Reading Away the Horrors in France


France turns to literature in times of trouble. In fact, two of the surprise bestsellers of the year in France were books by dead authors.

The first was Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance : A l’occasion de la mort de Jean Calas, or treatise on tolerance, on the occasion on the death of Jean Calas. This occurred after the horrific January attacks on the offices of the scabrous satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris.

In his essay, Voltaire extols the liberty of thought (and of expression) and descries religious fanaticism, in particular that of the Jesuits of his time. He wrote his work following the trial of  Jean Calas (1698-1762), a Protestant who was accused of murdering his son Marc-Antoine to prevent his son’s being converted somehow to Catholicism. Calas was executed (murdered, really) by the government in March 1762. (He was exonerated posthumously, a few years later.)

What struck the French this year, following these attacks on the ecumenically irreverent Charlie Hebdo – which was targeted for its so-called heretical drawings, among other supposed outrages – was how Voltaire’s thoughts about religious intolerance, and attempts by people in power to suppress freedom of expression, were still so relevant.

I read the book, and was struck not only by the readability of Voltaire’s prose, some 250 years later, but by the lucidity of his thinking. Such as when he says, to those who would condemn so-called infidels (at that time and place, those who weren’t Catholic) simply for believing something else, “Should we say to every one of them, ‘Sir, since you are infallibly damned, I shall neither eat, converse, nor have any connection with you?'”

Voltaire’s work was banned, but widely distributed nevertheless. Its reception by the government at the time reminded me of how tenuous a thing is personal expression, and how important it is to guard it. I remembered the shameful provincialism of the PEN writers who condemned an award to the Charlie Hebdo survivors, claiming ignorantly that they incited unrest with their work (little mention was made by the PEN writers of the people who were killed by the religion-wielding terrorists). These same sanctimonious know-nothings would doubtless have condemned Voltaire too.

Following the horrible attacks in November, in which 130 people were killed, many of whom were simply enjoying life, by taking in a concert or dining at a restaurant, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast became once again a bestseller. Its French title, Paris est une fête, speaks to the Parisian (indeed, the French), sense that a life without free circulation, and without the liberty to enjoy in relative safety the essential yet ordinary things in life, was not worth living.

A Moveable Feast is a series of sketches of Paris, but with telling details regarding Hemingway’s hardscrabble life there enlivened by French joie de vivre. Other authors have written about Paris and of Parisians’ love of sociability but Hemingway’s virtual hymn to Paris and to its rhythms struck a chord with a city targeted for its love of life as it should be lived: with friends, with jokes, with insouciance, with good food, with rock and roll or with whatever strikes your fancy.

Other nations might turn to popular music to ease their battered hearts after a catastrophic event (and in France certain songs, such as Benjamin Biolay’s haunting rendition of Charles Trenet’s “Au Revoir Paris” were part of the soundtrack of autumn this year), but I admire how the French will turn to literature, or at least to the written word, to grapple with ugly realities, to make sense of a world where hatred has become an international currency.

Of course, the French admire writers of all sorts (and only a few months after the rentrée littéraire in early September, when 600 new books were published, the rentrée littéraire after the New Year’s celebrations will see another few hundred new titles hit the stores). People might not read more in France than they do elsewhere, but books and authors are taken seriously, since words are given so much weight (or perhaps the French are more aware of the power of words). Even I, a writer of no wide renown or particular accomplishment, am accorded some respect in France for being able to string a few words together in a professional way.

What matters to the French is explaining things. Or at least discussing them. You could argue that the French prefer to argue than to arrive at a solution. Still, what matters more is that people here are willing to exchange ideas, and to look to understand another point of view. At least, many people are. (I say this even as the xenophobic National Front has played somewhat successfully on the fears of the less enlightened – many French are like many Americans in this regard).

But a country that looks to read its way toward understanding has a lot going for it. Or I should say, that any country that at least tries to understand, and that chooses books as a way toward comprehending a situation, is one whose people have a rare capacity to think beyond themselves from time to time.



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