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France’s oldest Académie Française member dies aged 103

The poet, novelist and playwright René de Obaldia had been part of the Académie for over 20 years

France’s oldest Académie Française (pictured above) immortel René de Obaldia has died at the age of 103 Pic: Kiev.Victor / Shutterstock

René de Obaldia, a poet, novelist and playwright who was the oldest member of the Académie Française, has died at the age of 103. 

De Obaldia was born in Hong Kong in 1918 to a French mother and Panamanian father, and was the great-grandson of José Domingo de Obaldía, the second President of Panama.

He made his breakthrough as a writer in 1960, when his first major play Génousie debuted at the Théâtre national populaire. 

This was followed by Le Satyre de la Villette, for which De Obaldia was likened to literary greats including Eugène Ionesco (The Bald Soprano) and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) for his humour, fantastical elements and unconventional style. 

Over the next half century, his work would be translated into 28 languages, and he would become known as one of the most prominent French playwrights. He wrote dozens of plays, novels and poetry collections and was honoured with various distinctions, including being made a commander of the Légion d’honneur.

De Obaldia joined the Académie Française in 1999, and in France he was sometimes known as the ‘inventor of language’ 

Then, at the age of 98, published his last book, Perles de vie (Pearls of life), a series of thoughts and quotations which included the phrase: “I will soon leave myself”. 

In Perles de vie, De Obaldia also shared the proverb, “If you want to reach 100, you should start young.” 

“I’ve always had a sense of ridiculousness, which helped me keep certain things at a distance,” he said during an interview in 2008.

What is the Académie Française?

The Académie Française is a centuries-old institution charged with dealing with matters pertaining to the French language. First formed in 1635, it is now made up of 40 members, les immortels (‘the immortals’), who normally hold office for life. 

The Académie periodically publishes an official dictionary of the French language, and makes rulings on spelling, vocabulary and grammar. 

It was this institution which shared the news of Mr de Obaldia’s death. 

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