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Sam Peet / © Culture Trip
Sam Peet / © Culture Trip

Remembering the writer and 'philosophe', Jean D’Ormesson

Picture of Matthew Janney
UK Books Editor
Updated: 15 December 2017

Jean d’Ormesson, the French novelist, philosopher, journalist and ‘prince of letters’, according to Emmanuel Macron, has died at the age of 92, in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris last week. A member of a the most prestigious literary institution in France, Mr. d’Ormesson was a quiet voice for social change amongst an overwhelmingly conservative crowd.

At one point the youngest man ever to be elected to the esteemed Académie Française, Monsieur d’Ormesson was one of the more public figures amongst the untouchable men of letters, appearing in numerous TV shows and political debates as well as starring as the former socialist president François Mitterrand in the 2012 French comedy Haute Cuisine.

A prolific novelist, Mr. d’Ormesson published over 40 works of fiction, winning the prestigious Grand Prix of the Académie Française for his novel The Glory of the Empire. Though most of his novels were never translated into English, he was a prominent literary and cultural figure in France, heading up the conservative newspaper Le Figaro in the mid ’70s, and remaining a leading columnist for decades to come.

On the surface, Mr. d’Ormesson was like any other white, aristocratic, conservative intellectual who paced the corridors of France’s highest academic institution in a green and gold suit. Born Count Jean Bruno Wladimir François de Paule Le Fèvre d’Ormesson, the writer came from a family of aristocrats, spending much of his childhood in the 15th-century Château de Saint-Fargeau in Burgundy and – as is custom for most of the ‘immortals’ of the Académie – went on to study philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure.

As one would expect from a member of the Académie – a group committed to preserving, defining and safeguarding the linguistic sanctity of French – he won significant recognition for his works. In a 1975 copy of The New York Times Book Review, William Beauchamp, a French literary scholar, wrote of Mr. d’Ormesson’s Grand Prix-winning work:

‘This has to be one of the most engrossing histories ever written — yet not a word of it is true… Jean d’Ormesson’s empire is pure invention; his book, fictional history. If numerous details suggest the real empires of Rome, Persia, Byzantium, of Alexander or Charlemagne, they are devices designed to achieve verisimilitude — the illusion of reality.’

But dig a little deeper and we find a more complex character beneath the clichéd veneer of the French intellectual. He was known for being a charming, charismatic man whose public presence served to humanise – if only a little – the lofty reputation of the academics. He was even a little rebellious, famously likening the Académie to a family, and playfully adding ‘we all hate each other.’

But most importantly – and what Mr. d’Ormesson might be remembered for in the future – was his public support for women to be admitted into the Académie. In 1980, when Mr. d’Ormesson sponsored Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar to join, he received intense criticism for championing a rather unpopular deviation from the status quo. Yourcenar, known mainly for her 1951 novel Memoirs of Hadrian and for translating Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, was ultimately admitted and made history in the process as its first female member in he Académie’s 350-year-old history. 

Yourcenar memorably expressed at the time: ‘One cannot say that in French society, so impregnated with feminine influences, the academy has been a notable misogynist: It simply conformed to the custom that willingly placed a woman on a pedestal but did not permit itself to officially offer her a chair,’ capturing the simultaneous oppression and objectification of women in one sentence.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of praising any man who champions the rights of women, hailing them as heroes, and further cementing men as the perceived drivers of political and sociological change. Many women amongst the French literary canon did significantly more to advance the literary prospects of women – De Beauvoir, Leduc, Kristeva are three of many who spring to mind. 

But it is notable that, amid this collective misogyny, Mr. d’Ormesson individually went against the grain, speaking out in favour of female representation within a male-dominated sphere. If men make up the significant majority of these institutions – in both number and influence – it is indeed up to them to take an active role in reshaping and redefining their gender politics from within, not by superficially appointing, but by comprehensively integrating, women into high-level, decision-making positions.

In a recent Guardian article, Arifa Akbar argued that the publishing industry in the UK today still suffers from the malaise of being predominantly white, male, and middle class. In her compelling article, Akbar outlined: ‘There is overwhelming agreement among excluded communities that systemic change can only happen when inclusivity is filtered upwards. There is not yet gender parity on boards, even though women outnumber men in the industry; a lack of social diversity is one of its most stubborn problems and there are only a handful of BAME publishing executives who hold the power to buy books.’

What this shows is that integration is essential. Meaningful change can’t happen without the help of those who have ended up with the keys to the boardroom. And this was something that Mr. d’Ormesson acknowledged. 

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Académie Française | © drs1ump / Flickr

The Académie now looks very different to how it did in 1980, when Yourcenar’s admittance made history. Though still demographically skewed towards white, aristocratic men, the Académie has, since the early 2000s, been engaging in a process of – mild – liberalisation. In 2015, Dany Laferrière became the second black person to be elected into the Académie, after Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal was admitted in 1983.

In what Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the permanent secretary of the academy, has described as the ‘opening up of the French language’, writers of different backgrounds have started to join the elite members in an attempt by the Académie to become more representational: François Cheng of Chinese descent was elected in 2002, while Lebanese-born novelist Amin Maalouf and British-born poet Michael Edwards were both elected in 2011 and 2013 respectively.

However, the Académie remains an obstinate body in the face of linguistic change. Earlier this year, the Académie sparked outrage after it warned that gender-inclusive French was a grave threat to the language and would lead to a fragmented, unreadable script. 

Despite this, it does seem that the boundaries of the French language are being slowly redrawn, and the late Jean d’Ormesson would agree with this more modern, inclusive and progressive outlook. In an interview of March 2017, in what would be one of his last linguistic gifts to the world, he said:

‘The French language […] is becoming less important, and France is not the first country in a Europe that is no longer the centre of the world. It is wrong though to be talking about decline all the time. What I believe is that Africa will have an increasingly important role. The future is Africa.’