Culture

Houellebecq-
This piece first appeared in lundimatin. Translated by David Broder.


Stendhal wrote cela [that] with a double l, which got him in trouble when he was working as a functionary at the War Ministry. In fact, he was no good at literature when he was studying, and his goal was to enter the École polytechnique — like Octave in his Armance, as well as his Lucien Leuwen. His whole life, he wrote in an unreadable spidery scrawl with countless errors – so much so that he had to dictate The Charterhouse of Parma. He did so in seven weeks, which is pretty quick for what is not a thin volume. Sainte-Beuve found Stendhal’s novels "frankly detestable." He could not stand Balzac, to the point that he refused to attend a dinner where he risked meeting him. He really liked Baudelaire, however, finding him a to be "nice boy, fine in his language and entirely classical in form." Balzac would have loved to be in the Académie française, but when he presented himself as a candidate he only got four votes, and it was instead the Duke of Noailles who was chosen to replace Chateaubriand. Baudelaire had also thought of putting himself forward, and when he withdrew his candidacy, Sainte-Beuve congratulated him on having left "a good impression."

Sainte-Beuve was himself a member of the Académie française, as Alain Finkielkraut is today. Despite the general right-wing shift, the writers working in the traditional French line very rarely scrub up. And we have to make do with what we have. Which also leads us to another question: who might the Minister of Culture be, if Ms. Le Pen becomes president of the Republic? Not Éric Zemmour or Lorànt Deutsch — far too young. Without doubt the best candidate would be Michel Houellebecq. That would not be without a certain panache — it brings to mind Malraux, who held this role under Charles de Gaulle, even though it’s hard to see Houellebecq as an orator, his hair blown about the wind. To his advantage — as one recent exhibition might have had us believe — he is not only a writer but a director, actor, singer, and photographer. These varied talents would surely earn him the acceptance of an artistic community always keen on the transversal, and he would be well inscribed in a line traced ever since Saint-Beuve (who could have been Minister of Culture had such a post existed in his day). This is a line whose points of inflection include such illustrious figures as François Léotard and Alain Peyrefitte. No, definitely, there is no reason to worry: the succession is assured.