NYRB News


When the World Spoke French

By Marc Fumaroli
Translated from the French by Richard Howard

When the World Spoke French, Marc Fumaroli’s engaging portrait of a time when French was the intellectual lingua franca of Europe and beyond, is appearing in English for the first time in a translation by Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Howard.

~ ~ ~

During the eighteenth century, from the death of Louis XIV until the Revolution, French culture set the standard for all of Europe. In Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, England, Russia, and Germany, among kings and queens, diplomats, military leaders, writers, aristocrats, and artists, French was the universal language of politics and intellectual life. In When the World Spoke French, Marc Fumaroli presents a gallery of portraits of Europeans and Americans—including Catherine the Great, Frederick II, Lord Chesterfield and Benjamin Franklin—who conversed and corresponded in French, along with excerpts from their letters and other writings.

Despite their differences, these men and women were all irresistibly attracted to the ideal of human happiness inspired by the Enlightenment, whose capital was Paris and whose king was Voltaire. Whether they were in Paris or far away, speaking French connected them in spirit with all those who desired to emulate Parisian tastes, style of life, and social pleasures.

Letters and memoirs composed in French from major figures… along with relative unknowns…map a trail from the enlightened salons of Paris to the partition of Poland by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in the 18th century…. The smooth translation by Pulitzer winner Howard facilitates appreciation of the witty writers…. Whether randomly selecting a chapter or treating the book as a saga sweeping inexorably toward the Polish debacle and the French Reign of Terror, readers cannot fail to find their own enlightenment in these gems.” —Publishers Weekly

Read the introduction (pdf)

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