January 25, 2011

Rebel philosopher Regis Debray elected to the Goncourt Academy



According to a report that ran last week in Le Figaro, Regis Debray (author of the Melville House title A Modest Proposal: A Plan For the Golden Age) has been elected to the Academy Goncourt — the organization that, every fall, awards France’s most popular literary prize.

Born in 1940, the philosopher-writer, as he likes to introduce himself, became famous for being part of Che Guevara‘s rebel group when the famous Cuban revolutionary was captured in Bolivia in 1967. Arrested with Che, Debray barely escaped the same sentence as Che — execution — but had to serve a four-year prison sentence before being allowed to return to France in 1973.

Together with another Melville House author, Bernard-Henri Levy (author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl?), and the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Debray embodies the figure of a French literary intellectual whose voice matters in the public debate. The richness and complexity of his works trace the permanent evolution of a thinking that has never gone back on the foundations of his leftist engagement.

If Debray’s nomination came as a surprise to the French literary observers, expressions of satisfaction sprang out shortly thereafter on various websites (such as this one) expressing hope that his presence will refresh the Goncourt Academy and lend more audacity in its choices. Debray is backed up by a wide-ranging esteem likely to restore the Academy’s image that has been tainted by corruption for a long time. As a matter of fact, most French literary jurors are not only immutable but also writers themselves. And in the past, their infatuations for such-and-such a writer have, more than once, echoed their own publisher’s desires. Breaking with bad habits, this year Goncourt selections showed an openness to publishing houses less familiar to the jury (such as Sabine Wespieser, Verticale, L’Olivier, and Actes Sud).

Let’s put stock in these happy signs and warmly congratulate Regis Debray!