In France, Rebellion By Actually Reading National Classic

In America, we love to ban books. When something — violence, sex, devil worship, the “n” word, the list is endless — offends, someone out there is sure to attempt to keep others from being exposed to it. Consequently, in a somewhat silly act of Freedom, we hold a yearly Banned Books Week during which one can choose, in protest, to read nearly any book ever written.

The French, on the other hand, don’t really ban books. They really like offending people with their art. And Madame de La Fayette’s 17th century Princesse de Cleves, besides noted as one of the first psychological novels, is not particularly controversial. (In the tale of duty versus love, duty un-obligingly prevails.) According to the Telegraph, though, as M. Sarkozy’s popularity drops, sales of the ennui-inducing French classic rise. Sarkozy, in fact, detests the book and views it as societally unnecessary.

So as nationwide strikes and protests occurred last week in response to the government’s handling of the national economic crisis, romantic Princesse de Cleves morphed from required reading into a statement of views, a political act of rebellion among anyone from literatis to students to actor Louis Garrel: At the Paris Book Fair, the book sold out and people were seen wearing buttons reading “I am reading La Princesse de Cleves”; Student’s at the Sorbonne University are holding public readings; and, a national survey of preferred books of 100 French writers listed Clèves third overall.

It’s amusing that Clèves is for the most part so thematically inoffensive. Perhaps that’s why Sarko finds it offensive in the first place (he seems to see it as a waste of time). Our own previous administration in any case would have been much more exciting if we the people had gotten a chance to reinvigorate equally antiquated American works. I’d be up for a protest, reading Leatherstocking Tales or Moby-Dick, perhaps.