Magazine article The Spectator

LIFE & LETTERS - Memoirs as Literature

Magazine article The Spectator

LIFE & LETTERS - Memoirs as Literature

Article excerpt

Laurence Sterne remarked rather a long time ago that they order these matters better in France, and happily this is still the case.

Fifteen hundred teachers of literature recently protested about the choice of a set book for Terminale L du bac - the exam taken by 17-year-olds. Their concern is perhaps more political than literary. Nevertheless they denounced the choice of book as 'a negation of our discipline'. 'We are teachers of literature, ' they said; 'is it our business to discuss a work of history?'

The book that has provoked their rebellion is the Memoires de Guerre of General de Gaulle, which has replaced Pascal's Pensees on this year's syllabus. One of their objections will be familiar enough this side of the Channel. The General's three volumes are, they say, too difficult for their students. And Pascal is easy?

Defending the choice, Max Gallo of the Academie Francaise remarks scornfully that the objectors have certainly never read a line of the Memoires - no doubt a good reason for many to protest, since to teach a book it's preferable that you should have read it.

(Gallo, incidentally, is a socialist, and was indeed a communist as a young man. ) One Parisian student said she had been told that de Gaulle was in the tradition of Cardinal de Retz and Chateaubriand, but thought that, though de Gaulle was a great historical figure, his work was likely to be irrelevant to a 'lyceenne' like her. But she also complained that the other set books were all contemporary and not very enticing. (British students are more likely to reject anything which is not contemporary. ) Dominique Antoine, Sarkozy's former cultural adviser, defending the proposal, remarked that, like Churchill, de Gaulle wrote history as well as making it, and did so in a rich and masterful style. Well, Churchill got the Nobel Prize for Literature, though perhaps as a good conduct medal, and Evelyn Waugh dismissed his style as 'sham Augustan'. M. Antoine added that the day may come when the books of another head of state who wrote well will be set texts. 'I mean, ' he said, 'Francois Mitterand.' This may have been meant as a sop to the left, alternatively as an irritant, the only socialist president of the Fifth Republic being dismissed by many leftists as 'faux-gauche' since the revelation of his Vichy past. …

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