March 28, 2007
Alan Riding, International Herald Tribune/New York Times,
With French long engaged in a losing battle against English around the world, a new way of fighting back has been proposed by a multinational group of authors who write in French : Uncouple the language from France and turn French literature into "world literature" written in French.
For guardians of the language of Molière, Voltaire and Victor Hugo, this is tantamount to subversion.
But the 44 signatories of a manifesto published in the newspaper Le Monde this month are in a rebellious mood. They argue that it is time for the French to stop looking down on francophone authors, as foreigners writing in French are known, because these very novelists - many, but not all, from former French colonies - hold the key to energizing French literature.
For this, they say, French must be freed from "its exclusive pact" with France. And, as an example worth following, they point to how literature in English has been enriched by Commonwealth and other foreign writers, among them V. S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ben Okri, Arundhati Roy, Peter Carey and Kiran Desai.
Still, the timing of this new campaign is not accidental.
Last autumn, to the astonishment of France’s literary establishment, foreign-born writers won five of the country’s seven major book awards, with the coveted Goncourt going to "Les Bienveillantes," or "The Kindly Ones," by the New York-born novelist Jonathan Littell, who also won the Académie Française’s prize. Other winners were Alain Mabanckou from Congo, Nancy Huston from Canada and Léonora Miano from Cameroon.
They were not in fact the first francophone writers to win a major French book award - Morocco’s Tahar Ben Jalloun, Lebanon’s Amin Maalouf and Russia’s Andrei Makine have all won Goncourts. Yet the 2006 francophone harvest was the catalyst for the manifesto promoting what it calls "littérature-monde."
Some signatories are among veteran advocates of such writing, notably Michel Le Bris, the driving force behind the manifesto, who runs the annual Festival Étonnants Voyageurs, or Astonishing Travelers, at Saint Malo in Brittany. Others like Huston, Ben Jalloun and China’s Dai Sijie already enjoy strong followings in France.
But it was no less significant that several prominent French writers, among them Jean Rouaud, Érik Orsenna and J. M. G. Le Clézio, also signed the manifesto. Their endorsement of francophone fiction implied recognition that, since the postwar Nouveau Roman, French literature has cut itself off from the world with its navel-gazing obsession with text over story.
"When French literature goes beyond its own borders, it self-destructs because it is only read on the banks of the Seine," noted Mabanckou, who won the Renaudot prize last year for "Mémoires du Porc-épic," or "Memoirs of a Porcupine" and who now teaches French literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This literary isolation has in turn reinforced the prevailing view here that colorful francophone writing set in exotic climes is somehow inferior to more intellectual home-grown fiction. "My novels, written in French and published by Gallimard, are placed in bookshops in the Vietnamese literature section," complained Anna Moï, a Vietnamese writer who, along with Mabanckou and Djibouti’s Abdourahman A. Waberi, signed the manifesto.
For these writer-lobbyists, then, the first step should be the elimination of the very category of francophone writers.
"The emergence of world literature in French," the manifesto announces, "is the death certificate of francophonie. No one speaks francophone, no one writes francophone. Francophonie is the light of a dead star."
Outside the French-speaking world, such a debate might seem perplexing, but here it is serious stuff because few peoples are more identified with their language than the French. They watch over how it is written and spoken and, considering it an expression of French power, they are understandably pained to see English as the new lingua franca.
One response to this was the creation of the International Organization of Francophonie as a kind of postcolonial club of French-speaking countries.
And while it occasionally serves French political and economic interests, the organization also defends the use of French at the United Nations where, once again, English is dominant.
The problem is that even in some former French colonies like Vietnam, Cambodia, Congo and Chad, French has lost ground to both native languages and English. And for this, Abdou Diouf, the organization’s secretary general, blames French lack of interest in the francophonie movement, as demonstrated by French condescension toward francophone writing.
"The French language does not belong only to the French," Diouf wrote in response to - and echoing - the world literature manifesto. "It belongs to all those who have chosen to learn it, to use it, to enrich it with the accents of their culture, their imagination and their talent." But he also lamented the manifesto’s effort to bury francophonie.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative candidate in the presidential election this spring who has made a point of wrapping himself in the French flag, also felt a need to respond. "Francophonie is not dead," he declared in an article in Le Figaro, adding optimistically that the French language’s prestige is "intact" and that its "retreat" in the face of English is not inevitable.
What is clear is that francophonie has now become a politically charged concept, one that politicians like Sarkozy applaud as a tool for promoting French abroad and others, like the manifesto’s signatories, resent as a prescription for devaluing the language when used by non-French writers.
Yet, in many ways, this is a phony war because, no less than the fiction of Balzac, Zola or Duras, "littérature-monde" by non-French writers also carries the French language around the world. And if it can travel beyond the Seine, even when it is translated into English, it still speaks well of French culture.
The problem is that many of these foreign-born French writers do not feel loved in France today. In fact, with several preferring to teach in the United States, Sarkozy has warned - with no small alarm - that the future of francophonie may lie in the Anglo-Saxon world.
"Francophonie saved by America !" he exclaimed. "Now that would be too much."