A Brit in the Académie
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
The poet, literary critic and professor at the Collège de France, Michael Edwards, has just become the first Briton ever to be elected to the Académie française. The appointment is for life.
Edwards taught at the University of Warwick and has been at the Collège de France since 2002. In a paragraph announcing the news (February 23), Le Monde pointed out that “in his articles for the Times Literary Supplement, [Professor Edwards] has always striven to create links between French and English poetry” - which is kind of them as he hasn’t written for the TLS for some time.
Founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the Académie has as its principal role that of guardian of the French language. It also produces a dictionary (the 9th edition is in preparation) and hands out important literary prizes, including the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie française.
Edwards, who was born in 1938, joins the 40 “Immortels” and will occupy Fauteuil 31 (there is as yet no photo of him on the Académie’s website). He will be expected to wear the traditional green uniform and carry a sword. He will also have to deliver a eulogy to the previous occupant of his Fauteuil. If memory serves, the late Alain Robbe-Grillet refused to fulfil this duty when he was elected in 2004. Henry de Montherlant, meanwhile, asked to give his eulogy in 1963 behind closed doors.
Edwards’s successful application was at the third time of asking. He comfortably defeated his 5 rivals after 3 rounds. Rather unkindly the Académie publishes a full breakdown of the voting.
For what it’s worth, Émile Zola applied 24 times, without success. The list of non-members among writers is a distinguished one, including Molière, Diderot, Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust - none of whom presumably ever applied.
There have been 7 women among its 722 members. Marguerite Yourcenar was the first in 1980. Current Immortelles (if there is such a term in this context) include the politician Simone Veil and the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar. The former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is also immortel. The election of the poet and first President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor in 1983 is regarded as having broken a very conservative mould. It'll be interesting to see if Edwards is joined by another "Anglo-Saxon".