One US writer’s war on language: from the Bronx to the Académie française

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Mickael Korvin is the writer who shocked French literary circles… and despite that he’s been entered to compete in the prestigious election to the Académie française – the official body in charge of decisions about the French language.

Mickael Korvin wants to simplify, and abolish accents from written French language.

But here’s another thing: he’s American, and was raised in the Bronx.

Born in Cuba, raised near Manhattan and Franco-American by upbringing, USC graduate in journalism Korvin, who writes in French and English, has gained much media attention since Valentine’s Day. That was the day his eight novel Journal d’une cause perdue (Diary of a Lost Cause) was published by young publishing house, marking the launch of his revolutionary campaign to change the way the French language is written.

Not your Acme Académie nominee

His is not a typical approach to written French amongst nominees to the Académie, but Korvin is not a typical nominee.

A long-time novelist, he’s also a dealer in antique toys and art brut from his stall in the les Puces flea-market in the Saint-Ouen suburb to the north of Paris. He represents a place that’s very different from the historic classicism of the domed Institut de France, the luxurious building in central Paris where members of the Académie– who are also called Immortals – meet.

Korvin wants war – a war on language. And he’s not alone…

Attacks on the literary establishment

Calling themselves the ‘French Language Liberation Front’ – and occasionally sporting balaclavas – Korvin and Franco-Algerian rapper Morsay have released three controversial campaign videos this far, inspired by the way rappers ‘diss’ each other on the internet – a promotional strategy unimaginable in French literature before this unprecedented campaign began.

All of the videos were filmed in the streets and alleys around his stall in Saint-Ouen.
In the first, Morsay threatened to assault grammarian and member of the Académie française Erik Orsenna, who Korvin called a ‘dictator of grammar’.

The second video accused Patrick Poivre d’Arvor – another nominee to the Académie and a well-known broadcasting personality – of being a plagiarist and a ‘Machiavelli of the media’. In a recent election for another chair in the Académie, d’Arvor only received two votes – one of which came from Erik Orsenna.

In a third video, they attacked literary historian and biographer Gonzague Saint-Bris, a media celebrity in France and a fellow nominee to the Académie, taunting him by saying that ‘masturbating in the shadow of giants [of French literature] is not enough to become one yourself’. Being a perfectionist, Korvin has subtitled the clips in French, English and Spanish.

Korvin’s manifestos

Korvin has accompanied these confrontational videos with a series of written manifestos. The first was a public letter, reprinted on the website of the magazine L’Express – the French equivalent of Time magazine – in which Korvin proposed himself for a chair in the Académie. The second was a manifesto, also published in L’Express, entitled ‘j’abuse’, in which Korvin further developed his argument for the simplification of written French – the title was a conscious reference to Émile Zola’s famous 1898 defence of Captain Dreyfus, ‘J’accuse’.

Korvin has been compared, for both his writing and his ideas about written French, to great writers such as Raymond Queneau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara and Georges Perec … a first for a US Citizen!

The Académie’s wise vote

In the 10th May elections to the Académie, Korvin received only two fewer votes than Gonzague Saint-Bris. Having made an impact on the Immortals of the French language, his campaign continues. Who’s next? According to Korvin, he and Morsay will take on the ‘mundane’ bestselling author of Windows on the World and 99 Cents in a fourth video titled, ‘Korvin and Morsay puke Fréderic Beigbeder’. Despite this video violence, Korvin has won the full support of the l’Express website newsroom and has been promoted to the status of contributor.

Competition: win an ‘insider’s’ tour of literary Paris

The provocateur is also preparing a “long-planned” English-language action on Twitter that is according to him “totally different from what’s going on in France”. Its theme and purpose to be kept secret until he has enough Twitter followers (he calls them ‘twallowers’). “It’s going to be big and fun and reality-changing,” the writer promises.

And he is not at all unnerved by the fact that – for the time being – there are fewer than ten of them, although he needs thousands. “I recruit twallowers easily among the many English-speaking tourists at my stall”, he says. And he’s holding a competition – the prize is one week in his “very-close-to-Paris suburban loft, airport pickup and drop-off included, all-expenses-paid (except for the plane ticket)”. Plus, he’ll offer the lucky winner “a real insider’s view of literary Paris every day in my old luxuriously leather-seated exotic wood-panelled Mercedes”. The winner will be the one who sends the best tweet about any of the ‘diss’ clips.

Mickael Korvin on Twitter:

Mickael Korvin on Wikipedia:

Mickael Korvin’s controversial videos subtitled in French, English and Spanish (at bottom of videos there is scroll-down menu where you can choose the language you want your subtitles in):

Erik Orsenna video:

Patrick Poivre d’Arvor video:

Gonzague Saint Bris video:

Fréderic Beigbeder video: