For anyone who dabbles in French language and literature, last week marked a major watershed. To the sound of Garde Nationale drums, the staid, respected Académie Française, one of the world’s most conservative institutions, formally ushered an unusual writer, playwright, journalist and TV commentator to his life-long numbered seat, one of just forty.
The French have always taken their language very seriously, and the Académie Française was created in 1635 with the mission of upholding the purity of the French language. Formal green coats embroidered with olive leaves, swords worn at the waist, bicorn hats, elections that have to be vetted by the President of the Republic were all set up to honour the Académie’s motto “À l’Immortalité”. Not its members’, as common belief would have it, but that of la langue française. The new member, Mr Dany Lafarrièr, jokes about being an Immortel, and had his metal sword sculpted in Haiti, with references to the Voodoo deity that speaks all human languages.
In the last few decades, a number of foreign-born “Immortels” joined its ranks, but they fit broadly into the general cultural framework of a “centralized” French language. These latest members have undoubtedly been opening up new horizons, towards more coherence with the realities of Third Millenium Francophony. It’s very apt that Amin Malouf was chosen to give Mr Lafarrière his formal welcoming speech, Malouf who spins tales of uprooting and emigration, the hallmark of our times. Among other latecomers, Michael Edwards, a bilingual French-British poet and academic, as well a Chinese born linguist François Cheng.
But Dany Lafarrière is something else again. Like all self-respecting multiculturals, expats, emigrants, you choose the word, he doesn’t like to be buttonholed into the official “Haitian-Canadian” description. He’s lived a long period of his life in the USA, and claims his homeland is also inside all his books. If pressed, he says he’s a man of the Americas and migration.
As a quirky (“if you want to know the weather, open the window”) new weather forecaster, he took Quebecois by surprise in the mid-80s. He had fled his journalism job in dictator-dominated Haiti when a colleague and friend was found mysteriously murdered on a beach. And here he was, black on a background of white snow, announcing more snow and ice (his description). He had survived years of hardship and odd jobs in Montreal as an exile before his first novel gained recognition in 1985. Mainly because of its controversial un-PC title, the novel was widely boycotted in the USA… With his very particular brand of Quebecois sense of humour, added to his deep literary knowledge, he became such an overnight sensation that his fame as a playwright and radio and TV host cost him the privacy he needed to continue to write.
So he moved to warmer climes where he could enjoy a quiet and anonymous life with his family. He lived and worked in Miami for almost a decade, choosing at a certain point to stop producing new works so as to revisit and rewrite his old novels. He completely revamped six of them, with changes and added chapters.
How’s that for craftsmanship and love of language?
Mr Lafarrière’s inclusion in the Académie promises a leap ahead for the French language, and is a remarkable and optimistic move away from its tradition-bound past. It should open wide some of the windows of its still dusty rooms, and bring breaths of far fresher air in, by allowing the correct use of more updated and global French.
I can’t help remembering my year-long Coaching course a decade ago, and tuning in with pleasure to the particular lilt and open vowels of my Quebecoise coach-trainer: she spoke a rich flavor of language that had kept many of the original sounds of ancient French, and also evolved a delightful mix of very peculiar homegrown expression.
Alors bravo les Immortels, vous vous projetez (enfin) vers l’avenir…!