Pre-Summer Reading: The Languages of Reaction, of the French, of Film, of Fatal Denial, of Healthy Debate

05/25/2015 09:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2016

If you wish to know what unites, at the deepest level, the fans of jihadism, new-wave Le Pen-ism, and Vladimir Putin's Eurasia project; if you want to understand why it is not possible to fight one without fighting the others with equal vigor; and if you wish at the same time to discern the contours of the unconfessed community of those who have chosen to station themselves on all three fronts at once, then read, without delay, Raphaël Glucksmann's Génération gueule de bois (Hangover Generation; Allary, 2015). Glucksmann makes an irrefutable argument. It is, in the face of the three versions of the same antidemocratic reaction, a sort of lively "What Is to Be Done" crossed with a treatise on how to conduct one's life directed at that subset of our young people who are not tempted by cynicism and resignation. It is also a lovely story of fidelity -- to ideas, of course, but also to fathers and other pioneers whose commitments, obviously, merit the tribute.

If you wish to grasp the true stakes of the latter-day debate over the relevance of Latin; if you would like to see revealed the mechanisms that threaten to turn a de-Latinized French into a boneless, fleshless language as dead as Latin or at least dying at the pace of a bouquet of cut flowers, then you must read the brilliant De quel amour blessée: Réflexions sur la langue française (From What Wounded Love: Reflections on the French Language; Gallimard, 2014) by Rimbaud scholar Alain Borer. Yes, the self-same author of Rimbaud en Abyssinie, a poet himself, whose discoveries about Rimbaud's "turning to stone" in Harar quietly drew a generation of peripatetic writers. Reminding us that two-thirds of the English language consists of untranslated French words, then shaking his head at the strange defeat that made the French prefer flirter to conter fleurette, email to courriel and checker to vérifier; and finally objecting strenuously to our spineless acceptance of "Globish" or, worse, of an angolais ("Engolish") that itself is a mere shadow of the language of Byron and Lawrence, Borer gives the ongoing battle its depth of field: beyond the memory of the language, its capacity, or incapacity, to continue to think, imagine, and dream.

How about an archeology of Cannes and the festival, a political-erotic genealogy of the great parade of films and images that relives its own youth each year at this time? Then this next book is for you. It is from Gilles Jacob, for decades the organizer of the festival. The action takes place in Kenya during the filming of Mogambo, where we meet Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and her mysterious sister. And then, fifteen years later, on the barricades of a Cannes gripped by the turmoil of May 1968, in the course of which we watched artists with names like Godard and Truffaut dream of an auto-da-fé that would have been their profession of faith in a world cured of a culture that for them was inseparable from the very meaning of their life and the last obstacle, alas, to their assault on heaven. Unless it was in that eternal present where an immortal minister appeared, at the top of the famous steps, to award an imaginary Palme d'Or to the artisans of "the mysterious fraternity of images of the earth as a place of joy and of the earth as blood-spattered or threatened" that the cinema also embodies. It is true that the name of that minister was André Malraux!

It is the centenary of the Armenian genocide. And still one finds paper assassins who deny the children of the dead and of the survivors, to their grandchildren, and to their great-grandchildren the humble consolation of being the living tombs of their forebears. If you wish to take the measure of this denial and of the pain that accompanies it; if you care to feel the weight of those assassins' fatal words; if you can bear to put yourself in the place of a little girl who wished she was Jewish because the Jews, in spite of everything, are "allowed" to remember and to know, or of a young woman who, when she asked her grandmother to tell her about "the convoys, the wasted bodies in the cattle cars, the wailing of the children, the crime incised into their tender bodies, and, at the station in Aleppo, the gates of salvation," or of a grown woman who, retying the broken thread and gluing back together, for what it's worth, the broken shards of the vases of her memory, takes as the organizing principle of her life and as her compass solidarity with the shaken, then here's another novel you'll want to read: Valérie Toranian's L'étrangère (The Foreigner; Flammarion, 2015). An exercise in resurrection and mourning. A lesson in shadows and recaptured light. What else were the perpetrators of the tragedy saying when they warned against wounds that bleed until the end of time?

And finally Laurent Joffrin's Le réveil français (The French Awakening; Stock, 2015), which should be required reading for those distressed by the turn that France's intellectual debate seems to be taking. Michel Onfray insulting Manuel Valls; Eric Zemmour rehabilitating Marshal Pétain; Emmanuel Todd, forty years after Jean-François Revel's The Totalitarian Temptation, having the temerity to write that his own "totalitarian flash" was the civil demonstration in Paris on January 11, following the Charlie Hebdo murders: a Bermuda Triangle of mind and meaning in which the most basic reflexes are like flight controls that no longer respond. In the face of which Joffrin offers us the hesitant but persistent idea of a France that, "from Victor Hugo to Jean Cabu," has never fully resigned itself to preferring identity over law, conspiracy over debate, or the mythology of decline over the myth of the Republic.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy