Friday, March 20, 2009

The Princess of Cleves

French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has ignited controversy due to his views on classic proto-novel, The Princess of Cleves.

Sarkozy says that he suffered by being made to read it at school. He also says that:

A sadist or an idiot - you decide - included questions about La Princesse de Clèves in an exam for people applying for public sector jobs." He puffed that it would be "a spectacle" to see low-level staff talk about the difficult work published in 1678.”

Criticism of literature is now common both from the right and left. The nominal UK Left use words like ‘elitist’ to describe literature. They have more important things on their minds such as conjuring up slogans like ‘Education! Education! Education!’ (Tony Blair) – have they given much thought to education since then? Doesn’t seem so. The Right see literature as an irrelevance. If it doesn’t sell well, doesn’t create wealth and shore up the economy, what possible use can it be? Apparently Boris Johnson thinks about poetry while he’s driving on motorways (must avoid him if I ever spot him behind a wheel) or hanging over the edge of a cliff in sub-zero temperatures, but not at most other times. I wonder what the last contemporary poetry collection he bought was.

Anyway, back to France and Sarkozy. The French public have reacted by buying the book. Apparently, this week the Paris Book Fair sold out of badges saying "I'm reading La Princesse de Clèves."

What we need is for Gordon Brown to declare that poetry gives him a headache. We need Virgin Media to set an exam for staff requiring them to read the complete oeuvre of Geoffrey Hill and talk about it under controlled conditions before being eligible for employment. That should create a fair amount of outrage. We need all political parties to quiz prospective candidates on their knowledge of the Barque Press list and only choose those who score 0/100. We need bank staff, particularly those eligible for multi-million pound pensions, to sound off about how being forced to read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in school has ruined their lives.

Everyone will be reading poetry in protest. It will be the ultimate resistance.


deemikay said...

But they still wouldn't be reading it because they liked it, would they now?

"Gordon Brown declares drinking cod liver oil a dreadful thing - the masses rise up against him and hold mass cod liver oil drinking sessions to show him what for. In other news... massive cases of vomiting have been reported."

But still... silly Sarkozy.

It's not just literature that's seen as elitist. It's learning and intelligence in general. Only in Britain (and possibly the US) is "too clever" an insult. *sigh*

deemikay said...

PS I hope you enjoy what you see at St Andrews. I'll be interested in any report.

Tony Williams said...

Rob, I hope you won't mind if I say your reading of Boris Johnson seems a little ungenerous.

I should think that most people who like poetry only think about it some of the time. The article seems to me to express a genuine and personal engagement with poetry - it's true that he turns this to a political purpose, but the base experience appears to be genuine, doesn't it? And I should think you're right that he doesn't read much, or any, contemporary poetry, but that doesn't make his interest in what he does (or has) read any less authentic.

Wouldn't an onlooker be bemused to see practitioners saying, 'X likes my art, but not in the right way', or 'X likes my art, but X is not the sort of person I like to see liking my art'?

Rob said...

Tony, you've got a point. I've no doubt overstated the case because I dislike more or less everything about Johnson.

BarbaraS said...

Well, one thing's for sure, everyone's talking about Boris J and poetry in the one breath - and that is unusual!