Richelieu, Cousteau, Pasteur ... and now Michael Edwards?

A Briton may be joining the Continent's elite big thinkers at the Académie Française for the first time. So, asks John Lichfield, who is he?

John Lichfield
Saturday 10 March 2012 01:00 GMT
Cardinal Richelieu, left, started the Académie Française in 1635, which has since included the scientist Louis Pasteur, centre, and the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, right, as members
Cardinal Richelieu, left, started the Académie Française in 1635, which has since included the scientist Louis Pasteur, centre, and the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, right, as members

Michael Edwards is an unassuming, brilliant man who stands on the verge of history. Next month, he could be the first Briton to achieve "immortality". Professor Edwards, 73, is a candidate to become the first English-born member of the Académie Française, the elite institution which defends the purity of the French language from, among other things, the depredations of English.

Over nearly four centuries, the 40 academy members, elected for life and known as "the immortals", have included great French writers, philosophers, politicians, soldiers, churchmen, a sprinkling of Francophone foreigners and an underwater explorer. There has never been an immortel born in Britain – nor one whose first language was English. Next month Professor Edwards, who spoke his first word of French in 1950 as an 11-year-old schoolboy in Surrey, is one of three candidates to fill a vacant seat in the academy.

Six decades after his first French lesson at Kingston Grammar School in Surrey, Michael Edwards is a much-admired poet in both the French and English languages. He is a professor at the Collège de France, the most prestigious of all French academic institutions. He has lectured and written on Shakespeare in French and on the classical 17th-century French playwright Racine in English. He is married to a Frenchwoman, Dani, and holds dual nationality.

He failed, honourably, at his first attempt to join the immortals in 2008. The word in French literary circles is that he stands a "very good chance" of being elected by the legendarily finicky academicians on 26 April.

Could the academy's reputation as a bitter foe of the Anglicisation of the French language wreck his chances? Michael Edwards hopes not. He is, himself, an indefatigable defender of the purity and integrity of French. He told The Independent: "This is a moment of crisis for French and it makes sense, I believe, for the academy to choose someone who comes from, as it were, the opposite camp but has become a champion of the special importance and beauty of the French language."

"The academy is sometimes mocked abroad and even in France for trying to defend the French language from debasement in the modern world. But the academy is quite right to do so. Quite right. French is not just a beautiful language. It represents a way of looking at the world, a way of 'naming the world', a pattern of thought, which is quite different from our own."

Professor Edwards, who formerly held the chairs of French and English at the University of Warwick, is by no means guaranteed a place. The members of the academy are notoriously fussy about the credentials and character of those elected to wear their cocked hats, dark green, gold-braided uniforms and ceremonial swords. In December, there were 11 candidates for the place for which Professor Edwards is in contention. All failed to receive an absolute majority of votes of the immortels present beneath the gilded dome of the Institut de France, on the left bank of the Seine. All were therefore rejected.

The same thing could happen in April but the whisper in literary and academic circles in Paris is that this may be Professor Edwards' "turn". It could also be his last chance. In an attempt to rejuvenate what is sometimes mocked as the most exclusive old people's club in the world – average age circa 78 – the academy now bans candidates who are more than 75 years old. "To be elected would be the ultimate honour," he said. "It would be the last tick in the box to prove that, after all these years, I have been accepted as being French, even though I may remain very proud to be British."

The academy 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 arts and sciences.

Many celebrated French literary figures have been members of the academy. Famous immortals, now deceased, include the undersea explorer, Jacques Cousteau and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Present members include the former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and the former president of the European Parliament, Simone Veil.

The 40 seats are numbered, like the shirts of a football squad. Professor Edwards has been nominated for seat number 40, last held by the writer and diplomat Pierre-Jean Rémy, who died in April 2010.

There have been several foreign-born, but Francophone, members of the Académie Française. The only previous English-speaking member in 377 years was Julien Green (1900-98) a bilingual, French-born US novelist who wrote almost exclusively in French. So how did a Kingston schoolboy, born in Barnes, become a French poet and academic? "From my very first lesson in French at 11 years old, I felt a sense of wonder, a sense of marvel, that there was a completely other way in which people could express themselves," Professor Edwards said.

He went on to read modern languages at Cambridge and become a professor at Essex and Warwick. He has written scores of books and essays in English and French. Professor Edwards argues that the differences between the languages explain not only the differences between English and French literature. They explain the differences between the way that the French and "les Anglo-Saxons" see the world.

English, he says, is a language which "grips reality", which follows the contours of events just as an "English country lane follows the contours of the landscape". France is a more abstract language, which "hovers over events like a hot-air balloon". British writers and British institutions love things to be "heterogeneous" or full of surprises and exceptions; French literature and political ideas favour the "homogenous" and the organised. French, he says, is also a fluid, mellifluous language, which makes French poetry especially beautiful. English can be a more angular, more earthy language but – he whispers, in case the academy should be listening – "in my opinion that can make English poetry even more beautiful."

The battle against the Anglicisation of French is, he says, not just a question of sentiment or conservatism. It is a battle to preserve intellectual diversity, just as important as the battle to preserve ecological diversity. "French philosophers and scientists are increasingly writing in English in order to be published worldwide. But if they write in English, they will cease to think in the characteristic way the French think. A whole treasure of the mind will be lost."

As if to prove his point, Professor Edwards will be publishing a new poem later this year. In L'agrophile du Trocadéro, he shifts from one language to the other, attempting to express how the world appears differently to a mind thinking in French and a mind thinking in English.

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