Letter From Paris

The Most Exclusive Club in Paris

Maurice Druon finally ran out of immortality.

By 6.10.09

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Maurice Druon finally ran out of immortality. That apparently happens to us all, but what made his case special was that he was officially an immortel, thanks to membership in the Académie Française. Only 40 Frenchmen at a time can be immortels, and since they do depart this life with predictable regularity—about twice a year on average—France lets them enjoy their immortality while still here.

Druon, who actively enjoyed his until age 90, was buried this spring with full military honors and eulogized as a Lord of Letters. A militant cultural conservative who fervently loved his country and its traditions, he spent his life defending them both in and out of the Academy. As a young cavalry officer who refused to accept France's abject capitulation to the Nazis, he joined de Gaulle's Free French headquarters in London in the early 1940s. Besides broadcasting information clandestinely to the Resistance, he also wrote the words to the Chant des Partisans, the song that became the anthem of the French underground. Still today it is second only to La Marseillaise in its stirring patriotic power.

After the war Druon began a distinguished writing career that produced more than 50 titles. In 1966 he was voted into the Academy as its youngest member, thus becoming not only provisionally immortal but also an official guardian of the French language. His rigorous, unfashionable principles while serving as minister of culture in the 1970s infuriated the post-1968 left-wing artistic world, as when he told subsidy-seeking theater directors they had to choose between scorning the values of French society and accepting government handouts.

At the Academy Druon assiduously followed the orders laid down by Cardinal Richelieu when he created it in 1635: "To work with all possible care and diligence to give strict rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences." As chief minister to King Louis XIII, Richelieu had his own reasons for offering state protection to the literary set: it helped put this unruly, often subversive lot under government supervision. To keep them busy, he stipulated that they compose a dictionary, along with works on grammar, rhetoric, and poetics. Louis XIV later approved the move, even setting them up in the former Louvre apartment of the queen mother and helpfully donating 40 goose quills they could whittle into pens in their spare time.

Language being a serious matter worthy of lengthy reflection, the Academicians have never rushed the dictionary. They presented the first edition to Louis XIV in 1694 after some 60 years of scholarly labor. Their latest effort, the eighth edition, was published in 1935. They are now pushing ahead with all deliberate speed on the ninth, which after 74 years is already up to the letter M. (By odious comparison, the new Oxford English Dictionary in 20 volumes was completed in seven years.) If the Academy's productivity is low, its symbolism is high. As the great ethnologist Claude Lévi- Strauss, himself an Academician, once told me, "The dictionary is only the visible part of the Academy's function. As an honorary confraternity, it attests to the attachment the French nation has for its language. Here an individual is judged and classed by the care with which he expresses himself. For Americans, on the other hand, language is just an instrument to be used with total liberty." I asked if that was bad. "It does give its special savor to American English," he allowed. "There is this incredible creation of new words and expressions all the time. But it's a completely different attitude from ours."

Besides tinkering interminably with their dictionary, Academicians keep busy with choosing new members according to vague, never-defined criteria. No academic degrees are necessary, nor is there any age limit. The only real requirements are French nationality and the ability to write a letter declaring candidacy. Then the candidate must visit each member for a get-acquainted meeting. Many who would be obvious shoo-ins, like the late André Malraux, decide not to try because they find the process humiliating. Claude Lévi-Strauss disliked the visits because he was so nervous he was always a half-hour early and had to wait in the street. "But I understand why they're necessary," he told me. "The Academy is like a club; members want to know if you're an homme de bonne compagnie."

Once elected, the companionable new member pays a courtesy call on the French president at the Élysée Palace, then gets down to the real fun of ordering his (or her, a few token women now being admitted) uniform and ceremonial épée. The elaborate uniform, designed at Napoleon's command and involving a swallowtail suit embroidered with green olive leaves, takes up to six months to make and costs several thousand dollars—including an ostrichplumed cocked hat. The épée, usually a bejeweled work of art marked with symbols from the bearer's life and accomplishments, is customarily paid for by the new member's friends. I once talked with one of the few tailors who make the uniforms. "You should see their eyes light up the first time they put the suit on," he said. "They suddenly realize that they're really members of the Academy. Their faces change completely."

HEADY STUFF INDEED. But in France such eminence lends itself to mockery by the irreverent, or just plain jealous. Alphonse Daudet, a 19th-century writer who never made the club, satirized its members as "decrepit, broken…with leaden feet, weak legs, eyes blinking like night animals." But Gustave Flaubert, who wasn't elected either, frankly pinpointed the true attitude of most Frenchmen: "Always denigrate it, but try to be a member."

In fact, the list of greats shunned by the Academy reads like a who's who of French culture. René Descartes was persona non grata because he went to live in Sweden. Blaise Pascal was "only" a mathematician. Molière was an actor and ipso facto not a gentleman. Emile Zola was rejected 24 times because of his harsh literary realism and anti-Establishment position in the Dreyfus Affair. Balzac's stories were unkind to the bourgeoisie. Baudelaire, Verlaine, Gérard de Nerval? Too bohemian for polite company.

And still the candidates keep knocking at the door of the handsome domed Institut de France, across the Seine from the Louvre, where the Academy meets. "Only about 60 million Frenchmen want in," quips Jean Dutourd, the witty, wry author of the classic The Taxis of the Marne and many other works, who has been a member for decades. "Ecclesiastics, farmers, secretaries of Communist Party cells, street cleaners, everybody. It's the triumph of snobbery, and snobbery is one of the most powerful motivations in the human soul. Especially in France, the land of vanity."

Maurice Druon, a dapper, sophisticated man about town, was surely not immune to the appeal of snobbery. But no one defended the Academy's traditional values as strongly as he. That involved things like vainly trying to block the election of the former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing on the valid grounds that the man had no visible literary talent. He regularly used the Academy's bully pulpit to insist on proper French usage, subjunctive mood and all, and to denounce the latest barbaric linguistic fashions in advertising and journalism. And he was well aware that the institution's nebulous nature was as much a strength as a weakness. "It's a complete paradox," he once said. "It has moral authority, though no one can say exactly what we exercise it over except vocabulary. This authority is evident, but nobody knows its source."

The French love nothing so much as the superfluous. No wonder the Academy is their only institution to survive nearly 375 years of monarchy, revolution, empire, humiliating military defeats, and five constitutions.  

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.