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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007

In Search of Lost Time

The days grow short. A cold wind stirs the fallen leaves, and some mornings the vineyards are daubed with frost. Yet all across France, life has begun anew: the 2007 harvest is in. And what a harvest it has been. At least 727 new novels, up from 683 for last autumn's literary rentrée. Hundreds of new music albums and dozens of new films. Blockbuster art exhibitions at all the big museums. Fresh programs of concerts, operas and plays in the elegant halls and salles that grace French cities. Autumn means many things in many countries, but in France it signals the dawn of a new cultural year. And nobody takes culture more seriously than the French. They subsidize it generously; they cosset it with quotas and tax breaks. French media give it vast amounts of airtime and column inches. Even fashion magazines carry serious book reviews, and the Nov. 5 announcement of the Prix Goncourt — one of more than 900 French literary prizes — was front-page news across the country. (It went to Gilles Leroy's novel Alabama Song.) Every French town of any size has its annual opera or theater festival, nearly every church its weekend organ or chamber-music recital. There is one problem. All of these mighty oaks being felled in France's cultural forest make barely a sound in the wider world. Once admired for the dominating excellence of its writers, artists and musicians, France today is a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace. That is an especially sensitive issue right now, as a forceful new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, sets out to restore French standing in the world. When it comes to culture, he will have his work cut out for him. Only a handful of the season's new novels will find a publisher outside France. Fewer than a dozen make it to the U.S. in a typical year, while about 30% of all fiction sold in France is translated from English. That's about the same percentage as in Germany, but there the total number of English translations has nearly halved in the past decade, while it's still growing in France. Earlier generations of French writers — from Molière, Hugo, Balzac and Flaubert to Proust, Sartre, Camus and Malraux — did not lack for an audience abroad. Indeed, France claims a dozen Nobel,8816,1686532,00.html

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few performers are famous outside the country. Robert French chanteurs and chanteuses such as Charles Trenet. Americans and Brits dominate the pop scene. Gao Xingjian in 2000. French officials. This is a country where promoting cultural influence has been national policy for centuries. a researcher at France's University of Marne-La-Vallée. Satie. Though the French music industry sold $1. Quick: name a French pop star who isn't Johnny Hallyday. more than any other country in Europe. but no equivalents of such 20th century giants as Debussy. at least in commercial terms.00. An ArtPrice study of the 2006 contemporary-art market found that works by the leading European figure — Britain's Damien Hirst — sold for an average of $180. France still churns out about 200 films a year. Ravel and Milhaud. where controversial philosophers and showy new museums are symbols of pride and patriotism. The Paris art scene. and regularly fight for it in international trade negotiations. the world's largest a century ago. has yet to recapture its New Wave eminence of the 1960s. Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf were once heard the world over. Though homegrown films have been catching up in recent years. France's diminished cultural profile would be just another interesting national crotchet — like Italy's low birthrate.7 billion worth of recordings and downloads last year. low-budget trifles for the domestic market.000. writes in Chinese. Accentuate the positive In addition. who believe such protectionism is essential for saving cultural diversity from the Hollywood juggernaut.1686532. In popular music. France has long assigned itself a "civilizing mission" to improve allies and colonies http://www. commanded $7. once condemned Steven Spielberg's 1993 Jurassic Park as a "threat to French identity. and 30% in Britain. box-office glory this year was the animated Ratatouille — oops. Today.time. France's movie industry.html Page 2 sur 8 . Auction houses in France today account for only about 8% of all public sales of contemporary art. France does have composers and conductors of international repute. In an annual calculation by the German magazine Capital.Printout -.S.In Search of Lost Time -. calculates Alain Quemin. the only vaguely French film to win U. that was made in the U. The top French artist on the list.8816. But most French films are amiable." They succeeded in enshrining the "cultural exception" concept in a 2005 UNESCO agreement. when directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting cinematic rules. Moreover. by Pixar.S.S. France has led the charge for a "cultural exception" that would allow governments to keep out foreign entertainment products while subsidizing their own. France has none. American films account for nearly half the tickets sold in French cinemas. birthplace of Impressionism. the U. and Germany each have four of the world's 10 most widely exposed artists. by New York City and London.TIME 20/03/11 23:01 literature laureates — more than any other country — though the last one. has been supplanted. Surrealism and other major -isms. or Russia's fondness for vodka — if France weren't France. compared with 50% in the U.S.500 per work.

that starchy era inspired much of France's subsequent cultural vitality. and Sarkozy's ascension was due largely to his promise to attend to them. As Sarkozy recently observed: "In the United States and France. But those standards were quite high and contributed to the impressive quality of the artists who rebelled against them." says Christophe Boïcos. we think our ideas are destined to illuminate the world. 1954.310 Americans for Le Figaro magazine. work ethic and diplomatic standing — he has also promised to "modernize and deepen the cultural activity of France. Traditionally a province of the right.) Like a certain other nation whose founding principles sprang from the 18th century Enlightenment. more casual generation that has undermined standards of education and deportment. "A lot of French artists were created in opposition to the education system. Cultural decline is a more difficult failing to assess — and address.TIME 20/03/11 23:01 alike. The Great Waste. uplifting the natives. as in agriculture. In http://www. the government even ordered high schools in France to teach "the positive role" of French colonialism. far behind cuisine. and even the French rugby team's failure at the World Cup — held in France this year — was chewed over as an index of national decay. Talk-show guests and opinion columnists decry France's fading fortunes. France is not shy about its values.In Search of Lost Time -. Eventually it came to embrace the cultivation of art.00. hiked the Culture Ministry's by 3.1686532. the start of the divisive Algerian conflict. In a September poll of 1. i. For French of all political colors." Details are sketchy. Paradoxically. Domestic expectations are low as well.2%. of -. it speaks to the nostalgia of some French for the more rigorous. Many French believe the country and its culture have been in decline since — pick a date: 1940 and the humiliating German occupation. music. The new President has pledged to bolster not just France's economy.time.8816. Bookstores are full of jeremiads like France is Falling. The term originally referred to the growing of things." The taint of talkiness Quality.e. the revolutionary year which conservatives like Sarkozy say brought France under the sway of a new. or 1968. Whether such efforts will have much impact on foreign perception is another matter. Impressionists. Modernists — they were rebels against the academic standards of their day. But most of those laments involve the economy. poetry and other "high-culture" pursuits of a high-minded élite. "Romantics. a Paris art lecturer and gallery owner. only 20% considered culture to be a domain in which France excels. hierarchical society of the 19th and early 20th centuries. (The decree was later rescinded." Sarkozy is eager to pursue that destiny. The War of the Two Frances and The Middle Class Adrift. but the government has already proposed an end to admission charges at museums and.html Page 3 sur 8 . déclinisme has been a hot topic in recent years. is in the eye of the beholder — as is the very meaning of culture. to $11 billion. In 2005. while cutting budgets elsewhere.

France sends planeloads of artists.1686532. as well as caste systems." Other critics warn that protecting cultural industries narrows their appeal.200 employees. now merely the world's 12th most widely spoken language (Chinese is first. Worse still. Producers of just about any nonpornographic movie can get an advance from the government against box-office receipts (most loans are never fully repaid). Proceeds from an 11% tax on cinema tickets are plowed back into subsidies. Martel observes: "If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found.Printout -. The Culture Ministry. Cultural subsidies in France are ubiquitous. parliament in 2005 voted to designate foie gras as a protection-worthy part of the nation's cultural heritage. "If France were the only nation that could decide what is art and what is not. With a domestic market sheltered by quotas and a language barrier. Painters and sculptors can get subsidized studio space. and you had to come here to get noticed.3% for the U. former French cultural attaché Frédéric Martel marvels at how the U. can produce so much "high" culture of lofty quality with hardly any government support. By law.).In Search of Lost Time 26 research centers and 176 archaeological digs overseas. In his widely discussed 2006 book On Culture in America.7% for Germany.8816. Only about 1 in 5 French films gets exported to the U. everybody knew France was the center of the art scene. But the ministry also appointed a Minister for Rock 'n' Roll in the 1980s to help France compete against the Anglo-Saxons (unsuccessfully). Their government spends 1. and it subsidizes 148 cultural groups. must spend 20% of its revenues buying rights to French movies." Another problem may be the subsidies.5% for the U." says Quemin. then French artists would do http://www.TIME 20/03/11 23:01 modern times.S. Canal Plus. burial customs and other behavior..S. performers and their works abroad. and Britain.S.00. which critics say ensure mediocrity.time. 1 in 3 to Germany.5% of GDP supporting a wide array of cultural and recreational activities (vs. anthropologists and sociologists have broadened the term to embrace the "lowculture" enthusiasms of the masses. The government provides special tax breaks for freelance workers in the performing arts. the major organs of cultural criticism and publicity — the global buzz machine — are increasingly based in the U. With all those advantages. why don't French cultural offerings fare better abroad? One problem is that many of them are in French. French producers can thrive without selling overseas. English second). cultural life is everywhere. "Now you have to go to New York. with its 11. and 0. The state also runs a shadow program out of the Foreign Ministry that goes far beyond the cultural efforts of other major countries.K. 40% of shows on TV and music on radio must be French. He concludes that subsidy policies like France's discourage private participants — and money — from entering the cultural space.S. lavishes money on such "high-culture" mainstays as museums. only 0. 0.html Page 4 sur 8 . The French like to have it all ways. Separate quotas govern prime-time hours to ensure that French programming is not relegated to the middle of the night. Likewise. "In the '40s and '50s. the country's leading pay-TV channel. opera houses and theater festivals.

French novelists produce interesting stuff." quips Marc Levy. one way or another." complains Pierre Rosenberg.00. Nowhere is that tendency more apparent than in French fiction." says Kennedy." Conversely. became the 2005 Hollywood film Just Like Heaven starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. Such storydriven Anglo-Saxon authors as William Boyd.In Search of Lost Time -. which still suffers from the introspective 1950s nouveau roman (new novel) movement. "The typical French film of the '80s and '90s had a bunch of people sitting at lunch and disagreeing with each other. but what they are not doing is looking at France. foreign fiction — especially topical." France today can make slick. editorial director of Lire." French cinema has also suffered from a nouveau roman complex. Once the most popular course of study.8816. one doesn't learn to see. "One learns to read at school. one of France's best-selling novelists. "But we're not the only player. Many of today's most critically revered French novelists write spare.Printout -. a writer wants to work hard and be successful. To that end. an exhaustively introspective dissection of her love affairs. John le Carré and Ian McEwan are overrepresented on French best-seller lists. Brotherhood of the Wolf — but for many foreigners the taint of talkiness lingers.. "This is a place where literature is still taken seriously." says François Busnel. He has also promised measures to entice more of them to pursue the literature baccalaureate program." says Quemin. (His Et si c'Etait Vrai. The next act How to make France a cultural giant again? One place to start is the education system. "French writers think they have to be intellectuals. Sarkozy has proposed an expansion of art-history courses for high schoolers. it deals with the American condition. and some are agreeing while others are disagreeing. where a series of reforms over the years has crowded the arts out of the curriculum.. realistic novels — sells well in France.time. "In America. Others practice what the French call autofiction — thinly veiled memoirs that make no bones about being conceived in deep self-absorption. Christine Angot received the 2006 Prix de Flore for her latest work. it is now far outstripped by the science and economics-sociology options. Michel they are sitting at dinner. whose The Woman in the Fifth was a recent best seller in French translation.1686532. published in English as If Only It Were True. a former director of the Louvre museum. Rendez-vous. pupils who can master speech http://www. misanthropy and an obsession with sex. . highly commercial movies — Amélie. a popular magazine about books (only in France!).html Page 5 sur 8 . One of the few contemporary French writers widely published abroad.TIME 20/03/11 23:01 very well. so our artists have to learn to look outside. "We need literary people. elegant fiction that doesn't travel well.) "An hour and a half later. "But if you look at American fiction." Certain aspects of national character may also play a role. is known chiefly for misogyny. Abstraction and theory have long been prized in France's intellectual life and emphasized in its schools. while Americans such as Paul Auster and Douglas Kennedy are considered adopted sons.

France could undergo a major artistic revival. both hits on the foreign art-house circuit. or at such intelligent yet crowdpleasing works as Cédric Klapisch's L'Auberge Espagnole and Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped.1686532. Though it is perilous to generalize about 60 million people. Just look at the Taxi films of Luc Besson and Gérard Krawczyk. Many took this to mean that cultural policy should be based on market forces. But if the private sector got more involved and cultural institutions got more autonomy. "We think that if they're successful.' But Americans don't read French. Cyprus-born Diam's and Abd al Malik.S. "In the U. Germany and the U. Olivier Adam's A l'Abri de Rien (In the Shelter of Nothing).Printout -." Sarkozy sent a chill through the French intelligentsia last summer by calling for the "democratization" of culture. you can donate a painting to a museum and take a full deduction.html Page 6 sur 8 . Britain. I am told it's 'too Frenchy. "They are always in demand. not on professional judgments about quality. Yasmina Reza's L'Aube le Soir ou la Nuit (Dawn Dusk or Night) is about Sarkozy's recent electoral campaign. The Louvre has gone one step further by effectively licensing its name to offshoots in Atlanta and Abu Dhabi. Here the government makes the important decisions.8816. http://www. they must be good. French novelists are focusing increasingly on the here and now: one of the big books of this year's literary rentrée. Hip-hop artists like Senegal-born MC Solaar. Benjamin Biolay and Vincent Delerm have revived the chanson.00." says art expert Boïcos. "Here it's limited. other countries' thinking could use an update. Singers like Camille. a rollicking series of Hong Kong-style action comedies. she has cultivated private donations and partnerships with businesses." says Education Minister Xavier Darcos. so they don't really know. Opinion polls show that more young French aspire to government jobs than to careers in business. A more difficult task will be to change French thinking. which remain vastly popular." Sarkozy's appointment of Christine Albanel as Culture Minister looks like a vote for individual initiative: as director of Versailles. concerns immigrants at the notorious Sangatte refugee camp. director of the Villa Gillet cultural center in Lyon: "When I point out a great new French novel to a New York Search of Lost Time -.time. With more important adversaries to confront — notably the pampered civil-service unions — Sarkozy is unlikely to pick a fight over cultural subsidies. France's Japan-influenced bandes dessinées (comic-strip) artists have made their country a leader in one of literature's hottest genres: the graphic novel." What those foreigners are missing is that French culture is surprisingly lively. Success is considered bad taste.S. Says Guy Walter. "Americans think that if artists are successful. there is a strain in the national mind-set that distrusts commercial success. they're too commercial. Another standout." says Quemin. Its movies are getting more imaginative and accessible." At the same time. But the government may well try to foster private participation by tinkering with the tax system.TIME 20/03/11 23:01 and reason. in particular are so focused on their own enormous cultural output that they tend to ignore France.

African. the giant of postwar French letters. The country's angry. France will reclaim its reputation as a cultural power.Printout -. the U. Tellingly. ambitious minorities are committing culture all over the place." says Villa Gillet's Guy Walter. "We must welcome the outside world. "The richness of French culture is based on that quality. First. perhaps you will rediscover in these new [French] books the eternal youth of that 'old' Faulkner. a land where every new season brings a harvest of genius.S.8816. thanks to the sharp antennae of its cosmopolitan designers. will influence the next generation of French writers. which makes nations rediscover in other nations what they have invented first and then rejected. "France has always been a country where people could come from any country and immediately start painting or writing in French — or even not in French. Click to Print http://www. Argentina. Movies from Afghanistan. Because of this incessant exchange." he promised.1686532. inevitably. "We have to take the risk of globalization. an Iranian whose movie based on her graphic novel Persepolis is France's 2008 Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Film category. a nation whose long quest for glory has honed a fine appreciation for the art of borrowing. "We shall give back to you these techniques which you have lent us. increasingly.In Search of Lost Time -. French winemakers are using techniques developed abroad to retain their reputation for excellence in the face of competition from newer wine-growing regions. Asian traditions — remains the global standard. Authors of all nations are translated into French and. many French vines were long ago grafted onto disease-resistant rootstocks Third. intellectualized. and you'll find three fields in which France excels by absorbing outside influences.TIME 20/03/11 23:01 a son of Congolese immigrants. France has become a multiethnic bazaar of art.html Page 7 sur 8 . more poetic version of American rap. Asian and Latin American music get more retail space in France than perhaps any other country. Despite all its quotas and subsidies." says Marjane Satrapi. Therein may lie France's return to global glory. less effective. and less brutal — consciously adapted to French taste. for Hemingway.S." And what keeps a nation great if not the infusion of new energy from the margins? Expand the definition of culture a bit. music and writing from the banlieues and disparate corners of the nonwhite world. Faulkner and other writers who were then influencing French fiction — but whom Americans were starting to take for granted.00. wrote in 1946 to thank the U." Jean-Paul Sartre. France is a paradise for connoisseurs of foreign cultures. of all places. Second. French cuisine — built on the foundation of Italian and.time. "We shall return them digested. And when the more conventional minds of the French cultural establishment — along with their self-occupied counterparts abroad — stop fretting about decline and start applauding the ferment on the fringes." Thus will the world discover the eternal youth of France. have taken the verlan of the streets and turned it into a sharper. France is arguably the world leader in fashion. Hungary and other distant lands fill the cinemas.

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