The Spanish-Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa joined the Académie Française on Thursday in a ceremony that was one of the most important events in the cultural life of the country and also in the history of this hallowed institution, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635: never before had anyone been allowed to join who had not published a single book in the French language, whose defense and preservation is the organization’s raison d’être.
Among those attending the event was Spain’s emeritus king, Juan Carlos I, who received a personal invitation by the writer himself in a move that raised eyebrows in Spain, from where the former monarch fled in August 2020 amid allegations of financial irregularities.
Also in attendance were Vargas Llosa’s three children - Álvaro, Gonzalo and Morgana - and Patricia Llosa, his ex-wife. Members of the audience included former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, writers Javier Cercas and Zoé Valdés, and the publisher Antoine Gallimard. The uniformed academics were received by the Republican Guard.
In a vibrant and digressive speech in French, the 86-year-old author of Conversation in the Cathedral declared his love for France as a literary homeland. And he placed literature as the highest of the narrative arts, above film and television.
“The novel will save democracy or it will be buried with it and disappear,” said Vargas Llosa, dressed in the traditional green suit with ornate embroidery and with the sword that is mandatory for all members. “Nothing has been invented so far quite like the novel to keep alive the dream of a better society than this one in which we live, in which everyone would find enough materials for their happiness, a word that seems unreal madness in these times but which fed for centuries the longing of millions of human beings.”
Vargas Llosa has become an “immortel” or immortal, as the 40 members of the conclave are known. His induction is injecting a dose of novelty and universalism into an institution accused of being conservative and old-fashioned, and which for years has lacked any truly outstanding figures. None of the three living French Nobel laureates - Patrick Modiano, J.M.G. Le Clézio and Annie Ernaux - has shown any interest in joining the club.
In his acceptance speech, Vargas Llosa, who already belongs to the Royal Spanish Academy, mentioned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resistance of the population against Vladimir Putin. “As in novels, here the weak are defeating the strong, because the justice of their cause is infinitely greater than that of the latter, the supposedly powerful. As in literature, things are done well and confirm an imminent justice that only exists, needless to say, in our dreams.”
The candidacy, as the novelist himself explained in November 2021, arose from a conversation in Paris with his friend, the writer and academic Daniel Rondeau. “We had a coffee. And there was another academic with us,” he recalled. “And suddenly they told me that the Académie Française was waiting for me. And they practically set up an ambush from which I have turned out to be a French academic myself.”
The perpetual secretary of the institution, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, 93, this week defended the choice of an author who has never written in French: “I don’t know anyone who speaks as highly of Flaubert as he does. He has helped French culture more than many French writers.”
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