Thursday’s Thought: Sarkozy’s syncope
Only 49 more books to go...
This Thursday’s Thought from Word of the Day was stimulated by an article by Hélène Cixous in the Guardian’s series on France. Hélène Cixous is one of those French intellectuals who fill many Anglo-Saxons with a mixture of terror and mockery, ‘known,’ it says in her biography at the European Graduate School, ‘for her experimental writing style, which crosses the traditional limits of academic discourse into poetic language. Her practice crosses many discourses, and she is admired for her role as an influential theorist, as well as a novelist and playwright.’ Her target is Nicolas Sarkozy‘s philistinism, manifested in his syncope:
Pushing syncope to the limit, he swallows half the syllables and he spits the rest in his opponent’s face. He imposes his idiolect on the world. Only he ‘speaks’ this idiom; only stand-up comedians imitate it. Language gets a hammering from him. Upon its ruins he proclaims the disgrace of culture and the reign of ignorance.
His especial crime in her eyes is his contempt for The Princess of Clevès:
Just imagine an English potentate breaking the good news to the people: a ban on bloody tedious Robinson Crusoe, cluttering the mind. And Shakespeare, what a drag! Old stuff. We’ve got the telly now.
The Beano annual – and 49 other books
O blessed Anglo-Saxons! For have we not Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education and single-handed saviour of our nation’s culture? Lo, hear him proclaim that children should read fifty books a year. No matter that distinguished authors have expressed their ‘outrage at the “great big contradiction” of Mr Gove’s claim to wish to improve literacy while closing libraries across the country,’ they still tell the Independent what they’d include in their fifty. I love it that Michael Rosen’s final choice is the Beano Annual: ‘a cornucopia of nutty, bad, silly ideas, tricks, situations and plots.’ Just the place for Mr Gove to find his next wheeze for schools?
Who invented the novel?
Never mind that the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge rubbishes his ideas for that subject in the London Review of Books, what would Michael (English, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford) make of Hélène Cixous’ claim that ‘The Princess of Clevès is the first novel in literature’? (‘Worse,’ she adds, ‘it’s written by a woman (Madame de La Fayette). Worse, it immortalises a woman.’) Blinkered Anglocentric that I am, I’d believed we invented the novel – I even have a volume from my own university days confidently titled Shorter Novels: Elizabethan (Deloney, Greene and Nashe: expect them in the new National Curriculum). Fortunately, Ian Watt comes to our rescue, having firmly put the French in their place back in 1957 in The Rise Of The Novel:
It is perhaps partly for this reason that French fiction from La Princesse de Clèves to Les Liaisons dangereuses stands outside the main tradition of the novel. For all its psychological penetration and literary skill, we feel it is too stylish to be authentic. In this Madame de La Fayette and Choderlos de Laclos are the polar opposites of Defoe and Richardson, whose very diffuseness tends to act as a guarantee of the authenticity of their report, whose prose aims exclusively at what Locke defined as the proper purpose of language, ‘to convey the knowledge of things’, and whose novels as a whole pretend to be no more than a transcription of real life – in Flaubert’s words, ‘le réel écrit‘.
How masterly the put-down! ‘The French? Too stylish! But of course, their President is so philistine!’ For something less stylish but more topical, we turn to Mrs Cameron’s diary in today’s Guardian on why war, especially alongside the French, is so tedious:
Obama did not man up until Dave set an example and the maddening part was he had to man up with Sarko who is such a ghastly little squit and only doing it to impress Carla, pathetic. But there are pluses because next to Sarko Dave looks so buff that tbh you feel sorry for Carla having such a weird little husband even if he is a president.
Now what was the thought?
Ah yes, who got to the novel first: the French or the English? Or was it whether we’d rather have the curriculum at the mercy of Mr Gove or President Sarkozy?