UCLA International Institute, November 9, 2015 — Laure Murat may be a university professor, but she certainly didn’t start out to be one. “I hated school,” says the Paris native, “I was a very bad student in high school, I just did my baccalauréat and that was it.” (The competitive, examination-based secondary-school diploma is the prerequisite for entering university in France; it is considered the rough equivalent of completing a year of college study in the United States.)
That’s not to say Murat wasn’t an intellectual, just a fiercely independent one with wide-ranging interests. After finishing her “bac,” she became a journalist and art critic, working —among other places — for Beaux Arts magazine and the “France Culture” public radio program.
Eventually, she began writing and editing books, first more popular books on cultural topics (Palais de la nation, 1992; Le Paris des écrivains, 1998 —both with photos by Georges Fessy),* and later, serious cultural histories based on in-depth archival research (La Maison du docteur Blanche, 2001; Passage de l’Odéon, 2003; La loi du genre, 2006; L'homme qui se prenait pour Napoléon, 2011).** (See articles on her books by Le Monde, UCLA Newsroom, and The Times Higher Education.)
Along the way, her books have won some of most coveted literary prizes in France, including the Prix Goncourt for biography, the Prix de la Critique of the Académie Française, the Prix Femina and the Prix du Printemps du Livre de Cassis. Murat has also earned several prestigious fellowships, including a Guggenheim and a research grant from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The professor who never went to school
Today, laughs Murat, “I have my Ph.D., I promise. It’s a real one. But I never sat in a class.” When she was first invited to teach a course on art criticism as a visiting professor at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1997-1998, she was an established writer and critic but had no higher degree.
“I accepted, of course,” she continues, “and it was a revelation. I LOVED it. On the other side of the desk, I was simply happy. As a student, I was a catastrophe. I don't know if I was a catastrophe as a professor, but I really enjoyed it! And I was very embarrassed because I didn’t have any kind of diploma and I could not be hired anywhere.”
After going on to publish La Maison du docteur Blanche and Passage de l’Odéon to great critical acclaim, a friend who was a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) — one of France’s premier higher educational institutions —encouraged Murat to do a dissertation. EHESS offers atypical students such as herself the chance to earn a diplôme (the equivalent of a master’s degree) by writing and defending a work of 100 pages, which earns them admission to a Ph.D. program.
“So that’s exactly what I did,” she explains. “And thanks to that, I went directly into a Ph.D. program.” But just as she was about to actually attend classes, she received a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. “And of course, I went to Princeton. Who wouldn't?” she asks. “And I wrote my dissertation at Princeton. And while I was at Princeton, the UCLA job opened and I got it. In other words, I'm a professor who hasn't been taught. It's bizarre.”
A bizarre path to academia perhaps, but a wonderful recipe for intellectual independence. Two days after she defended her dissertation, the study of androgyny and the third sex was published as La loi genre by Éditions Fayard and she immediately went on a publicity tour to promote it. Soon afterwards, she moved to Los Angeles and joined UCLA’s department of French and Francophone Studies, where she now teaches French and Francophone literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a seminar on Michel Foucault.
“It was quite a shock,” she admits. “Everything was different. I had never taught, except at the École des Beaux Arts. And I had to function in English and I was in California!” And yet this very French intellectual, who had lived for 39 years in Paris, fell in love with Los Angeles and is now — what else? — writing a book about it. Sadly, only one of Murat’s books has been translated into English and published (to rave reviews) in the United States: The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon (University of Chicago, 2014). The rest of the world is not so unlucky; Murat’s works have translated into many other languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Turkish, Italian, Bulgarian and Portuguese.
Together with celebrated French violinist Guillaume Sutre, a professor and director of string chamber music at the UCLA Herb Albert School of Music, Murat has also created the “Sonnets and Sonatas” series. Now in its third year, the series is currently sponsored by the Getty Museum. The annual event combines a lecture by Murat with musical performances by Sutre and his students, with the audience continuing to follow a PowerPoint presentation while listening to the music. Designed to show the interconnectedness of the arts (“Literature talks to music, which talks to art, to paintings, etc., etc.,” explains Murat), the series is designed to reach a non-scholarly audience.
New leader of the Center for European and Russian Studies
Murat became the director of UCLA’s recently renamed Center for European and Russian Studies (CERS) in July of this year. She has three priorities for CERS: fundraising (the center lost its Title VI funding from the Department of Education in spring 2015) and an intellectual focus on national secession movements (think Scotland and Catalonia) and migration in Europe.
“I am very grateful to Gail Kligman, the former director and currently associate vice-provost at the International Institute, to have introduced me to the Center, by inviting me a few years ago to participate in the work of the Faculty Advisory Board. During those years, I learned what challenges a center of excellence has to face. Intellectually, it is probably one of the most stimulating places to be,” comments Murat. “I would like to keep a good balance between social sciences and humanities, as well as between topics on eastern and western Europe. I would also like to emphasize the extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity of Europe.”
Murat has also moved to diversify the CERS Advisory Board, which now includes faculty members from both the law and medical schools, and will seek to open up Center activities to South Campus. One of the big challenges of any center championing research and education on Europe is the pronounced U.S. focus on China as the economic and political giant of the future. “I think it would be a big mistake to just dismiss Europe — a big mistake, not only morally, but intellectually as well, just because Europe is ‘an old continent,’” she remarks.
“Intellectually, culturally — and not only in those spheres —there is a great dynamic in Europe right now,” observes Murat. “We are going to witness something really interesting. It already started with Spain and Greece. Politically,” she asks, “Is there another way to do politics outside of political parties?“
With great sadness, she is now thinking through ways to organize a program in response to the horrific attacks on her hometown on November 13, 2015. "I heard about the Paris attacks as I was exiting a meeting with Jerry Kang, the vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Murat, who, with many friends and family in Paris, instantly became riveted to her cellphone as she scanned for any details. “I was counting the dead and the hostages, with a feeling of horror and unspeakable grief.
"While walking, I couldn't help thinking about politics: the one of my homeland — the so-called 'laïcité,’ that is to say, secularism and universalism, and the one of my adopted country, multiculturalism and inclusion. I thought, ‘Is one way better than the other in countries where there are countless problems of racism?’ American awareness of the problem and constant efforts to address it sound to me to be the only way to go,” she said.
In the meantime, heartfelt messages of condolence and offers of help have been sent to her from her colleagues at UCLA, and that has brought her some comfort. “That’s why I love working here so much: Living together and working together mean something," she said.
How one book became two
Murat spent last summer promoting two new books in France: Relire: enquête sur une passion littéraire (Rereading: An Investigation of a Literary Passion) and Flaubert à la Motte-Picquet (Flaubert at the Motte-Picquet [Metro Station]), both published by Flammarion.
The first book examines what literary works members of the French intelligentsia regularly re-read. “What I was interested in,” she explains, “was the experiencing of re-reading.” The publication is based on a simple, but detailed survey that Murat sent to a select list of 200 people that included major French writers, publishers, book sellers, librarian, and actors. Out of the 100 people who responded to her letter (a whopping 50 percent response rate), 45 chose to be interviewed in person rather than submit written responses.
So Murat, who had been forced to sell her Vespa and “take the Metro like everyone else” due to a back surgery, found herself riding all over Paris to interview people. Her underground peregrinations led her to an idea for another book, which she wrote more or less simultaneously. While riding on a subway one day, Murat noticed a woman reading The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. “I was noticing that she was very into reading the book,” she recounts. “And there was a young man next to her. They didn't know each other, but suddenly I had a fantasy that she was Charlotte, the heroine of the book, and this guy next to her was [the man who had fallen in love with her], Werther . . .”
As she was imagining this scenario, an elderly gentleman sat down next to her and opened a notebook with a list of book titles. “But it didn't make sense,” she said. “There was Madame Bovary by Flaubert and then Barbara Cartland — the same man cannot read all these things.” When she saw him add The Sorrows of Young Werther to his list, she understood what he was doing.
“And I thought,” she says clapping her hands, “I'm going to take his idea. That's brilliant, I'm going to do this from now on, because I have to go everywhere in Paris every day, taking the metro — I’m going to note everything people are reading.” And thus was born Flaubert à la Motte-Picquet, a parallel inquiry into what people read on the Paris metro.
As to her primary investigation, the findings were very interesting. Among the 100 respondents, the greatest number (almost one in four) re-read Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu), followed by Gustave Flaubert. The trio of Nietzche, Montaigne and Virginia Wolf were the third most-mentioned authors. “It’s quite diverse in a way,” says Murat, noting that the list included French authors of the 19th and 20th centuries, a German philosopher of the 19th century, a French philosopher of the 16th century, and a female author of the 20th century.
“What was very shocking was that among the 100 —- and I tried to balance gender and generations. . . I had almost half women and half men — only one man mentioned a female author [Marguerite Duras],” says Murat. Virginia Woolf, although high on the list, was evidently cited only by female respondents. Perhaps equally shocking, given the number of Francophone authors living in France, only one respondent mentioned a Francophone author, and he himself was such a writer.
“I chose very specific people who are what we call the intelligentsia in France — the intellectuals and the writers, the great writers,” she emphasizes. And those writers, if male, regularly re-read (not read, the distinction is important) overwhelmingly male European writers. A finding perhaps not unexpected in a country where the Académie Française, that centuries-old arbiter of French literature, has only three female members.
Murat points out that in general, French literary competitions are also highly Eurocentric, extending their boundaries only as far as the United States. She explains that while American writers are well-represented in the nominations, those lists rarely include Asian or Middle Eastern authors.
Which makes it less a surprise that Murat, a well-known and respected writer in France, is teaching in the United States, “by far the greatest place to be in the Academy today,” according to her. As she recounts, “You know what they tell me in France now: ‘It's always the best that are going away now. How sad.’” And then she stops and says, "They never offered me a job. That's why Europe is an ‘old continent,’ that's exactly why.”
This article was originally published on November 9, 2013, and updated on November 17.
* Palais de la nation (Palace of the Nation), Éditions Flammarion
Le Paris des écrivains (A Writers’ Paris), Éditions du Chêne
** La Maison du docteur Blanche: histoire d’un asile et de ses pensionnaires, de Nerval à Maupassant
(The Clinic of Dr. Blanche: History of an Asylum and its Residents, from Nerval to Mauspassant),
Éditions J.-C. Lattès
Passage de l’Odéon: Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier et la vie littéraire à Paris dans l’entre-
deux-guerres (Odeon Way: Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier and the Literary Life of Paris in
the Interwar Period), Éditions Fayard
La loi du genre: une histoire culturelle du troisième sexe (The Law of Gender: A Cultural History
of the Third Sex),Éditions Fayard
L'homme qui se prenait pour Napoléon (The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon), Éditions Fayard