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85th Birth Anniversary of Tzvetan Todorov, One of Europe’s Best-Known Intellectuals

Tzvetan Todorov, one of Europe’s best known intellectuals who established himself as a foremost literary and cultural theorist, philosopher, historian and social researcher, was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, 85 years ago, on March 1, 1939.
His father, Academician Todor Borov, was an eminent bibliographer who was dismissed as the director of the National Library in Sofia in 1948 because he employed nonparty members that the regime considered suspect, although he retained his position as a professor of library science at the University of Sofia. His mother, Haritina Todorova (née Peeva), was also a librarian. His brother, Academician Ivan Todorov, 90, is an internationally renowned physicist.
Todorov took an M.A. in Bulgarian studies at the University of Sofia in 1961, but moved to France to study literature in April 1963 on an Alexander Teodorov-Balan Scholarship. He grew up with an instinctive skepticism toward government that relented after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.
Todorov distanced himself from Bulgaria after he left for Paris. “Bulgaria is a closed page for my public life,” he confessed in an interview in 2002. It would be 18 years before he would visit Bulgaria again: according to unconfirmed rumours, he returned incognito for his father’s funeral in May 1993. Since then, he revisited his homeland briefly and privately, only to see a decreasing number of very close friends and relatives. “I have come out of Bulgaria, but Bulgaria cannot come out of me,” he told the Standart News daily. At the 2008 Prince of Asturias Award ceremony, he asked for two flags to be displayed in the hall: a French and a Bulgarian one.
At the University of Paris, the young man earned his doctorat de troisième cycle  (equivalent to Ph.D.) in 1966 and his doctorat dès lettres in 1970. He did his doctoral thesis with literary theorist Roland Barthes and in 1968 began work at Paris’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), where he headed its Research Centre for Arts and Language and was Director of Research until 2005. He taught at France’s École Pratique des Hautes Études, New York University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the University of California, Berkeley and was a visiting lecturer at universities in West Germany, Britain, Italy, Canada and Brazil, among other countries. In March 1997, he was named a Clark Fellow at Cornell University.
In his early works Todorov was a proponent of structuralism, a method of interpretation influenced by cultural anthropology that focuses on recurring patterns of thought and behaviour. He took particular interest in narrative study or narratology, but his greatest contribution to literary theory was his defining of the fantastic, the fantastic uncanny, and the fantastic marvelous. He examined the structural features in fantasy-based texts like The Arabian Nights and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Considering himself somewhat of an exile, he spent the last two decades of his life picking apart the myths that are embedded in the identities of nations, political groups and victims. By addressing topics once relegated entirely to anthropology and sociology, Todorov encouraged scholars to rethink the aims and boundaries of literary analysis.
He ranks among the finest of writers whose works have moved easily between literary theory and its application in critical readings of important historical narratives. He investigated the ways in which writing helps to consolidate prevailing attitudes about nationality, race, and foreignness. His 30-plus published books have been translated into 25 languages.
Todorov’s honours include the Bronze Medal of the CNRS, the Charles Lévêque Prize of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, the first Maugean Prize of the Académie Française and the 2008 Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences, the J.J. Rousseau Prize (Geneva), the European Essay Prize (Lausanne), the Spinoza Prize (Amsterdam), the Grinzane Cavour Prize (Turin) and the Mondello Prize (Palermo). He was member of the American Philosophical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an Officer of the French  Légion d’honneur and an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Tzvetan Todorov died in Paris on February 7, 2017, aged 77.
He became a French citizen in 1973. He married anthropologist Martine van Woerkens and, after their divorce, Canadian novelist and essayist Nancy Huston. That second marriage was dissolved in 2014. Todorov is survived by three children: a son, Boris, from his first marriage, and a daughter, Léa, and a son, Alexandre (Sacha), from the second.