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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 19 · 7 October 2004

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Dégringolade

Perry Anderson’s two-part article on France is a virtuoso performance: a marvellously well-informed, dyspeptic and entertaining survey of recent French history (LRB, 2 September) and (LRB, 23 September). Still, it’s hard not to wonder if France has really seen quite so complete a triumph of liberal capitalism as Anderson implies. He writes with eloquence and bite about the continuing monopoly on high positions in government and business exercised by the graduates of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). They, and their colleagues from the Polytechnique, dominate the so-called ‘private sector’ as much as they do the state itself, and some of them have engaged in truly astounding degrees of corruption in recent years, while doing very little to stimulate economic competition and entrepreneurship. Had Jacques Chirac been serious about bringing a liberal order to France, his first act after becoming prime minister in 1986 would have been to reduce the influence of these grandes écoles, and promote free markets. Instead, his first act was to make the ENA still more exclusive, reversing François Mitterrand’s tentative efforts to expand and diversify it. What France has today is in some ways as close to crony capitalism as it is to true liberal capitalism. (Has true liberal capitalism ever existed? Of course not. But then, neither has ‘Marxism with a human face’.)

In connection with this, Anderson also somewhat misreads, to my mind, the role of François Furet in the 1970s and 1980s. As a political figure, Furet’s signal achievement was to take the critiques of Communist totalitarianism that were becoming popular in the 1970s, and extend them back to the French revolutionary tradition. What he did, in effect, was to flip on its head the traditional French Marxist linkage of 1789 and 1917. Instead of the first foreshadowing and preparing the ground for the second, as a long succession of historians had insisted, the second was now used to reveal the proto-totalitarianism inherent in the first. This bit of ideological ju-jitsu, and the concomitant attempt to unearth a subterranean French liberal tradition (Montesquieu, Constant, Guizot, Tocqueville), implied that France had not yet recovered from a pathologically wrong turn it had taken in the 18th century. The critique therefore did a great deal to discredit the revolutionary ideals that had long motivated men and women going into state service. And this has contributed powerfully to a state of affairs that Tocqueville would have recognised: a governing elite shorn of its raison d’être and animating principles, yet still enjoying all its privileges. Is it so surprising that so many énarques have of late blatantly treated the French state as their own or their political party’s private property, as scandal after scandal has revealed?

Finally, I would question whether the work of Furet and Pierre Nora is really so independent from postmodern influences as Anderson claims. For all the nostalgia that flows through Nora’s magisterial Lieux de mémoire, this work, with its emphasis on ‘genealogies’ and cultural construction, engages with currents of postmodern thought very seriously, and not just as a ‘flourish’. As for Furet’s Penser la Révolution française, which depicts the French Revolutionaries as prisoners of the discourses they spoke, it is hard to think of a work which has done more to take French history in a postmodern direction, as its influence on Anglo-American scholars such as Lynn Hunt and Keith Baker reveals. For Anderson, postmodern thought has a structural relation to French Marxist politics. Ergo, Furet and Nora, the avatars of French liberal thought, cannot be postmodernists. But perhaps things are not quite so tidy as the schema suggests.

David A. Bell
Baltimore, Maryland

Given their importance to France’s understanding of itself, Perry Anderson is absolutely right to include the issues of culture and literature in his account of France’s decline. It is dismaying, however, that he should cite Michel Houellebecq as the unique representative of contemporary French literature, and Amélie as the illustration of the current state of French cinema.

Neither the cutesy Amélie nor the cynical Houellebecq holds the position in France that Anderson wants to give them, and their presence in his discussion has much more to say about the way that the British choose to view France and the French than about the way things currently are. The British view of France is a particularly impoverished one, determined to a very large extent by film distribution companies and, more tellingly, by the translation policies of British publishers. This compares very unfavourably with the openness of the French themselves to work by non-French writers, exemplified, for instance, in the latest number of Le Monde des livres, which includes reviews of French translations of Hugo Hamilton, Giles Foden, Tanith Lee, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, to mention only the British. My point is not to suggest that there are ‘better’ names than Houellebecq’s that one could mention. What is missing in Britain is an open channel to a literary culture containing Pierre Alferi, Pierre Bergounioux, François Bon, Olivier Cadiot, Didier Daeninckx, Jean Echenoz, Annie Ernaux, Gérard Macé, Pierre Michon, Richard Millet, Marie Ndiaye, Pascal Quignard, Jacques Roubaud, Jean Rouaud, Lydie Salvayre, Jean-Philippe Toussaint or Antoine Volodine, to cite a representative sample of contemporary writers who, for the most part, were born after 1945. Anderson’s picture of French decline is distorted by the far worse decline in British interest in anything that happens outside our own linguistic territory.

Ann Jefferson
Oxford

Vaulting Ambition

I have no quarrel with Thomas Jones's account of the mathematics of pole-vaulting, but feel he hasn't told the whole story (LRB, 2 September). I remember my sports master saying that a good pole-vaulter does a handstand on the pole when he is at the top of his trajectory. It seems improbable that the handstand is effected with nothing but the remnants of the kinetic energy available at take-off. The pole-vaulter must inject additional kinetic energy with his arms once the pole straightens near the bar. Depending on his build and skill, this should make a difference of perhaps 50 centimetres. In Britain at the end of the 19th century, vaulters were allowed to shin up the pole – at that time rigid – before dropping over the bar. An athlete who mastered the handstand technique added much more than 50 cm to the height achieved.

Long-lasting world records such as Sergei Bubka's are set by athletes who are a class above their world-class rivals. But it would surprise me very much if in the next ten years another supreme pole-vaulter did not appear: extremely fast, well above average height, with powerful shoulders, the muscular control of a gymnast, and perfect timing. In fact, the athlete's height plays a much less significant role than in the high jump: several world-class male pole-vaulters have been under six feet.

Apart from the physiological factors, however, it shouldn't be forgotten that athletes adapt their training and their expectations according to the achievements of their peers. We haven't reached the limits of human performance in sport or in any other field. In a famous letter to the Times thirty years ago, a reader wondered why the times of Derby winners had not improved for more than forty years. I would guess that one reason was that training methods hadn't changed, but another – and perhaps much more important – reason is that horses aren't told the times achieved by their rivals.

I look forward to pole-vaulting performances of at least 6.3 metres for men and 5.15 metres (the world record is currently 4.91 metres and vulnerable) for women by 2020.

Roger Partridge
Munich

Not Neruda

‘Although much translated,’ Michael Wood says of Neruda, ‘he has not been well served’ (LRB, 2 September). Too true in the examples he gives, whether by translators he calls ‘always excellent’ or others. ‘Y si algo vi en mi vida’ lends itself to English monosyllables: ‘And if I saw one thing in my life’ surely reads better than ‘If I remember anything in my life’, which is both ‘plod’ and an example of the ‘pointless infidelity’ of which Wood complains. There can be no excuse for the howlers in his last example, ‘There Is No Clear Light’: if recuerdos is rendered ‘remembering’ instead of ‘memories’, there is no subject for éstos, ‘they’, in the third line, and the first line of the second verse has to have the clumsy addition of ‘memories’ instead of the succinct ‘And there are others.’ Worst of all, in the third line of the last verse, puerto, ‘port’, is confused with puerta, ‘door’. ‘Cities, doors into love and rancour’ would gain in meaning as well as accuracy, especially in the context of Neruda’s view over Valparaíso from his house high in the upper town, if it read: ‘Cities, ports of love and rancour’.

Paul Burns
Stowell, Somerset

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