Renowned French writer Jean D'Ormesson is dead at 92

France loves its intellectuals and writers as perhaps no other country does, and one of its favourites has died. Jean D’Ormesson, once the youngest member of the Academie Française, passed away early Tuesday at the age of 92.

AFP File photo

D’Ormesson died of a heart attack, after a long battle with bladder cancer.

A member of the French aristocracy who went by the nickname Jean d’O, he was born Count Jean Bruno Wladimir François-de-Paule le Fèvre d’Ormesson in Paris on June 16, 1925. His father was the Marquis of Ormesson and served as France’s ambassador to Brazil. D’Ormesson spent his childhood in Bavaria, Romania and Brazil.

He earned a degree in philosophy from the prestigious Ecole Normale in Paris. He held a handful of political posts and was one of France’s top journalists, serving as Director-General of conservative newspaper Le Figaro from 1974 to 1977 and then as a commentator for the next four decades.

He published his first book in 1956 but hit the literary big time with his fourth novel, “The Glory of the Empire”, which was published in 1971 and won him the Grand Prix of the Academie Française. Two years later he earned a spot as the youngest of the “immortals”, the members of the Academie Française. There are 40 immortals, France’s intellectual and literary giants who wear suits embroidered in green and gold, and carry swords to their formal meetings. In 2009 he became the body’s dean, its longest-serving member.

Dapper D'Ormesson

The immortals are famed for their discretion, but D’Ormesson broke that mold. He became a public figure, widely known not only as a writer, philosopher and newspaper commentator, but as a dapper persona full of charm and wit who regularly showed up on French television screens.

D’Ormesson had a reputation as a bon vivant, and his lively blue eyes betrayed an enthusiasm for life. Among his greatest loves were swimming in the sea, women and, of course, literature.

He was prolific, but not widely translated, so had little profile outside of France.

"He was the best of the French spirit, a unique mix of intelligence, elegance and mischief," tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron. "A prince of letters knowing to never take himself seriously. We already miss the eye, the smile, the words of Jean d'Ormesson."

Though he was staunchly on the right of the political spectrum, he developed a close friendship with former president François Mitterrand, a socialist. It was playing Mitterrand that he made his debut on the silver screen in 2012, in a comedy called “Haute Cuisine” that was based on a true story about the former president’s chef.

The right man for Mitterand

In an interview with Le Figaro on the occasion of his 90th birthday, D’Ormesson said he didn’t consider writing his calling, but had undertaken his first novel, “Love is a Pleasure”, to please a girl. His efforts at seduction were unsuccessful – in that instance, at least – but he wound up writing about 50 essays and books, the most recent of which was published last year. He won many literary prizes, including in 2015 France’s most prestigious award, the “Pléiade”.

Even in the waning years of his life, he was a modernist who looked to the future. “The world has always changed, but today it is changing with a faster pace,” he said in March in an interview with the journalist Alain Elkann. “I am not among those who say that it was better before.”

And he wasn’t among those French intellectuals that feared their nation’s decline. D’Ormesson was far more clear-eyed.

“The French language … is becoming less important, and France is not the first country in a Europe that is no longer the centre of the world,” he told Elkann. “It is wrong though to be talking about decline all the time. What I believe is that Africa will have an increasingly important role. The future is Africa.”

Despite calling marriage a “nightmare”, his, to Françoise Béghin, lasted 55 years, until his death, and produced a daughter, Héloise, who runs an eponymous publishing house.

D’Ormesson lived life to its fullest, but didn’t fear death. “Nothing is is important,” he once wrote. “All we love will die. And I will die too. Life is beautiful.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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