This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 March 2009:
Why a 17th-Century Novel is a Hot Poltical Issue in France
Nicolas Sarkozy’s well-publicised scorn has turned The Princess of Cleves into a focus for opponents of the French president
During a meeting back in February 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy took the opportunity to mock the “sadist or idiot” who had seen fit to include questions about a 17th-century novel in an exam for public sector workers. “When was the last time you asked a counter clerk what she thought of The Princess of Cleves?” he enquired, playing to the gallery. Cue laughter from the audience. The future president’s point was a moot one: just because an acquaintance with the classics isn’t strictly necessary to perform administrative tasks — menial or otherwise — it doesn’t mean it should be discouraged. What was doubtless intended as a populist plea for more common sense came across as haughty philistinism. Should time and money be wasted teaching counter clerks to read above their station? Do these people want to end up crushed by a bookcase à la Leonard Bast? Let them eat Da Vinci Code!
But the presidential aspersions cast on Madame de La Fayette‘s masterpiece have kept coming. Last year, for instance, Sarkozy declared that voluntary work should be taken into account when civil servants are considered for promotion. It’s just as important as knowing The Princess of Cleves off by heart, the clearly traumatised head of state argued. He went on to confess, in a joking tone, that he had “suffered” at the pages of that confounded novel as a schoolboy, which prompted Régis Jauffret — a famous author — to surmise that his mother must have soundly spanked him for getting a poor mark on the subject. Le Figaro, meanwhile, suggested that the president’s aversion may be due to the fact that his personal secretary (allegedly) failed an exam because she was incapable of saying who had written the book — ironic, given that its authorship remains shrouded in mystery (it’s now generally thought to be a collective work orchestrated by Mme de La Fayette).
So what’s the story with this book, so famous in France, so little-known elsewhere? The Princess of Cleves is undoubtedly a literary landmark. It is widely regarded as one of the first historical and psychological novels; indeed, it’s one of the first novels full stop. Its intellectual take on matters of the heart made it a template for much French literature and cinema. Yet, in spite of its brilliance, it is also a resolutely old-fashioned tale of unconsummated passion in which duty triumphs over love — one that most French people are force-fed at school and are happy never to read again. Until now, that is.
Sarkozy’s personal vendetta — cloaked in anti-elitist demagoguery — has managed to turn The Princess of Cleves into an unlikely symbol of political resistance. In the eyes of many, it now exemplifies the sheer effusion of a culture that cannot be squared with this government’s vulgar mercantile ethos. Christophe Honoré was so incensed by the president’s declarations that he adapted the supposedly irrelevant novel into a teen movie set in a Parisian lycée (La Belle Personne). University lecturers and students, who have been on strike against governmental reforms for the past two months, have organised several marathon readings up and down the country. The most prominent one so far was staged outside the Panthéon in Paris: Louis Garrel, who played a leading part in Honoré’s film, was among the numerous people who took turns to read five-minute extracts until the last sentence was uttered more than six hours later. The book has been claimed by sundry protesters and declaimed through megaphones during recent demonstrations where banners bearing messages of support — “Free the Princess of Cleves” — also flourished. A pastiche of the novel, drawing parallels between Henry II‘s lavish court life and Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidential style, is doing the rounds in academic circles. Heavyweight politicians (Ségolène Royal, François Bayrou) and intellectuals (Régis Debray, Elisabeth Badinter) have publicly sided with Mme de La Fayette. On television, Jauffret invited every French citizen to send a copy of the book to the Élysee Palace in protest at Sarkozy’s “glorification of ignorance”. The novel even sold out at the recent Paris book fair and more than 2,000 “I’m reading The Princess of Cleves” badges were snapped up in record time (for those who can’t lay their hands on one of them, you can join the inevitable Facebook group). When Télérama, France’s top cultural weekly, asked 100 writers to name their favourite books, The Princess of Cleves came third behind Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses. Such a result would have been highly unlikely pre-Sarkozy.
France may no longer be the centre of world culture, but culture remains at the centre of what it means to be French. Ask any counter clerk.