Poet vies to be first Englishman accepted by Académie française

Imagine a Frenchman applying to sit on the governing body of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Imagine a Frenchman being appointed headmaster of Eton.

Even those feats would not begin to compare with the exploit which will be attempted today by Professor Michael Edwards, 69, born in Barnes, south-west London. Professor Edwards hopes to become the first Englishman to sit among the French "immortals", the 40 members of the Académie française whose job is to defend the purity and integrity of the French language.

Professor Edwards is a published poet in French and English. He also holds the European chair at the College of France, the most prestigious of all French academic institutions. He is married to a Frenchwoman, Dani, and has dual nationality. His election today to one of six vacant chairs at the Académie française would be an extraordinary achievement. In the near 400-year history of the academy, there has never been a British-born member, and never a member whose first language was English.

Professor Edwards' first word of French was spoken as an 11-year-old schoolboy at Kingston Grammar School in 1950.

"I am extremely honoured, even moved, just to be nominated," Professor Edwards told The Independent last night. "I have spent my life moving between the two countries. I have come to write my books and my poetry mostly in French. If I was to be chosen, I would think of myself as having been, finally, accepted by France."

Professor Edwards, who formerly held the chairs of French and English at the University of Warwick, is not guaranteed a place. Members of the Académie, known as "les immortels", are notoriously fussy about the credentials and character of those whom they invite to wear their cocked hats and green, gold-braided uniforms.

Two seats are being filled today. There are three rival applicants for the seat for which Professor Edwards has been nominated. All the 40 seats are numbered, like the shirts of a football squad. An attempt was made in October last year to fill one of the six vacant seats. All three hopefuls were rejected.

The same thing might happen today but the word in French literary circles is that Professor Edwards would have an excellent chance "next time around".

An academic figure in Paris, who knows Professor Edwards well, said last night that he was an "amiable and modest" man, a great expert in French literature, especially the dramatist Racine and the poet Rimbaud, but also a great expert on Shakespeare. His lectures, in French, are very well regarded, the academic said, but "he is not immune to making grammatical mistakes, which are, admittedly, very easy to make in French".

James Lawlor is a Paris-based Australian academic who is president of Les Amis de Rimbaud, and a friend of Professor Edwards. He said: "He is an extraordinary lecturer, and an extraordinary communicator, in both French and English."

There have been several foreign-born, but francophone, members of the Académie française. The only English-speaking member in 375 years was Julien Green (1900-98), the bilingual, French-born American novelist, who wrote almost exclusively in French. He was elected to the Académie in 1971 but resigned just before his death, saying he preferred to be regarded as an American.

Whether this unfortunate precedent will damage Professor Edwards' chances remains unclear. The fact that the Académie regards itself as one of the principal foes of the anglicisation of the French language may also count against him. The Académie is, however, desperately in need of new blood. The average age of the 34 surviving members is 78. Nine immortels have died in the past 18 months. The oldest member, the celebrated anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss, 99, has not attended the weekly sessions for several years.

Despite its prestige and reputation as the most exclusive club in Paris, the Académie is finding it difficult to persuade younger French literary figures to apply. Those who put forward their names are often rejected on the grounds that they are not sufficiently distinguished – or not sufficiently clubbable.

The main work of the immortals is to update the academy dictionary, a work which has been permanently in progress since 1635, but never progresses very fast. The 20th-century edition, the ninth, has been under discussion (for an hour or so each Thursday) since 1935. The academy has reached the letter "R".

Club of 'immortels'

The Académie was created in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to establish rules for the French language to make it "pure, eloquent", comprehensible to all and a tool for both arts and sciences.

The 40 members, elected for life and known as "les immortels", were charged with producing the first dictionary of the French language. They took 59 years to complete the first edition.

There have since been seven other complete editions, mostly small variations on the first. The academicians started on the ninth, or 20th-century, edition in 1935.

At their official meetings under the dome of the Institut de France, on the Left Bank of the Seine, members wear green uniforms with gold lace and cocked hats. They can, if they wish, wear a ceremonial sword.

Recent famous members include the former President Valèry Giscard d'Estaing, 82 this week, and the anthropologist, Claude Lévy-Strauss, 99.

The youngest current member, Erik Orsenna, a novelist, is 66.

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