Though France has been in relative decline as a great power since 1939—some would say, since 1914—its cultural influence has survived to a remarkable degree the loss of colonies, markets, and what was once the largest fleet in the world. Even today, when the French language is deeply embattled in its former strongholds in Latin America and Asia, French civilization remains throughout the world the only pole of attraction capable of rivaling that of the United States. This situation has assured French writers an international constituency, subsidized the French book trade, and provided much useful overseas employment for cultural bureaucrats. But, more important, it has nourished the persistent illusion—in Buenos Aires or Beirut, Tunis or Tanarive, New York or Iowa City—that the outcome of disputes in literary Paris would ultimately resolve some of the more important ideological and aesthetic questions of our age.

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