Nation, World + Society

Intellectual maverick takes helm of Center for European and Russian Studies

Native of Paris mourns for victims of terrorist attacks and her homeland

Laure Murat
Catherine Helie/ Gallimard/ Leemage, 2011

As the new director of the Center for European and Russian Studies, Laure Murat, with great sadness, is now thinking through ways to organize a program in response to the horrific attacks on her hometown.

Laure Murat didn’t start out with ambitions to become a university professor.

“I hated school,” recalls the Paris native, “I was a very bad student in high school — I just did my baccalauréat” — the rough equivalent of completing a year of college in the U.S. — “and that was it.”

That’s not to say Murat wasn’t intellectually inclined; she was just fiercely independent with wide-ranging interests. So she became a journalist and an art critic, working 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 and later, serious cultural histories based on in-depth archival research. 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.

In her latest move, this intellectual maverick has taken the helm as director at the recently renamed Center for European and Russian Studies, where she, with great sadness, is thinking through ways to organize a program in response to the horrific attacks on her hometown.

“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 to Bunche Hall, 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 the constant efforts to address it sound to me to be the only way to go,” Murat reflected.

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.

A nontraditional route to a Ph.D.

Murat’s pathway to UCLA was anything but traditional. “I have my Ph.D., I promise,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a real one. But I never sat in a [college] 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 graduate-level 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 she went on to publish “La Maison du docteur Blanche” and “Passage de l’Odéon” to great critical acclaim, a friend, a professor at one of France’s premier universities, encouraged her to write a dissertation. The École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where her friend taught, offered atypical students 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,” Murat 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? And I wrote my dissertation at Princeton. While I was at Princeton, the UCLA job opened up, and I got it. In other words, I’m a professor who hasn’t been taught. It’s bizarre.”

Bizarre maybe, but a wonderful recipe for intellectual independence. Two days after she defended her dissertation, her study of androgyny and the third sex was published as “La loi du genre” by Éditions Fayard and she immediately went on a publicity tour to promote it.

Soon afterwards, she moved to Los Angeles and joined the UCLA Department of French and Francophone Studies, where she now teaches literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a seminar on Michel Foucault.

“It was quite a shock,” she admits of the move. “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 so far has been translated into English and published in the United States to rave reviews: “The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness” (University of Chicago Press, 2014). But her works have been 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. Designed to show the interconnectedness of the arts, the annual event combines a lecture by Murat with musical performances by Sutre and his students.

Putting Europe front and center

In her new role as center director, Murat has already taken some steps to diversify its base. She has added new members to its advisory board from both the law and medical schools at UCLA, and is seeking to open up the center’s activities to the south campus.

Murat also plans to increase fundraising efforts (The center lost its Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education last spring). And she is increasing its focus on two issues: national secession movements — think Scotland and Catalonia — and migration, an issue of global importance.

“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,” she says.

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 in the world. But Murat sees it differently.

“Intellectually, culturally — and not only in those spheres — there is a great dynamic in Europe right now,” she observes. “We are going to witness something really interesting. It’s already started with Spain and Greece. Politically,” she asks, “is there another way to do politics outside of political parties?

“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.”

The complete story on Murat is posted on the UCLA International Institute website.

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