John Walsh: ‘Sarkozy airily quotes Celine and carries works by Zola to power lunches’

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

A cultural sea change has engulfed Nicolas Sarkozy, according to reports from the Elysee Palace. The chronically philistine, famously anti-intellectual premier has gone all well-read and culture-vultured. Once his middle-brow, man-of-the-people act – he liked burgers, jogging, Ray-Ban eyewear and Rolex watches – appealed to working-class and lower-middle-class voters. Now he risks losing that support after an arty makeover.

These days, he airily quotes Louis-Ferdinand Celine, author of the savage 1932 novel, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit. He carries works by Zola to power lunches, just as you and I used to carry Penguin Modern Classics in our jacket pockets when we were pretentious 18-year-olds. He invites Michel Houellebecq, the misanthropic author of Atomised, to dinner and tells him (I’m guessing the exact words): “Oh, Michel . J’ai lit tout de ton oeuvre…”

A shocked L’Express magazine ran a cover story about it last week: how it was suddenly au revoir to the French rocker Johnny Halliday, but salut to Dylan and the Brothers Goncourt.

How quickly things change. Only three months ago, French voters showed their contempt for their President’s literary taste by mass-buying a book purely because he’d hated it at school (it was La Princesse de Cleves, a tale of love and duty set in the court of Henry II, written by one Madame de la Fayette.) Its sales rocketed just before an outbreak of strikes in March. Lapel badges bearing the legend “I’m reading The Princess of Cleves” sold out at the Paris Book Fair.

Now, Sarkozy has embraced literature. People say it’s Carla’s influence, but I’m sure it’s a sincere, personal thing. There’s a certain gaucheness about his enthusiasm that suggests a genuine convert to highbrow literature, grabbed by a desire to read everything by Flaubert and Proust before time runs out.

We’re been here before, though, haven’t we? Sarkozy is unwittingly echoing the plot of The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s hilarious novella in which he imagines what would happen if the Queen suddenly “got” literature. After finding a mobile library parked by the Buckingham Palace kitchens, she starts with a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, then moves, with mounting interest, through Nancy Mitford’s bittersweet The Pursuit of Love, to Mary Renault and Henry James. She embarrasses visiting heads of state by asking what they’re reading. She stays in bed, feigning a cold in order to read more, and neglects her duties until her staff worry that she must be suffering from Alzheimer’s. And then the Queen wonders if she herself should put pen to paper…

Will Sarkozy go down the same path? Will he abandon summit conferences and picking fights with foreign politicians, to immerse himself in French symbolist poetry? Will he lose himself in absinthe, develop appalling table manners and stab a (male) lover through the hand in a hommage to Rimbaud and Verlaine? Perhaps he and Ms Bruni could hang out in Left Bank cafes, haranguing students about politics and smoking Gauloises, in the manner of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Isn’t it a shame that we can’t envisage a similar transformation in Gordon Brown? The PM is reputed to read a lot, but favours inspirational works illustrating Courage or Thrift or Fiscal Probity. If only he were to develop a passion for literature. How we’d love it if the PM quoted Beckett, or Chaucer or TS Eliot (“Because I do not hope to turn again…”) during a Mansion House speech. How pleasing if he invited left-wing visionaries like Iain Sinclair to be fawned on in Downing Street, and proudly name-dropped meetings with Doris Lessing or Zadie Smith.

Cultural makeovers can rebound badly. Former non-readers who suddenly tell their friends that Don Quixote is inferior to Gargantua and Pantagruel without having read either of them, or who carry Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland around with them because President Obama said he was reading it, run the risk of being thought poseurs. People seized by a passionate conversion to literature, by contrast, are welcomed into the fraternity of readers: the world loves a new enthusiast.

One just hopes M. Sarkozy isn’t doing this strenuous quoting merely to pick up a few votes from the literate bourgeois gentilhommes of Paris.