France Honors Lydia Davis and Kent Jones

January 16, 2015 | By French Culture

On Thursday, January 15th, Lydia Davis and Kent Jones were respectively awarded Officier and Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by Cultural Counselor Antonin Baudry.

First named Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters in 1999 for her award-winning translations of numerous French authors and philosophers including Michel Leiris and Emmanuel Hocquard, Davis has continued to write award-winning translations of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Michel Leiris's Rules of the Game, Volume I.

As the Associate Director of Programming of the Film Society of Lincoln Center from 1998 until 2009 and Director of the New York Film Festival since 2012, Kent Jones has organized many retrospectives of French filmmakers. Besides being the New York correspondent for the French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema, he also writes about contemporary French cinema for Film Comment, The Village Voice, and The New York Times. Jones sat on the Jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and has also authored books on French screenwriter and film directors André Téchiné, Olivier Assayas and on Robert Bresson’s L’Argent.


Dear Friends,

Tonight I have the pleasure of honoring two exceptional artists, Lydia Davis and Kent Jones. 

When I first reflected on Kent and Lydia, I admit that I didn’t find many immediate links between them.  So I let my mind wander…and it came to me: the height!

I realized that each of you has a special relationship with the length of your works – a relationship coincidentally reflected in your stature.  Lydia, or the “shorter Proust among us,” as Jonathan Franzen puts it, writes award-winning stories known for their brevity, and Kent, you take your time.  Unafraid to pause in conversation or film, you don’t let commercial preferences constrain you -- as a filmmaker or writer.

So, long story short, this strangely opposite divergence is why we are here tonight.  Each of you has done something amazing with your extreme.    

Your commitments to art have affected great change for French culture in the United States.

Lydia, I see your sons Theo and Daniel in the audience, who have come to show their admiration and support. As your son Theo says,

“When I read her stories and translations, I immediately recognize her personality within them […] Perhaps what makes her work great is the simple honesty and transparency of her methods that shine through.  I view her writing as an effortless expression of her individuality on paper.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Lydia entirely reinterprets Proust and Flaubert with her unique and radiant style that magnifies the subtleties of each literary voice.  She reaches new readers with her fluid, elegant, thoughtful translations, and thus redefines the scope of influence for French literature.

And Kent is a master at spotting brilliance, not to mention utterly brilliant himself.  He uses his piercing vision to pick out and showcase novel French directors that even the French wouldn’t have noticed.  He introduces known greats and rare finds from across the Atlantic to a whole new audience in the United States. 

So let me start by explaining how Kent -- or the taller Godard among us -- has completely changed the playing field for French film. 

*

In the opening scenes of Wong Kar-wei’s film The Days of Being Wild, a shop girl is harassed by a Chinese playboy.  Again and again she tells him to go away.  But the boy is persistent. 

Finally he asks for just one minute of her time. 

He says: “April 16th, 1960. One minute before three.  I’ll always remember that minute because of you.”

When I watched that scene I couldn’t help but think of Kent.  His needle sharp sentences and impeccable word choice pin readers to a moment in film just as the Chinese gigolo captures his prey. 

But whereas he turns out to be full of it, Kent Jones is the real deal.

As Director of the New York Film Festival Kent provides the city with a refined and diverse selection of cinema today.  With great ingenuity, he chooses films that challenge and question.  Kent’s choices don’t simply entertain: they provoke reactions.  There are not many people like Kent who are brave enough to say of their selection “if you don’t like it, that’s fine with me.”

Kent started dreaming of the Festival when he was just a kid in Massachusetts.  By the 1980s, he was living in New York and met the “savage” audiences that flocked to the big screen.  It was there, in 1983, that he first saw Bresson’s L’Argent, which would later be the subject of his own critical work.

Kent first cracked open the world of French cinema for the American audience through the work of Olivier Assayas. 
After the French New Wave, the unfortunate general consensus was that French cinema was no longer notable.  Excellent directors like André Téchiné and Benoît Jacquot were overlooked.  But Olivier’s film and Kent’s vision changed all that: in 1993, Olivier’s film Une nouvelle vie was screened at Lincoln Center.  Kent saw it and was so moved that he wrote a letter of praise to Olivier and highlighted their great affinity of styles.  Kent published a thorough review of Olivier’s work in Film Comment magazine -- where he was Deputy Director -- and framed Assayas as an Auteur of our time. 

Kent revealed a radically new perspective on contemporary French film, and it is thanks to him that great directors were discovered and are known today in the United States. He has continued to carve a path with his pen for so many other great French directors like Garrel, Pialat, Téchiné, and Jacquot and proven to be their strongest defender and first supporter.


According to Arnaud Desplechin, “cinema made Kent into a writer.”  As the New York Cahiers du Cinéma correspondent for many years, Kent wrote lucid analyses that exposed French cinema.   And as a frequent contributor to French magazines like Trafic and Les Inrocks Kent brought French film onto the world stage.

He saw Godard as more than the Noam Chomsky of film.  Instead Godard was a “film poet” whose tricks were akin to literary techniques.  But Kent does not just point out these poets of French cinema, he tracks them down and breaks them down.  As Arnaud Desplechin says, “In France we look forward to hearing what Kent thinks when Kent sees our films.  He holds a central position for French cinema in America”

Across the board, critics agree that Ken’s original appraisals make him an unprecedented figure.

From looking at his books, like The Hidden God, which examines divine images in films, to the sharp and informed analyses in Physical Evidence, I couldn’t agree more.

As a filmmaker, Kent’s intelligent works explore the implications of culture, the nuance of relationships, and the deep schisms of history.  Kent co-wrote Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P., starring Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric, which was a 2013 Cannes International Film Festival pick.  Kent’s transformation of French ethnologist George Devereux into an accessible, modern, and impassioning figure is a testament to his sensitivity both as a human and filmmaker.

And by the way, Arnaud Desplechin and Kent Jones actually WROTE Jimmy P right across from us in the former Malraux Room.  If I remember correctly there was a lot of illicit smoking and cigarettes hovering inches away from century-old architectural details – but that can be our secret.

Kent was raised by many forces but none was more powerful than the late American film critic and painter Manny Farber.  Manny was like a godfather to Kent who, according to him, “understood film in a very immediate way” and fully comprehended “its plasticity.”  Manny shared Kent’s sharp pen and shocked readers with vivid descriptions and stark opinions. He called Hitchcock and Welles “the water-buffaloes of film art.”  Manny drove to the heart of his cinematic subjects and cultivated a deep appreciation for European film, just as Kent does today.  

Another irreplaceable mentor and partner has been Martin Scorsese. With Martin, Kent took the filmmaker’s seat and co-created a survey of Italian cinema called My Voyage to Italy.  He also co-wrote and directed the Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning film A Letter to Elia

In the trailer Martin muses about what kind of person a film director must be.  He asks:

Is a director a psychoanalyst who keeps a patient functioning despite intolerable stresses?

Or is he a hypnotist?

Does he need the cunning of a trader in a Baghdad bazaar?

Or the kindness of an old fashioned mother who forgives all?

Then Director Elia Kazan steps in to suggest that you need a thick skin and a sensitive soul.   

Kent, you fit the bill on all of these counts.  Authentic and persistent, cultivated yet unassuming, you have eyes both behind the camera and in the audience and are a rare asset to your community and to the entire country.  You impart a wealth of knowledge to an entirely new audience across the Atlantic.

Kent sees cinema as not an escape but a tool for interconnectedness –  “an attempt” at reaching people.  As Desplechin says, Kent is like a ferryman who transports French cinema from one coast to the other.  While some people “pull cinema over their heads like a cloak” and shield themselves from the world, Kent sees the seventh art as a portal to the globe.  

As Artistic Director of The World Cinema Foundation from 2009 to 2013, Kent devoted himself to the preservation and restoration of neglected world cinema.  He wisely recognized that “every film is in immediate danger” and worked to save deteriorating reels that bear sacred marks of the past.

As one of the most intelligent, sincere, unpretentious critics of our time, Kent enables us to understand the value of each millisecond of film – like that Chinese gigolo.  He sets these against a complex web of time, history, and culture that no one else could spin. 

Without Kent, contemporary French film simply would not be accessible here.  Across the United States, he has cultivated an eager and curious audience and cemented the solid link that bonds our countries in friendship.

For his immeasurable insight and creative talent, and for the skill with which he reflects the nuance of French culture, I now name Kent Jones Chevalier in the French Order of Arts and Letters. 

Cher Kent Jones, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres.

*

Now for my next victim, Lydia Davis.

Lydia Davis writes prose with a strange, startling force.  It’s like she hands each word a sledgehammer that hits us with unexpected might.  And aside from her uncommon talent, Lydia is one of the most generous, hardworking, and humble people I know. 

But actually, we are not going to start with Lydia tonight.  We are going to start with the story of one word, and with Kafka, who is Lydia’s chief inspiration.  

Kafka was born in 1883 in the Kingdom of Bohemia, the birthplace of the term bohemian. The adjective was popularized by a French story collection in 1845, then colored Allen Ginsberg’s poetry in the 1960s, and later appeared in the Broadway musical Rent.

Like the word bohemian, Lydia has one foot in old-world Europe and another in the present. She has that eastern European rigor coupled with an artist’s brain.  Both the intricacies of Proustian French and constructing a narrative in a few pithy phrases come easily to her.  Her progressive prose colored a Wagner libretto yet also redefined the parameters of its genre.   

Tonight I will go out on a limb and call this “magician of self-consciousness,” according to Jonathan Franzen, the Queen of Bohemia.  For her progressive style, for her royal generosity and kindness, for her diffusion of the French spirit far and wide, Lydia is tonight la reine

With talent like Lydia’s, it’s no wonder that she has won multiple awards for her work.  These range from the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal, to a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, to our own Chevalier Arts and Letters award in 1999, tonight most deservedly upgraded to Officier

Lydia’s parents were communists who hung around Erica Jong and Edward Saïd.  As a college kid she rubbed elbows with “arcane intellectuals” which shows she had that nerdy New Yorker literati blood from the start.  And as I was saying she cites Kafka as one of her chief inspirations.  Lydia even wrote a short story about him considering what to make for dinner. 

Lydia began writing these stories in France, while she was translating Proust.  At 26 she wrote from the minute she got up in the morning with just one “modest, […] abrupt meal.”  Beyond that “nothing else was allowable — no cooking, no cleaning, no walking” — definitely no playing! — only writing.

And how lucky we are that Lydia cracked down.  Every word she writes fizzles – as critics have noted – and is cut in stone like a statue. 

Her work is layered.  It has a way of moving you and an “uncanny ability to slant your experiences.”  It turns the minutia of everyday life into a fireworks display of emotion. 

Sparse and sly, her stories look at life the way Beckett’s do.  That’s to say at individual interactions blown up and brought into an unfamiliar mental space.  Her work is nothing short of “a challenge to poetry” as poet Matthew Zapruder puts it.

Lydia’s extremely short stories may disgruntle the “literary police” but they are actually larger than glaciers.  The type on the page is only the tip.  They chill, startle, unsettle, and are “cerebral, witty, […] and homey.”  Her sentences are expansive not in their word count but in their impact. 

I mean; have you heard of anyone else who can write a story in ten words?  Let me read you one now.  This sums up how I feeling when cleaning the house.  It’s called “Housekeeping Observation”:

Under all this dirt

the floor is really very clean.

And the emotionally salient story “A Double Negative,” goes like this:

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.

This powerful prose has led Lydia to revolutionize the image of the short story in our culture.  Often shoved aside as a preliminary exercise to prepare a novel, short stories got none of the respect they deserved.  But Lydia’s playful, witty, sensitive touch revindicated the art and brought home the lost black sheep.  Her work has influenced some of the best American authors like David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, and I even wonder if Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize was in part due to Lydia’s revival of this art. 

Lydia has been crafting moments with text for forty years.  She started while translating Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu into English – a translation that was refreshed a long 80 years after the first was crafted by Moncrieff.  When Lydia’s translation was released, Publisher’s Weekly declared to an audience full of anticipation, “relax, it’s fantastic.” 

And I couldn’t agree more.  Lydia’s text is simple and sober, it is the “sans serif,” complement to the “wordier and dressier” Moncrieff.  What I love is most is that her deconstruction of every clause is almost mathematical.  No variable is added that was not in the original. We can liken her dry yet tender texture to Stendhal.  Both know how to use their words sharply and cut into our imagination like the edge of a knife.

In 2013, this work and Lydia’s entire oeuvre won her the Man Booker International Prize, awarded to authors for their global contribution to literature.  This prestigious acknowledgement served as a platform to promote translation as an art.  Thanks to Lydia, the role of the translator is now more valued than ever.  

Now the author of over thirty translations from the French – including Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Michel Leiris’ Rules of the Game II, André Jardin’s biography of Toqueville, and Francoise Giroud’s Marie Curie – Lydia has single-handedly introduced so many French authors and philosophers beyond the classic Proust and Flaubert to the United States.   

Lydia’s career has been entirely devoted to the expansion of French literature and she has played an integral role in many Embassy events – from opening the last night of our Proust Nomadic Reading, to completing a literary duet at the 92Y with Jean Echenoz, to authoring a post for our Proust & Me blog.  

I am so grateful for Lydia’s generosity, which flows endlessly through our Embassy halls, across New York, and in the entire United States.  Coming from a human spirit and an artist’s mind, her work to shed light on French art is all the more impactful.      

Her beautiful, elegant translations have the directness of Hemingway and the nostalgia of Proust and her stories draw you in like emotional quicksand.  For these many reasons I name Lydia Officier in the order of Arts et des Letters. 

Chère Lydia Davis, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres.

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