthéon in Paris; the writer Régis Jauffret proposed during a TV appearance that every French citizen send a copy of “Princess of Clèves” to the Presidential palace; three different publishers who put out editions of the book saw their sales double within a year; and when the weekly culture magazine Télérama asked a hundred writers to name their favorite books, “Princess of Clèves” came in third, behind “Remembrance of Things Past” and “Ulysses,” a result that would have been practically unthinkable before the polémique.

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