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France Honors Liesl Schillinger

On June 27, 2017, Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, awarded Liesl Schillinger with the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Liesl Schillinger is an accomplished literary critic, journalist, and translator who has greatly contributed to the growth of French culture in the United States.


Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

I am Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States.

It is my great pleasure tonight to honor translator, journalist, author, and literary critic, Liesl Schillinger with the insignia of Chevalier des arts et des lettres.

The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 by the French government to honor distinguished artists and writers and people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.

Ceremonies such as this offer a rare opportunity to look back on an individual’s impressive journey. In the case of Liesl - someone whose life’s work is driven by a tremendous passion for words and literature (with a special interest in foreign fiction!) and whose enthusiasm for culture, travel, and language has led her to master four languages, and translate all of them - this exercise is particularly enjoyable!

Liesl, everyone in this room knows you, and I don’t think any of them will be surprised to hear that you are one of the most dynamic and strikingly brilliant people I’ve ever met.  Indeed, we at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy are so fortunate that you chose France and French culture as the object of your passion!

Throughout your career, you have been a tireless advocate for France and French literature in the US: Your reviews in The New York Times Book Review have consistently helped to drive the publication of French books in the US; in your role as a panelist and a moderator for organizations such as PEN World Voices, le CORE Club, and the Brooklyn Book Festival, you have been a fervent defender of international fiction; and, as a journalist, frequently writing with delicate humor and insight on the subject of French life and politics, you have amassed a great following of American Francophiles.

And I have heard you say – as the true New Yorker that you have become – that you “hate traveling to the Upper East Side from downtown – but Albertine has inspired you to do so!”

For all of this we are very appreciative.

But let me go back to the beginning, to the roots of your work involving the French culture and language… 

You started learning French at 10 and have said that “French was your first love”. Therefore, it is no surprise that you have tirelessly pursued French and French culture in your work. You have taught French, you have written about French traditions, you’ve visited France, you cook French dishes, and you have reviewed many French books and even translated one…!

Basically, Liesl is almost French – except for her total inability to drive a stick-shift!

Leisl, you may remember the time back in high school when you taught a summer French immersion class, and you were asked by the professor to pretend to be French! You played the role so well that when you finally told the students that you were American, they were so shocked that two of them cried!

Here once again, French helped you find your path. You wrote about that experience on your college application to Yale University, where you studied comparative literature. It was also where you were awarded the prestigious Montaigne Prize for French.

A few months after graduating, your impeccable French skills got you your first job at The New Yorker:  fact checking articles about France. You did this for 14 years, guaranteeing accuracy through precise research and close consultation with the authors and editors. So, thanks to Liesl we’re pretty sure that there wasn’t any fake news between 1988 and 2002! And, I apologize in advance if I get a few things wrong tonight -- but unfortunately I don’t have a Liesl on my team!

In any case, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that French took you to New York and launched your career.

But this is only part of the story. Indeed, around the same time that you began working for the New Yorker, you became a freelance writer and then a columnist specializing in culture -- especially book reviews -- with an appetite and energy that wouldn’t surprise anyone here! Thus, you built yourself a life of language and literature, publishing articles and reviews in prestigious newspapers and magazines including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, Vogue, The Washington Post, The London Independent on Sunday, and many other publications.

Your ability to guide us through the words of others is one of your most noble qualities. And not only did you do it, but you mastered this task: since 2004, you have been a regular critic for the New York Times Book Review: that is to say that half of NYC is waiting for your advice on what to read! And I cannot count how many times you have been invited to speak or moderator at  literary panels: you were the host of the “Lit with Liesl” literary salon at Soho House from 2012 to 2015, and you have been a panelist or speaker for many venues such as Book Expo America, PEN World Voices, Festival Neue Literatur, Read Russia, and of course, at our own Albertine! We were extremely fortunate to have you moderate a recent conversation with French novelist Nelly Alard in our bookstore. By participating in all of these programs that aim to introduce English-speaking audiences to foreign literature, you support a mission that is very important to us.

As a book critic, you have reviewed many books in transition and have always worked to give them visibility abroad. You are also the author of an intro for Jean Echenoz’s collection Three by Echenoz, published by New Press in 2014.

But that is only one of your many feats as a French Culture-promoter! You are also a translator of French into English. In 2013, you translated La Dame aux Camélias – The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, for Penguin Classics, and I hear that you are currently translating L’Empire en Héritage by Serge Ayat!

In addition to this deep knowledge of French language and literature, you are also an amazing polyglot: German, Spanish, Russian, and Italian are some of the languages you speak and even translate from! In addition, last year, you published a series of interviews with some of the world’s most esteemed translators.  The first of those was with the renowned French author and translator Lydia Davis.

Liesl, you have many talents and you are wonderfully prolific. You never stop! In a short story for WNYC after Hurricane Sandy, Liesl confessed that she was spending most of her time at home, reading and writing! And that is true: Liesl’s job is to review books, but did you know that even when she isn’t “working”, she uses her blog to post reviews of books that she is not reviewing for The New York Times!

This enthusiasm and appetite for discovery and knowledge has led you to write about almost everything: from surprising French happenings such as the “Dinner en blanc”, an elegant pop-up picnic that happens once a year in Paristo political and social articles about the United States.

Finally, I want to say that the medal we are giving you tonight, Liesl, is not only for the work that you have done promoting French culture, but also for your tremendous generosity. Some people in the cultural field are very protective of their work: they keep it for those that Stendhal called the “happy few”…

She graduated from Yale, she has mastered numerous languages, writes for the finest newspapers, socializes with all of New York’s intelligentsia, and probably reads more books in a year than all of us combined… And in each of these endeavors, she shares her knowledge. By writing for blogs and magazines that reach hundreds of thousands of people, and even by creating a popular book club (and I can see some members in this room: Anne-Claire, Ségolène who made the trip from Spain to be able to be here tonight) – and many other people too! – Liesl is a true passeur of culture.

Liesl is a brilliant woman – I hope that I have made that clear by now otherwise I’ll have to find a new job!

Dear Liesl, I hope that French will remain the love of your life. I sincerely hope that you will keep exploring our culture and sharing your discoveries! And, as Verlaine would say, tout le reste est littérature… (And all the rest is literature!)

Liesl Schillinger, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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