We were saddened to hear of the death of the writer Jean d'Ormesson yesterday. Author of The Glory of the Empire, which won the Grand Prize for fiction from the Académie française, d'Ormesson wrote over thirty books, very few of which have ever been translated into English. Daniel Mendelsohn wrote about the author and his genre-defying Glory of the Empire in the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of the book:
The temptation to take both the book and its author lightly is one that has been encouraged by d’Ormesson himself, a genial celebrity of the French literary world who enjoys hinting that he never really mastered the serious stuff. “I remained rather good in history and literature, but was always little more than a zero in philosophy,” he wrote in a 1966 memoir called Au revoir et merci, referring to his high-school days in the 1930s at the prestigious École normale supérieure....d’Ormesson’s autobiographical writings are filled with blithe references to his intellectual shortcomings. “I was, alas, an excellent mediocrity,” he laments apropos of his school days; “my life was a little bit useless, like my writing,” he comments somewhere else. Above all, he claims to be chagrined by his failure to master the “queen of sciences.” “Like a man who can possess every woman with the exception of the one he wants, I did a little history, a little German,a little French, but only philosophy, which wouldn’t have me, fascinated me."
D’Ormesson has surely been too hard on himself. To be sure, many of the pleasures provided by The Glory of the Empire are those afforded by popular literature and popular history both: In and of itself, the “history” that d’Ormesson invents, filled with all the high drama, grand gestures, and memorable characters you get in everyone from Herodotus to Arnold Toynbee, makes for a gripping page-turner. And yet, forty-five years after its first publication, what strikes you about The Glory of the Empire is what you could call its philosophical dimension: a clear-eyed vision of history and the pitfalls of writing history that a thinker of more strident ideological and intellectual pretensions might never have achieved.