France can be proud that one of its best veteran writers, Patrick Modiano, has lived up to its great literary and intellectual traditions by winning the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. It can be far less proud of its current government’s continuing antics in its own rearguard action against the supposed encroachment of Americanism, the modern world, and reality in general.
Fleur Pellerin, France’s current Minister of Culture and Communications (born in South Korea but adopted in infancy and raised in France), admitted on air after the announcement of the award that she had enjoyed the author’s company – but could not name a single one of his books. She then added that, due to the pressure of her job, she had not had time to read much more than official documents for the past two years. French commentators were not convinced. Some, in fact, took the whole issue very seriously indeed, talking of a “state of barbarism,” and many called for her resignation. After all, as her critics pointed out, what would happen if a minister in the economics or financial areas admitted to being innumerate or incapable of handling economic issues? And what kind of example was this to set for young French readers?
Fleur Pellerin is the unlucky successor to Aurélie Filippetti, a sometime Minister of Culture distinguished for her anti-Amazon and anti-Anglophone policies of cultural chauvinism, and for her promotion of the myth of French cultural exceptionalism and the need to defend France’s literary and cultural heritage by political means. However, it seems that the ministers who castigate Amazon for destroying French literary culture don’t even know France’s most distinguished writers. If this latest gaffe is any indication of what the administrations of President François Hollande can deliver, French culture might as well give up hope now.
Not to boast, but … I could spontaneously remember from uni days the title of one of Modiano’s novels – Rue des Boutiques obscures – in French, the moment I heard the Nobel Prize announcement. Does that make make me better qualified for the ministerial role than Fleur Pellerin? When a while ago, I wrote about this whole issue under the headline “The French get exceptionally stupid,” I thought I was being snarkily ironic. Now I’m wondering if I wasn’t just unwittingly stating the truth.