When Erich Segal, the author of Love Story, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1972, the judges threatened to resign in protest if his name was not withdrawn. Last January, however, in a gesture that underscored the French's idiosyncratic taste for American cultural exports, Segal was decorated as a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the top honors the French government offers to foreign artists and writers.
Two weeks ago, the same honor was conferred on Paul Auster and John Ashbery. Certainly, Auster and Ashbery, who've championed and translated French writers and distinguished themselves by the sort of experimental work that lends itself well to a deconstructionist's scalpel, deserve a place in the French cultural pantheon. But the Chevalier, almost as hallowed a tradition in France as a knighthood is in the U.K., has recently been given to a perplexing array of Americans, including John Irving, Richard Ford, Sharon Stone, Woody Allen, and that most inexplicable French pop sensation, Jerry Lewis.
Following the awards ceremony at a division of the French embassy on upper Fifth Avenue, we asked the French ambassador to the U.S., François Bujon de l'Estang, why the French honors system casts so wide a net. "American pop culture is very attractive to the French," he said with an insouciant sweep of the hand. "We may be a little more open than you."
Redolent of Napoleonic France, this venerable medal may take the sting out of the advance reviews of Auster's forthcoming novel, Timbuktu. A largely symbolic honor, it's unlikely to boost sales on either side of the Atlantic. However, several years ago, Ashbery's publisher campaigned Jack Lang, the former French minister of culture, to make him a Chevalier. Some time later, Ashbery recalls, "Lang appeared at a dinner party and pinned me." Could he be the only American writer to possess two such medals? "Actually," Ashbery says, "there's a little shop in Paris where they'll sell them to anyone who walks in."