René de Obaldia: Poet and ‘oldest guardian of the French language’ turns 103

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Writer, poet and playwright René de Obaldia – considered by many to be the “guardian” of the French language – died on January 27 at the age of 103.

A prisoner during World War II, Obaldia flourished as a jack-of-all-trades writer, revered for his biting humor and cultivating detachment.

The news came via the French Academyof which he was dean and elected member since 1999.

During his speech of thanks to the Academy in 2000, he admits to himself “often out of step with reality; a reality for which, I confess, I harbor a strong mistrust”.

The circumstances of his death have not yet been made public.

“To become a centenarian, you have to start young”

Born in 1918 in Hong Kong, he spent most of his life in Paris as one of France’s most produced playwrights. His works have been translated into 28 languages ​​around the world.

The son of a Frenchwoman and a Panamanian diplomat in the Chinese city under British control, he did not know his father, whom his mother quickly left after his birth to return to France.

Obaldia’s latest publication came shortly before reaching his 100th birthday – ‘Perles de vie’ (‘Pearls of Life’), where he noted the proverb: “To become a centenarian, you have to start young”.

“Our wonderful centenarian, who is always on the alert, has just left us. It is a huge loss for the Academy and an infinite pain for me”, declares Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, perpetual secretary of the Academy.

French writer Philippe Labro hailed his legacy on Twitter, describing “the indefinable charm of one who loved, lived, understood”.

A sharp creative, often derisory

“I’ve always had this derisory side in me, which allowed me to put certain things at a distance,” Obaldia told L’Express in 2009.

His work has earned him worldwide fame, with pieces such as ‘Du vent dans les branches de sassafras’, ‘Monsieur Klebs et Rozalie’, and ‘La Rue Obaldia’.

Alexandre Giorgini, Consul General of France in Hong Kong, Obaldia’s hometown, wrote that he dedicated his life to “poetry, humor and elegance”.

Like many other writers and artists, he made a political commitment in 1978 against the communist bloc during the creation of the Committee of Intellectuals for Europe of Freedoms, behind the philosopher Raymond Aron.

The death of René de Obaldia leaves vacant six of the 40 seats at the French Academy – the main French adviser for questions relating to the French language.

One of them must be filled in an election scheduled for February 17.

The Academy would have notorious difficulties in allocating these seats, for lack of valid candidates.

It elected 85-year-old Mario Vargas Llosa to its ranks in November as the Peruvian-Spanish writer passed the legal age limit by ten years.

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