Elderly guardians of French choose another 'immortal'

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The Independent Online

The "immortals" are dropping like flies. Six of the 40 members of the Académie Française - known as les immortels - have died in the past year.

Could there be a serial killer at large in France who has a mysterious grudge against self-important and ageing literary figures?

Hardly. The academy - whose role is to protect the purity and integrity of the French language - is the oldest of French institutions in more senses than one. Its average age is 78. Five of its surviving members are over 90. One is 98. Nine are over 80.

The six immortals who have died in the past year were all members of the celebrated "dictionary committee". Half of the seats on the committee are now vacant. The academy's dictionary is the gold standard of the French language, a work which is permanently in progress but never progresses very fast.

The 20th-century edition, the ninth, has been under discussion (for an hour or so every Thursday) since 1935. The academy has reached the letter "P".

The ranks of the immortals are more depleted than at any time in six decades. The survivors - those well enough to leave home - will gather today, in their gold-brocaded, green uniforms and bicorn (Napoleonic) hats, to try to elect a new member. Neither of the two candidates would reduce the average age of the academy by much.

The first is Max Gallo, 75, former Communist novelist and politician turned popular historian of Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. The second is Claude Imbert, 77, journalist and essayist and founder of the magazine, Le Point.

Why not fill all six of the vacancies at once? Or at least accept both the present applicants? Inconceivable. It is not in the nature of the academy to do anything rapidly.

The 40 seats have numbers, like the shirts in a football squad. You cannot apply to join the academy. You have to apply for a particular, numbered seat. A series of elections will be held over the next year. Anyone who is rejected (as M. Gallo once was) is not advised to apply again for several years.

By the time that the elections are completed, there may well be a new crop of vacancies. The oldest member, the celebrated anthropologist, Claude Levy-Strauss, 98, has not attended the weekly sessions for several years. Efforts were made in the 1980s to bring down the immortals' average age - and to admit women. But recent appointments have been septuagenarian or older.

The academy, which was created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, to purify and standardise the French language, also includes soldiers, churchmen, lawyers and politicians. The distinguished younger members of all these professions are said to be increasingly reluctant to apply for immortality. Membership is still sought after by the ageing great and good (but not always those whom the existing members judge to be great and good enough).

In recent years, its role has been taken over by the 19 separate committees of the state which protect French from anglicisms and neologisms and invent such words as logiciel for software or ordinateur for computer.

The academy plays an advisory role but its opinions are frequently discounted. The immortals' mystique survives but there have been a couple of serious blows in recent years to their pride and prestige. In 2002, a book - Le salon des immortels - written by a French-Canadian journalist, Louis-Bernard Robitaille, mercilessly stripped away the pretences and misconceptions which have surrounded the academy for nearly four centuries

For most of its life, Robitaille says, the academy has lived an existence of "irreproachable uselessness". "The unspoken truth is that the Académie Française does nothing, or next to nothing," Robitaille told The Independent. "Its members, or rather some of its members, meet for maybe 90 minutes a week. They put out maybe five pronouncements on the language each year, which are generally ignored."

The second blow has been the refusal of one of its recent appointees - Alain Robbe-Grillet - to accept its quaint customs and traditions. New members are supposed to buy a green suit, cocked-hat and sword and make an inaugural speech about the last occupant of their numbered seat.

M. Robbe-Grillet, 84, is an ageing enfant terrible of French letters, one of the creators of the so-called New Novels of the 1950s (broadly novels without plots). He was elected in 2004 but he has refused to buy a suit or sword or make his eulogy. He was elected to the academy but has never been "admitted" to it. He is therefore the first ever immortal in limbo.