About Charles Dantzig

Beginning

Charles Dantzig is a French author, born on October 7, 1961 into a family of professors of medicine. He obtained the baccalauréat at the age of seventeen, but rather than following the family tradition or taking up his place to prepare the entrance exams for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he decided to study Law. “It was a bliss, he said. I read Proust for the first time during my first year in Law School, which would have been impossible when studying Literature.” While completing a doctorate in Law from the university of Toulouse, he moved to Paris. At the age of twenty-eight, he published an essay on an influential writer of the 1890’s and founder of the symbolist school, Remy de Gourmont, Remy de Gourmont, Cher Vieux Daim ! (“dear old deer”, being a nickname given to Gourmont by his former friend and then foe Alfred Jarry), soon followed by his first collection of poems, Le chauffeur est toujours seul, to critical acclaim.

 

Original essays, lyrical poems that wear their seriousness lightly and liltingly, and novels whose brio is rivalled only by their inventiveness: Charles Dantzig delights his readers with his fluid style and his lively voice with serious undertones, as reflected in the title of his essay «The eternal struggle between sadness and gaiety».

 

« The literary event of the year »

The Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française [An Egoist Dictionary of French Literature] (2005) was the literary event of the year. Hailed in both France and elsewhere, it made Charles Dantzig a major figure of contemporary French literature as its astonishing success drew analysis from America to Japan. The work won five literary awards, including the Prix Décembre and the Prix de l’Essai de l’Académie Française. It was born of the crazy inspiration of an author just turned forty, who set out to write a completely original literary dictionary giving his own personal, honest, heartfelt opinions on works of literature – opinions that were honest because they were personal. The unique thousand-page book, the result of several years of work, includes articles on authors, books, fictional characters, and concepts. The leading critic Bernard Frank described it as «A masterpiece. The book I would have liked to write» (Le Nouvel Observateur), while other critics hailed it as «an event» (Le Figaro Magazine). The Encyclopédie capricieuse du tout et du rien [A Capricious Encyclopedia of Everything and Nothing] (2008) reflected the same freedom of tone and delight in a classification that appeared haphazard but was in fact highly erudite. The breviary of the author's imagination – part essay, part fiction, part prose poem – consists exclusively of lists: a list of beaches at seven o'clock, of clouds, of London fashions, of books I could have written, of tragic animals, and so on. Skipping between maxims and highly individual observations, Dantzig vivaciously trips from things that are of interest to everybody to things that are of interest to himself alone. The book takes him around the world in eight hundred pages of lists, blending observations of daily life and explorations of sensibility, revealing his own unique kingdom. «It's a marvel to see this twenty-first Tristram Shandy, overflowing with verve, constantly pulling dazzling doves from his sleeves», wrote L’Express, while for La Règle du jeu, L’Encyclopédie capricieuse du tout et du rien is his masterpiece. Only a spirit of conformity could make you read this book as an essay; rather, it should be read as a novel whose narrator is lost in a vast maelstrom of sensibility. The first novel with no characters. The Corriere della Sera hailed it as «A strange, supremely beautiful, infinite book».

 

The Dantzig style

Dantzig has an elegant voice that wears its vast erudition lightly on its sleeve, for he is a man of ready wit. His essay Pourquoi lire? [Why Read?] (2010) earned him the Prix Jean Giono for his subtle, thoughtful work: for Les Echos, he is «Charles Dantzig, the book man». He published his latest essay, A propos des chefs-d’œuvre [On Masterpieces], in 2013. Once again, the book broke new literary ground, combining fine-grained scholarly analysis, highly individual confessions, and occasional forays into fiction in what is the first book on the concept of the literary masterpiece. The book was again hailed by the press both in France and abroad, including the TLS and Corriere della Sera.

 

The poems

Charles Dantzig considers that there are no such things as literary genres or frontiers between different forms of creativity, and as such has always published poetry alongside his other writings. He writes original volumes that are not just collections of poems previously published in journals, sometimes giving them a single overarching theme, as in À quoi servent les avions? [What are aeroplanes for?] (2001), in which he imagined the destruction of the Twin Towers in the months prior to the nine-eleven attacks. Les nageurs [Swimmers] (2011) is an ode to the body and to masculine sensuality in forty-nine poems that became an instant gay cult classic. Patrick McGuinness, professor at Oxford University, edited an anthology of poems published by Charles Dantzig between 1991 and 2010, La diva aux longs cils [The Long-Eyelashed Diva] (2011). Dantzig's poetry has something of the style of Guillaume Apollinaire, channeled by the lucidity of Paul Valéry. The constant to-ing and fro-ing between the heart and the mind reflects his thoughtful use of regular forms and free verse. That is Dantzig's hallmark as a poet: can there be any purer notion of poetry than a blink of an eyelid?

 

The novels

As a novelist, Charles Dantzig admires Stendhal and Petronius. It has been said that he has the the vivacity of the former and the freedom of the latter. Nos vies hâtives [Our Hasty Lives] (2001), a skein of interwoven narrative threads, draws on the aesthetics of the ellipse, containing «narrative holes» exactly like those in Petronius's Satiricon. «I tried to take out everything superfluous, and sometimes even what was essential. My best reader will be Sherlock Holmes». The biography of modern Paris follows the adventures of a writer, a model, and a couple so gorgeous that misfortune begrudges them happiness; the reader learns that some suicides are driven by an excess of bliss.

 

Charles Dantzig is also the author of Un film d’amour [A Romance Movie] (2003), whose dazzling construction is swept along by the grace of its style. The narrative, focusing on the disappearance of a young film director somewhere between Rome and California, reflects on the place of genius in the modern, or any, world. The novel takes the form of the transcript of a TV documentary about the missing director, Birbillaz. Everyone who knew him gives their point of view in turn. Who is a sincere friend to him? Who is wrong? Who is lying? «At first the reader approaches the book, clever from the first line to the last, as a formalist fancy, before understanding that like all great books, it strives for a sort of totality» (Le Nouvel Observateur).

 

Je m’appelle François [My Name is François] (2007) is partly inspired by the life of a real-life impostor, transformed and transfigured to invent him a new destiny. François Darré, born in small-town southern France, goes up to Paris where he sleeps and lies his way into the trust of a family of the bourgeoisie before moving onto Hollywood, where he works his fraudulent magic. He then leaves for Dubai, the «capital of the twenty-first century».

 

Dans un avion pour Caracas [On a Plane to Caracas] (2011) perfects Dantzig's aesthetic of fleeing – something all his heroes have in common – in a narrative built around the complete absence of the hero. The narrator sets out to find his best friend, a famous writer, who has gone missing in Venezuela. The entire novel is set on the flight from Paris to Caracas. The narrator's missing friend is a typical French intellectual working on the shifting border between philosophy and fiction – the type Dantzig calls «the men who flirt with literature». What did he have to do with Hugo Chavez? Is the novel a portrait of the last of the intellectual activists? A portrait of friendship and its ambiguities? Is the novel, which «could hardly be more Dantzigian if it tried» (La Revue des Deux Mondes), about the status of the creator in modern society and the impossibility of writing a man's full biography, as was the case for Un film d'amour? A portrait of the hero as the absent hero? What has happened to him? We'll never know all the answers, but the questions are often enough in themselves. Charles Dantzig is an enemy of realism. «Literature does not reproduce life. Realism is only ever a different form of idealism – the idealisation of the morose» (Le Magazine littéraire, January 2012).He published an opinion piece in Le Monde on March 18, 2012, entitled «On populism in literature», criticising the contamination of literature by a preoccupation with the subject, creating a realism that he considers a threat to literature's aesthetic calling. The piece sparked a considerable literary debate. Several authors responded, leading to lively controversy. The article was translated for a number of foreign newspapers.

 

Charles Dantzig is also a translator from English. He translated Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (2013, with a long foreword revealing some details until then unprinted, like the tragicomical burying of Wilde at Bagneux's cemetery) and Aristotle at an Evening Tea (a selection of Wilde's articles in the English reviews, 1994), and the first French translations of Francis Scott Fitzgerald's play, «A Vegetable» (1996), as well as his interviews (Des livres et une Rolls, 2013).

 

Charles Dantzig has been a publisher with Grasset since 2000, working on authors from France and other French-speaking countries and from elsewhere, including Truman Capote, providing the foreword for the Grasset edition of Capote's lost novel Summer Crossing. He has also published definitive biographies of figures including Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite française. He has only worked on one political text – the sole approved dual-language edition of Barack Obama's famous Philadelphia speech A More Perfect Union, based on the text provided by the president's campaign team. This is the speech often credited with ensuring an Obama victory. As an author, Charles Dantzig was convinced that other than its obvious political qualities, the speech was also a remarkable piece of writing, heralding «the return of literature to politics».

 

Charles Dantzig also has responsibility for the prestigious «Cahiers Rouges» collection which reprints modern classics from France and elsewhere alongside rare works of genius that have long been out of print.

 

He also contributes a monthly article on the latest literary news to the Magazine Littéraire and produces and presents Secret Professionnel, a weekly programme on Radio France Culture devoted to how artistic creativity is passed on. He also works with  arts and aesthetics journals. He inaugurated a series of lectures on literature at the Louvre in 2007 with a talk on «perpetuating gestures», delivered in front of Van Dyck's masterpiece Portrait of the Palatinate Princes Charles Louis I and His Brother Rupert. He was associate curator of the inaugural exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Masterpieces? (2011), exploring the concept of the masterpiece in literature. This experience provided the foundations for his essay À propos des chefs-d’œuvre.

 

Charles Dantzig brought back to life the Stendhal Club in 2011. This very exclusive literary circle devoted to Henri Beyle’s glory, founded in the early XXth century, had vanished since. The new Stendhal Club has 12 members around the world and intends to get no more. It publishes « a possibly yearly review ».

 

Charles Dantzig rarely makes media appearances on topics other than literature, except when the issue is of particular importance to him. In November 2012 he was behind a major opinion piece in Le Monde against homophobia in French society. The piece, «Gay marriage: Saying no to the collusion of hatred» was co-signed by more than sixty writers, film directors, actors, and other significant cultural figures. «If there is one thing that is a threat to society, it's the lobby of stupidity and hatred».

 

His books have been translated worldwide, from Spain to Korea, from Italy to China, and from Germany to Ukraine.

 

ŒUVRES

romans
Dans un avion pour Caracas, Grasset, 2011
Je m’appelle François, Grasset, 2007 & Le Livre de Poche.
Un film d’amour, Grasset, 2003 & Le Livre de Poche.
Nos vies hâtives, Grasset, 2001 & Le Livre de Poche.
Confitures de crimes, Les Belles Lettres, 1993.

 

essais
À propos des chefs-d’œuvre, Grasset 2013
Pourquoi lire ?, Grasset 2010 & Le Livre de Poche.
Encyclopédie capricieuse du tout et du rien, Grasset, 2009 & Le Livre de Poche.
Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française, Grasset, 2005 & Le Livre de Poche.
La Guerre du cliché, Les Belles Lettres, 1998.
Il n'y a pas d'Indochine, Les Belles Lettres, 1995
Remy de Gourmont, Cher Vieux Daim !, 1990, nouvelle édition augmentée d’une préface, Grasset, 2008.

 

poèmes
Les nageurs, Grasset, 2010.
La Diva aux longs cils (anthologie 1991-2010), Grasset, 2010.
Bestiaire, Les Belles Lettres, 2003.
En souvenir des long-courriers, Les Belles Lettres, 2003.
À quoi servent les avions ?, Les Belles Lettres, 2001.
Ce qui se passe vraiment dans les toiles de Jouy, Les Belles Lettres, 1999.
Que le siècle commence, Les Belles Lettres, 1996.
Le chauffeur est toujours seul, La Différence, 1991

 

traductions
Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Un légume, théâtre, Les Belles Lettres, 1996, et Grasset, « Les Cahiers rouges », 2010 (édition complétée). Oscar Wilde, Aristote à l'heure du thé, chroniques, Les Belles Lettres, 1994, et Grasset, « Les Cahiers rouges », 2010 (édition complétée).

 

Editions, préfaces 

Les écrivains français racontés par les écrivains qui les ont connus, édition et préface («Les méfaits de l'idéalisme»), Les Belles Lettres, 1995

Martin Amis, Don Juan à Hull, préface, 1995

Prosper Mérimée, Lettres à Mme de Montijo, édition et préface («Le malheur d'avoir des amis»), Le Mercure de France, 1995

Alexandre Vialatte, Chroniques de «La Montagne», Bouquins/Robert Laffont, préface («L'éternel combat de la tristesse et de la gaieté»), 2000

Anthologie de la poésie grecque classique, édition, Les Belles Lettres, 2000

Remy de Gourmont, La Culture des idées, édition et préface («Gourmont, les bonnes années»), Bouquins/Robert Laffont, 2008

Patrick Dennis, Tante Mame, préface («On en voudrait dans la famille»), Flammarion, 2010 

Bernard Frank, Le Dernier des Mohicans, préface («Le manège enchanté»), Les Cahiers rouges, 2011

 

PRIX

Charles Dantzig a reçu de nombreux prix littéraires prestigieux.

Son livre de poèmes Que le siècle commence a reçu le prix Paul Verlaine en 1996.

En 2001, son roman Nos vies hâtives a reçu le prix Roger Nimier et le prix Jean Freustié - seul livre à ce jour à avoir reçu concomitamment ces deux prix.

En 2005, le Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française a reçu cinq prix, dont le prix Décembre, le prix de l'Essai de l'Académie française, le Grand Prix littéraire des Lectrices de Elle, le Globe de Cristal du meilleur livre (décerné par l’ensemble de la presse française).

Son Encyclopédie capricieuse du tout et du rien a obtenu le prix Duménil à l’unanimité en 2009.

Il a reçu le Grand Prix Jean Giono pour l’ensemble de son œuvre en 2010.