May 20, 2019

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The Guardians of the French Language Are Deadlocked, Just Like Their Country

The Guardians of the French Language Are Deadlocked, Just Like Their Country
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“Words shoot up like geysers from your pen, tumble in cascades, swirl about, bump into each other, are never at rest,” Ms. Bona said, describing Mr. Grainville’s work in the traditional induction speech. “You are, sir, a writer of jubilation.”

There was no hint of the social upheaval that has torn France apart in recent months. And there prevailed a certain vision of French history, in the easy invocation of former members of the academy, celebrated French writers with dubious wartime collaborationist pasts like Henry de Montherlant, cited by Mr. Grainville as a mentor.

As with other ceremonious and antiquated French institutions, the pomp provides its own justification, even for those who harbor reservations about it. The academy for them represents France’s consecration of its writers, a nearly unique national status.

“It was the idea of getting on the magic merry-go-round,” said the sharp-witted novelist Charles Dantzig, who was encouraged to apply after winning the academy’s prize, and then lost in recent balloting.

“It was the idea of protection,” he said of the appeal of being a member. ‘‘Illusory, no doubt.”

Indeed, the unusual nature of the academy’s mission, in a world where much of what it celebrates is under siege, leaves some members pessimistic it can protect even itself.

“French society: Will it continue?” Mr. Rouart asked.

Then he answered his own question. “The bourgeoisie is dying,” Mr. Rouart grumbled. Before, “you would see the academy members at dinner parties. Now there aren’t even dinner parties. It’s finished.”

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