On May 13, 2019, Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, awarded Clémence Boulouque, Catherine Cusset, and Rick MacArthur with the insignia of Officier of Arts and Letters in a ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
I am Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you all tonight as we honor Clémence Boulouque, Catherine Cusset, and Rick MacArthur with the insignia of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 by the French Ministry of Culture to reward those who have made significant contributions to the arts, literature and culture in France and throughout the world.
Besides your perfect mastery of the French language – though I am delivering this speech in English – you also share a common passion for literature and writing. In your respective careers as professor, writers, and publisher, you have contributed to the diversity of voices heard in literature. Your academic papers, novels, magazines, and other contributions of significant value have enriched not only French culture, but also culture in general. Tonight, we celebrate the diversity of ways in which you have supported culture, and especially literature.
Let’s proceed in alphabetical order, and begin with you, Clémence.
Dear Clémence Boulouque,
One of your friends told us that recently, as you were reading a 19th-century work in Hebrew – as one does – you were baffled by a quotation before realizing that the author had transliterated it from German. Most of us would have been taken aback, to say the least, but you found this situation hilarious, because this is who you are: passionate, erudite, and incredibly gifted.
The great diversity of perspectives that enriches your work can be exemplified in your academic path: you studied international affairs at Sciences Po and Columbia University, literature at Paris 7, Art History at Paris 1, and completed your PhD in the Departments of History and of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Throughout your life, you have blended French and American academia, and you are now Carl and Bernice Witten Assistant Professor of Jewish and Israel Studies at Columbia University. Among numerous examples of university service, you are part of the Advisory Committee for the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Columbia’s Maison Française, showing your support of the promotion of Francophone cultures in the US.
Your academic work on Jewish history and legacy is immense, covering the very practice of academically studying Judaism, the notion of unconscious in Jewish philosophy, as well as the work of Italian rabbi Elijah Benamozegh. You have been awarded several distinctions, including a Lenfest Fellowship and a Provost Grant from Columbia for Junior Faculty Who Contribute to the Diversity Goals of the University. Besides your research, you have also written in major newspapers, including Tablet Magazine, Newsweek, Le Magazine littéraire and Le Figaro.
Switching from scholarly publications to fiction writing is something you do as easily as you switch from Hebrew to German. You have authored several works of fiction, including your memoir Mort d’un silence, published in 2003, a deeply moving narrative dissecting pain. This intense story was awarded the Prix Fénéon, and adapted into a movie, La Fille du juge by William Karel, which was nominated for a César in the category of “Best documentary.” In 2013, you published another painful yet beautiful book Je n’emporte rien du monde, showing ten years later that your style remains one of the most intense and powerful among French contemporary writers. You know how to use this intensity to enrich the story you tell, and your depiction of tenderness in Au pays des macarons is as striking as that of pain in your memoir. Personal but not self-centered, your writings integrate the need for a plurality of voices. With the help of Nicole Serfaty, you published the collection of testimonies Juives d’Afrique du Nord. You invite your readers to travel through time and space from Morocco in Le Goût de Tanger to New York in L’Amour et des poussières. Your literature is moving, sincere, and profoundly compassionate.
Besides teaching and writing, you find the time to be involved in numerous fascinating projects, from hosting a show for France Culture to producing a series of interviews with great literary figures like Toni Morrison and Amos Oz. You kindly joined us a discussion on Women in religion during the 2017 edition Festival Albertine whose theme that year was feminism. Indeed, for many years now, you have been part of the large and active French community in New York, and we really hope to work with you again.
Clémence, you are a talented writer, a passionate teacher, and a very kind person. Throughout the years, you have developed a moving and sincere style that has seduced your readers. In fiction and in your academic research, you strive to find the meaning of our very existence, and your words take your audience on a beautiful yet endless quest. For your excellent research and your mastery of the power of writing, we are sincerely honored to present you with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Clémence Boulouque, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Dear Catherine Cusset,
You are a talented and successful French novelist, author of thirteen novels translated into seventeen languages. You have captivated France and the world with your fascinating stories, including The Story of Jane, Un brilliant avenir, L’autre qu’on adorait, and most recently, Life of David Hockney, translated into English by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Ever since your first novel in 1990, you have been a prominent figure in French contemporary literature.
Your life has been profoundly shaped by literature. You are a graduate from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, with a Licence in Classics, after which you ranked second for the agrégation in the same discipline. You then moved to the US for a year as lecturer at Yale University, and then your PhD in French literature. You became Assistant and later Associate Professor, before committing fully to your work as an author. However, you sometimes return to academia to share your passion for writing in occasional workshops.
In 1990, you began your career as a novelist, a field in which you had a brilliant future ahead of you, to quote the title of one of your books. You published your first novel La blouse roumaine, and five years later, your second novel En tout innocence introduced you to the contemporary literary scene, as it was enthusiastically praised by critics. It was longlisted for the Goncourt and the Femina Prizes, paving the way to more distinctions for your following novels. The Story of Jane, your suspenseful book-within-a-book, was met by success, with thousands of readers eager to discover the identity of the author behind a mysterious manuscript. It was awarded the Grand Prix Littéraire des Lectrices d’Elle, and was shortlisted for the Médicis Prize. In 2016, L’autre qu’on adorait was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and university students from Romania, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Belgium chose it as their favorite. Your latest work Life of David Hockney is a compelling blend between a novel and a biography, presenting meticulous research with the beauty of your fiction style. Your novels explore the intricacies of couple and family relationships, desire, and questions of identity, sometimes adding in a very personal touch through autofiction, as in Confessions d’une radine.
In the same autofiction vein, in 2009, you published New York, journal d’un cycle. This story blends the fragments of a couple’s dispute with images of New York viewed from a bike. You are no stranger to this city you described so well, having lived here for almost thirty years now! The French community in New York is lucky to count you as one of its members, and your work has been enriched by your experience here.
In New York, you support initiatives to promote French language and French literature, be it by teaching your friends how to make a perfect French-style vinaigrette at their own dinner party, by joining the Cultural Center of the Lycée Français to discuss the benefits of literary creation in French, or by working with us at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. We have collaborated on many occasions on conversations at our bookstore, Albertine, dealing with your own work as well as other French authors, including monuments like Proust. We are looking forward to the discussion later this evening organized by Albertine on your latest publication on David Hockney to celebrate its release in the US.
Catherine, your literary production exemplifies your desire to invite your readers on an exploration of their own lives. Both your more fictional novels and your autofictions resonate on a very personal level, creating a real connection between the story and the audience. In the words of one of your friends, you are an “unmistakably powerful storyteller,” turning even the details of your shopping into an engaging narrative. Your talent has already been hailed by many awards and great success, and tonight, we are very honored to present you with the insignia of Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Catherine Cusset, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Dear Rick MacArthur,
In 2014, you wrote a column entitled “Is France in Peril? Au contraire!” in which you stated: “I confess to a pro-French bias, but as a dual American-French citizen I still view my mother’s country with a critical eye.” This statement symbolizes your relationship with France – a relationship founded on love, but also on honesty.
Born to an American father and a French mother, your bilingual and bicultural upbringing has forged the adult you have become. After graduating from Columbia University with a Bachelor of Arts in history, you began working as a journalist for several newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Star, and joined the United Press International news agency as an assistant foreign editor. In 1980, you initiated the creation of the Harper’s Magazine Foundation to rescue Harper’s Magazine, the oldest American monthly magazine from financial troubles. Thanks to your tenacity, this paper that was first printed in 1850 is still a major player in today’s print media landscape. You are the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine which, under your stewardship, has received 21 National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest distinction. Your commitment to preserving this landmark of printed press exemplifies your devotion to maintaining diversity in the media. As an example of this diversity, you also contribute to foreign newspapers, including France’s Le Monde Diplomatique, and Montreal’s Le Devoir.
In your career as a journalist, you have always promoted values which are dear to France. In 2015, Harper’s was the only national American newspaper to publish Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet, and you personally defended this choice in the media. This position reveals your close connection with French culture. Indeed, many of your publisher’s notes are dedicated to French politics, and under your management, Harper’s has always given French literature a, honorable place, with translated excerpts from great French writers like Yasmina Reza and Michel Houellebecq. Your work towards establishing a cultural dialog between our two countries is extremely valuable. Your analyses on American politics are highly enlightening for French readers, and your excerpts of French works bring important intellectual and literary voices to the US.
French people have a particular affection for local independent shops, and for us, getting a book from our favorite bookstore is a true pleasure. You are very familiar with this pleasure, and your passion for printed culture can also be seen in your support of independent booksellers. In 2014, you supported the creation of Book Culture on Columbus, of which you are a co-owner. At the French Cultural Services, we share your passion for independent bookstores, and we have our own Albertine, where you have joined us for several talks, including earlier this year for a discussion on Houellebecq’s Serotonine, with another great Albertine friend, Catherine Cusset.
In your professional and personal life, you defend values which are vital to our societies, some of which – you yourself say – were inspired by an enduring French tradition. You have founded and continue to serve on the board of directors of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington DC. You have also founded Article 19, an international organization dedicated to two of our most fundamental liberties: freedom of speech, and freedom of information. Your dedication to human rights and civil liberties is admirable and essential.
Rick, the renown and success of Harper’s Magazine is the result of your hard work and your passion. In your career, you have worked to protect and expand freedom of the press, and you never fail to defend essential universal values. You are a French-American working towards promoting the best of your two countries, and for all of your contributions, we are truly honored to present you with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
John R. MacArthur, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.