The Nobelest Profession

Hell Is Other Writers

Why does France dominate the ranks of Nobel Laureates for Literature? And yet feature so poorly in all the other categories?

In a country with as many social, political, regional and class hatreds, and hatreds within hatreds, as France, only one profession commands universal respect: writer. 

This is partly due to the enduring national love affair with “les intellectuels” and partly because French writers rarely fail to sell out to one or other of the prevailing factions, the more fashionably radical the better. Jules Verne, for example, was a frothing anti-Dreyfusard, while Jean-Paul Sartre was variously a Stalinist, a Maoist and finally a groupie for the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group.

The rewards are huge for a French writer. Colette, an early twentieth century writer of what would now be called soft-porn but who was also a strip-tease artist, lesbian call-girl and Nazi collaborator, was made a Grand Officier of the Legion of Honour and got a state funeral on her death in 1953.

Ironically, many of the authors the French love the most are unknown outside France. While quite a few of their characters and ideas have crossed national borders, from Verne’s Captain Nemo to Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo, the “classics” of French literature, even the modern works, are usually incomprehensible to most foreign book-lovers either in the original or in translation. If you are not up to speed on formal French traditions of rhetoric and imagery, the writing can often seem as dense and turgid as the “serious” ideas they must contain to be taken seriously by a French readership. “Reading Sartre”, said Ernest Hemingway, “is like eating lead.” 

For all this, there are more French winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – twelve – than any from any other nation. Then again, unlike other Nobel categories of Chemistry, Physics, Medicine and even Economics where achievement is scientifically verified, or Peace, where success is judged by popular acclaim, the Literature category is based only on the opinion of the eighteen members of the Royal Swedish Academy. 

Not only is the Academy modelled on the l’Académie Française (The French Academy) but its members have traditionally had close ties to Gallimard, the famous and long-established French publishing house, home of many of the French Nobel Laureates and their back catalogue. Even today Gallimard publishes the French translations of the works of Lars Gyllensten who was permanent secretary of the Academy between 1977 and 1986.

The Nobelest Of Them All

French Nobel Literature Laureates include....

1901 – René Sully-Prudhomme (1839-1907)

The first ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A clinical depressive, his mood was not lightened by a career as a notary’s clerk, an unsuccessful love affair and a stroke that paralysed his lower body. His melancholy poems are now mostly forgotten, including “Le Zénith” (1876) about three balloonists falling to their death. Even famous grouch August Strindberg was horrified by Sully-Prudhomme’s award, calling it "contrary to statutes and will".

“You who will help me in my anguish,

Don’t speak to me;

Play me some music,

And I will die a bit happier.

“Music heals, enchants and unties

Things of the deep.

Rock my pain; I beg you,

But mostly just shut up”.

- L'agonie (Anguish)

1915 Romain Rolland (1866-1944)

Novelist, musicologist, dramatist, essayist, mystic and pacifist. Left war-torn France in 1914 to live in Switzerland, only deciding it was safe to return in 1938. His fame rests on his ten-volume novel Jean-Christophe (1904-12) about a heroic novelist, musicologist dramatist, essayist, mystic, and pacifist, pronounced by Nancy Mitford to be “France’s answer to the sleeping draught”.

"The greatest book is not the one whose message engraves itself on the brain - but the one whose vital impact opens up other viewpoints, and from writer to reader spreads the fire that is fed by the various essences, until it becomes a vast conflagration leaping from forest to forest. It must also sell beyond three printings. Magazine publication helps”. – Letter to Malwide Von Maysenbug.

1921Anatole France (1844-1924)

France’s greatest man of modern letters. Born Jacques Anatole François Thibault, changed his name for better brand recognition. Compulsive womaniser and atheist, he was outraged whenever one of his books, usually satirical social novels or poorly researched histories, was not banned by the church. On his death, his rival Paul Valery was unwisely invited to deliver the eulogy which he turned into a ninety minute lecture on why France’s writing was so bad.

"A woman without breasts is like a bed without pillows.”

“Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the oddest.”

"We have drugs to make women speak, but none to keep them silent.”

“All the historical books which contain no lies are extremely tedious.”

1927 – Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

Philosopher and superintellectual. His Matière et Mémoire (Matter and Memory) (1896) and L'Evolution Créatrice (Creative Evolution) (1907) mixed Darwinism with psychology and physics. His ideas were so impenetrable that they were lauded by both the Left and the Right who knew they must be good because they were banned by the church. Einstein himself intervened publicly to establish Bergson’s scientific theories were gibberish. While his 800-page examination of humour, Le Rire (Laughter) (1900), is still rated as one of the dullest books on the subject, his philosophical work is today largely dismissed.

Michael Miles: “...Well your question for the blow on the head this evening is: what great opponent of Cartesian dualism resists the reduction of psychological phenomena to physical states?

Woman: “I don't know that!”

Michael Miles: “Well, have a guess”.

Woman: “Henri Bergson”.

Michael Miles: Is the correct answer!”

Woman: “Ooh, that was lucky. I never even heard of him”.

– Monty Python's Flying Circus

1957 – Albert Camus (1913-1960) 

French author and philosopher and one of the principal luminaries (with Jean-Paul Sartre) of existentialism, the attitude that life is not simply meaningless but miserable. His novel, L’Etranger (The Stranger) (1942), was hailed as a masterwork by droopy, duffel-coated students everywhere. As royalties and fame rolled in, he changed his mind, concluding life was worth living after all. Almost immediately afterwards, he died in a car crash.

"There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that" – Le Mythe de Sisyphe” (The Myth of Sisyphus)

1964  – Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) (refusedin protest at the values of bourgeois society”)

The archetype of the post-war French intellectual. Politicised, competitive and dismissive of opposition, he was the focal point in partnership with his lover, Simone de Beauvoir, of New Left thought. He glossed over the contradictions between his existentialist ideas about self-determination and his long-time communist principles to become the bespectacled, toadish poster-boy of the 1968 Paris student disturbances. 

"The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom”Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (What Is Literature) 

France has a lot to be proud of in the field of literature, according to the Nobel Committee. But according to the same Committee, it lags badly in the other objective categories. The French education system – especially at higher levels – is old-fashioned, emphasising rigid principles of Cartesian logic and enquiry. These help sustain a continuing if rather repetitive stream of artists, including writers, but they are not so productive in making world-beating scientists, mathematicians and chemists if France’s performance in the Nobel sciences is anything to go by. It is no coincidence that Marie Curie, France’s famous winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 and for Chemistry in 1911, was born and bred in Poland. 


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