Do you have to be French to get into the Académie Française?

Surprisingly, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is a member of the Académie Française. He was elected in 2021, but he didn’t take up his seat in person until 9 February 2023, presumably because of travel disruption caused by covid. Réception de M. Mario Vargas Llosa (F18) | Académie française (academie-francaise.fr)

It seems odd for the official guardian of the French language to elect a novelist who writes in Spanish. He explains, though, in his inaugural address that grew up reading French authors. At that time, French culture reigned sovereign throughout Latin American. Aspiring secretly to become a French writer, he first went to France in 1959 and stayed several years, absorbing French culture.

He said his greatest debt was to Gustave Flaubert’s noel Madame Bovary. He bought it in the Latin Quarter on the day of his arrival at a bookshop called La Joire de Lire (‘the joy of reading’) and has re-read many times. But also, finding out that the French had discovered Latin-American literature before him, it was, paradoxically, in France that he began to feel like a Peruvian (and Latin-American) writer. vargas_llosa_4_discours_de_m._mario_vargas_llosa_vf_17h.pdf (academie-francaise.fr)

More on France and French culture

As Vargas Llosa said in his Nobel Prize Lecture in 2010, ‘As a boy I dreamed of coming some day to Paris because, dazzled by French literature, I believed that living there and breathing the air breathed by Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust would help transform me into a real writer, and if I did not leave Peru I would be only a pseudo Sundays-and-holidays writer.’

‘And the truth is I owe to France and French culture unforgettable lessons, for example that literature is as much a calling as it is a discipline, a job, an obstinacy. I lived there when Sartre and Camus were alive and writing, in the years of Ionesco, Beckett, Bataille, and Cioran, the discovery of the theater of Brecht and the films of Ingmar Bergman, the Theatre National Populaire of Jean Vilar and the Odéon of Jean-Louis Barrault, of the Nouvelle Vague and the Nouveau Roman and the speeches, beautiful literary pieces, of André Malraux, and what may have been the most theatrical spectacle in Europe during that time, the press conferences and Olympic thunderings of General de Gaulle.’

‘But perhaps I am most grateful to France for the discovery of Latin America. There I learned that Peru was part of a vast community united by history, geography, social and political problems, a certain mode of being, and the delicious language it spoke and wrote. And in those same years, it was producing a new, forceful literature. There I read Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso, and many others whose writings were revolutionizing narrative in the Spanish language, and thanks to whom Europe and a good part of the world discovered that Latin America was not the continent only of coups, operetta despots, bearded guerrillas, and the maracas of the mambo and the cha-cha-cha but of ideas, artistic forms, and literary fantasies that transcended the picturesque and spoke a universal language.’

Mario Vargas Llosa – Nobel Lecture (nobelprize.org)

Others who held seat 18

The Académie has 40 members, each holding a numbered seat, for life. The Académie elected Vargas Llosa to seat 18.

Previous holders of the seat include the diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-11859, elected in 1841), the soldier Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929, elected on Armistice Day 11  November 1918) and Marshal Philippe Pétain, notorious leader of the 2nd World War Vichy government (1856-1951, elected in 1929 but expelled after the war).

A surprise in seat 31

Looking at the list of members gave me an even greater surprise. Seat 31 is held by an Englishman, the literary scholar Sir Michael Edwards, elected in 2013 Michael EDWARDS | Académie française (academie-francaise.fr)

Although born and raised in England, Edwards writes mainly in French, married a Frenchwoman and took French citizenship. He teaches French and English literature, as well as painting, musing and philosophy, and writes poetry in French and English.

Former holders of seat 31 include Edmond Rostand (dramatist and poet, author of Cyrano de Bergerac) and the film-maker, artist, painter, dramatist and poet Jean Cocteau.

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