- Art & Creation -
Cultivating critical thinking and imagination through literature
Created in 2021, the Michel Reybier Literary Prize is awarded each semester to the Sciences Po Paris Writer-in-Residence Chair, who assists students in learning to write and in building their critical thinking skills. Karen Reybier, who is behind this patronage, tells us why the Michel Reybier Literary Prize was created, what its purpose is and how literature is more important than ever in today’s world.
How important is this choice to offer students a space of freedom, imagination and a different relationship with reality?
It is by witnessing the immersion of young people into virtual digital universes that it seemed useful to me to support the Sciences Po Writing Chair. While one might tend to think that imagination is given pride of place in this meta-world, it is a formatted imagination, a mass product whose goal is above all commercial. On the contrary, literature offers a real space of freedom which requires personal effort and work.
More generally, how important to you is the process of passing on knowledge to young people?
For me, passing on knowledge is of primary importance. I am particularly attached to the teaching of history and philosophy in order to tend towards a positive evolution of progress. Current events make us feel how tragic our intellectual complacency can be. Critical thinking and the means to express it appear to me to be indispensable in educating the younger generation. We are also fortunate, thanks to the very international clientele of Michel Reybier Hospitality, to have the pleasure of sharing the reading of our laureates who are translated into many languages.
Do you sense a growing interest in the French language among the new generation?
I don’t know if one can speak of a growing interest in the French language, but there is certainly a constant and even growing interest in fiction in general and in new, innovative narrative forms. Witness the success of various series, whether foreign or French. New ways of expressing themselves are being experimented with by various writers – notably Maria Pourchet and her latest novel, Feu. Nicolas Mathieu, who won the Goncourt Prize for And Their Children After Them (2018) and whose latest novel, Connemara, came out in January and is a bestseller, also has a new way of writing. He combines oral language with a higher linguistic register and the result is a mirror of our times.
Do you think that the encounter with a literary work can have a determining inﬂuence on a life?
Clearly yes. For me it was Flaubert, with Salambô, although I can’t remember why. I would have to reread it to understand what happened to me during that ﬁrst reading. I experienced a shock. As a child, I read a lot, but mainly biographies of kings, Roman emperors, tsars and tsarinas, pharaohs. I loved them all. With Flaubert, it was as if a new gateway opened. There was the story, of course, but something more, a dimension I had not yet experienced. Later there was Kundera and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He helped me understand that a novel could both entertain and lead me to reﬂect on my time. At another point in my life, my reading was exclusively devoted to Balzac. I felt that everyone I knew, including myself, could relate to The Human Comedy. Reading, which is often thought of as a solitary pleasure, also has a social dimension. So-called social media will never replace the emotion of reading a work and the sense of immediate community, of friendship, that we feel when we meet someone who has experienced the exact same literary pleasure.
Is there an author who has changed something in your life, in your perception of the world?
It’s a cliché, but I must admit that reading The Second Sex reconciled me with feminism. I was a bit lost and at odds with the feminist approach, which consists in bringing about a world where women can no longer refer to their bodies at all. Camille Froidevaux-Mettrie’s rereading of Simone de Beauvoir, her phenomenological approach to feminism, helped me to rejoin the current of a struggle that must imperatively be shared with all women. It is an approach that seems to me to be less divisive, and one that women from other cultures should more easily embrace.
Louis-Philippe Dalembert and Alice Zeniter were the ﬁrst winners of the Michel Reybier Literary Prize. Over and above the richness and complexity of their works, which cannot be summed up in a few words, how did these authors touch you? Which works have made a lasting impression on you?
I really liked The Mediterranean Wall, by Louis-Philippe Dalembert. It plunged me in an unexpected and effective way into the heart of dramas that I sometimes look at from a distance. This confrontation is salutary and the humanitarian catastrophe taking place at the gates of Europe has thus taken on new importance thanks to him. As for Alice Zeniter, her strong personality and her feminist commitment have changed my perceptions and the vision I had of the current female condition. Je suis une fille sans histoire and the theatrical adaptation she made of it make me approach most of the texts I read with a new, more critical eye. Mathias Enard, our third winner, won me over as I discovered his work. I now read his books without being able to stop. I laugh, a pleasure rarely afforded by literature; I love his mixture of erudition, virtuosity, and humor, even zaniness. His latest novel, Le Banquet annuel de la Confrérie des fossoyeurs, published by Actes Sud like his previous books, is a formidable Rabelais-style text.
Through the Francophone aspect of this prize, do you want to promote French literature?
I would indeed say that it is Francophone literature that I wish to promote, to help people discover and to discover myself, and not only French production. Let’s take the example of Quebec literature: it is ﬂourishing and increasingly distributed in France, notably through a wonderful Quebec publishing house, La Peuplade.
Above and beyond literature, would you like to express yourself through other cultural means such as fashion, contemporary art, photography...? In what way?
I consider any means as useful when they serve to promote democratic values, freedom of expression and education. I have more trouble when art is used for advertising, as is increasingly the case today. Céline Fribourg, with whom my desire to create a literary prize took shape, publishes extraordinary art books and has enabled me to meet talented artists such as Prune Nourry and Kate Daudy, who represent an ideal of contemporary femininity that matches my own vision.
Based on an interview Anne Marie Clerc
Michel Reybier explains the meaning of his commitment to culture and the link between the Michel Reybier literary prize and the hotel business.
“Creating a community of writers in connection with our art of living”
“Literature and culture in general have their place within our vision of the art of living. By creating a community of writers nurturing a connection with our clients, we give them the opportunity to discover the world of authors, to enjoy exchanges with them on different occasions and to learn. Opening the mind and growing is an essential part of my philosophy of life. We have started to build libraries in some of our institutions and I want to develop them, to give them more meaning, with specialized collections in different ﬁ elds. We must facilitate access to knowledge on carefully selected themes, whether it be literature, oenology, art or health.”