A HISTORY OF MODERN FRENCH LITERATURE
Edited by Christopher Prendergast
reviewed by Alan Dent
reviewed by Alan Dent
In 1687, at the Académie Française, Charles Perrault read a poem: Le siècle de Louis le Grand. This pivotal moment in the Querelle des anciens et des modernes could be read also as a turning point in the history of French literature. Perrault’s piece (almost forgotten now, while Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood are among the best-known stories in the world) was intended to reveal the superiority of letters during the reign of Louis XIV to the venerated works of Greek and Roman antiquity. Perrault’s chief opponent was Boileau who had on his side no lesser figures than Racine and La Fontaine. Perrault had Fontenelle, nephew of the brothers Corneille, who though not a major writer provided an essential bridge between the retrospective outlook of Boileau and the revolution in thought effected by the 18th century philosophes (and not merely because he lived to within a month of his hundredth birthday). The debate was lively and at times bitter, but it produced a vast outpouring of tracts, pamphlets, poems, essays, many of them no longer of anything but peripheral interest, but at the time contributing to the engagement of a wide reading public in the argument; just what was needed, in fact, to ensure that the following century would be ready for the ferment of ideas the works of Voltaire, Diderot, Beaumarchais and others would unleash.
This history begins long before 1687. “Where the Anglo-Saxon tradition is drawn to empiricism, the French have an in-built taste for abstract thinking, that distillation of general ideas from the chaos of experience..” writes David Coward in The Frenchness of French Literature, an essay which charts, briefly and expertly the creation of the French nation, mind and sensibility. He points out there were no authors in the Middle Ages. Even those whose names emerged and endure are biographically obscure. Authors didn’t exist in the sense that there was no market for manuscripts (perhaps in contradistinction to today when there is nothing but a market). Even the printing revolution, often lazily cited as the beginning of a flourishing of publication, left all but the leisured with no opportunity to write. Marguerite de Navarre was Francois I’s sister. Montaigne disdained the idea the might write for money. Though by the start of the nineteenth century a few writers could make a fortune, it wasn’t till late in the century that the age of the professional writer was truly established.
Coward’s essay forms the second part of the introduction. The
first chapter, by Edwin. M. Duval, deals with Erasmus, who might be
described as an adoptive Frenchman. He belongs here because of his
pervasive influence. Perhaps
Moriae Ecomium (In Praise
of Folly) in particular, published in 1511, stands as his
lasting contribution to literature. His
(philosophy of Christ), the view that the ethics contained in the
message of Christ are enough; Old Testament doctrine and church
rituals are irrelevant. Erasmus was central to the various cultural,
intellectual and moral arguments of the French Renaissance. Had
Erasmus’s humanist values prevailed, who knows how different the
Rabelais was indebted
to his embattled predecessor, though his Renaissance humanism took a
more rambunctious form. His works were banned
by the Sorbonne and at its inception in 1559, the
Geuss makes an astute distinction between two definitions of the serious: that which is high-minded and poker-faced as opposed to that which is worthy of attention. Rabelais dispenses with the former and treats the latter with slapstick vulgarity. “Exuberance is one thing;” writes Geuss, “an almost transcendentally overweening self-will something completely different” in comparing Rabelais’s characters to Don Quixote. He makes the point that Cervantes is a more conformist writer than the Frenchman and is surely right in calling attention to the “dispiriting” ending of Cervantes’s major work. This in recognition that the age of Rabelais, More, Erasmus and Montaigne was short-lived. Their tolerance of doubt and ambiguity and their acceptance of what Rabelais called “a certain merriness of mind pickled in contempt for things fortuitous” gives way to the mentality of Hobbes and Cervantes; more ponderous, less joyous and more intolerant of uncertainty.
One of the architects of what Geuss calls “the road to
modernity” was the remarkable Marguerite de Navarre. Inevitably,
given the prejudice against women and the centuries of doors closed
against them, most of the writers dealt with are male. Due space and
respect, however, is devoted to those who, in spite of the odds,
made a vital contribution. Navarre’s most celebrated work, though
her writings were many and various, is the
modelled to a degree on Boccaccio and said to explore
“restless scenarios of unsatisfied desire”.A stranded group of
travellers, five men and five women, tell stories as they wait for
their means of return.
Whatever other qualities he may have had, Pierre Ronsard
(1524-85) wasn’t known for his modesty. In the preface to his first
book he dubbed himself: “the first French lyric author, who has led
the rest to the path of such honourable labour.” Educated in the
College de Navarre, Paris from the age of nine, he became the king’s
poet. His contemporary. Joachim du Bellay,(1522-60) was
significantly less prolific and influential. Ronsard imitated
Pindar’s poetics: the classic triad of strophe, antistrophe and
epode. Similarly, originality lay not in saying something new, but
in reiterating the themes of the ancients. Ronsard and du Bellay
intended to establish a tradition through borrowings, enfold it in
genres and prosodic rules and
have it meld with the politics and culture of the
If Montaigne (1533-1592) originated the essay, Moliere (1622-1673) brought modernity to the stage. The former, as Desan’s recent biography has shown, was not the withdrawn thinker of legend, but almost a writer by default, giving up late on public life and devoting himself to his literary endeavours during only the last four years of his life. His genius was self-defensive: he elaborated a form in which he seemed to be merely ruminating, talking to himself, turning a few vagrant ideas around in his head in order to address a wide range of fundamental questions. His technique was never to nail his colours too firmly to the mast, to always be able to retreat to the position of a good Christian and loyal servant of the monarch, who had let his imagination run away with him. As Timothy Hampton puts it: “Because the essays are a forum for testing the writer’s judgment, they must necessarily remain open-ended.” He was quoted by Shakespeare and Emerson is his inheritor. The essays remain pertinent today. He considered wisdom “gay and sociable”. It is this rooting of his thought in pleasant attention to the world around him, including his own sensations, which makes his work appealing.
“When you depict heroes,” wrote Jean-Baptiste Coquelin, better known as Molière, you do what you like.” Heroes are the stuff of tragedy. They take on a superhuman aura. They don’t have to exhibit common human foibles or look in any way ridiculous. Molière preferred comedy, which as everyone knows, deals with people as they are, not as they should be. All the same, Molière was a normative humanist. In his great plays, Tartuffe, Don Juan, Le Misanthrope and L’Ēcole des Femmes, he shows us characters who exceed the boundaries of the reasonable the better to encourage us to remain within them. Excess greeted his plays. L’Ēcole des Femmes, with its clear nods to sex and its scatological references launched an outpouring of both vilification and support. Molière was persona non grata in the church. He had to be buried in secret, at night. The theatre was, of course, viewed by the self-advertising pious as thoroughly immoral. Molière understood its power as a mocker of hypocrisy. He has Don Juan declare: “..hypocrisy is a privileged vice whose hand shuts everyone’s mouth..”
Christopher Braider argues that Molière’s modernity lies in
his defence of “hard-won secular pleasures and liberties on which
both the authority and well-being of the modern state
Molière was an enemy of hypocrisy, but he poked fun too at the notion that we can live without it. Alceste, who would have us always speak the absolute truth (as if we know it) is unable to accept that social conventions of politeness and restraint are a benefit. Without them human relations would descend to bestiality. Molière is modern in his anticipation of the democratic and liberal sensibility which embraces principle but accepts the inherent flaws in character. His is a balanced, sane perspective which remains fresh and will always will.
When President Sarkosy suggested that studying
La Princesse de Clèves
was a waste of time, protesters took to the streets. His
philistinism chimes with the times, but the protesters surely had
the better of the argument. Published in 1678, authored by Madame de
Lafayette, the novel is set in 1558. Its subject is love and power.
At its heart, as Katherine Ibbett points out, is gossip and
eavesdropping; hardly surprising given the author’s familiarity with
court circles and intrigues. Salons were places of conversation. The
novel is subtle in its recognition of how in conversation we are
revealed to ourselves (perhaps something to reflect on in this age
of distant, electronic communication). It is a masterpiece of
concision in a time when much fiction was overblown. By placing
conversation at its heart it pointed to demotic possibilities.
Conversation often contains a great deal of irrelevance, but tone
does the serious work. People say much more than they know (
something Joe Orton built a style from) and garner much more than
they’re aware of.
Ambulo ergo sum
wrote Gassendi in response to Descartes. Utter seriousness on the
one hand, jokiness on the other. Eric Méchoulan points up a kindred
duality: the co-existence of moralists and libertines in seventeenth
Voltaire (1694-1778) too engages in some fantastic invention.
His works are extraordinarily voluminous but for many readers he is
the author of Candide,
one of the most influential novels (if it can be called a novel) in
the world. Published in 1759 it has never been out of print.
“Panglossian” is a common adjective and “pour encourager les autres”
widely quoted, not to mention “Let’s eat some Jesuit!” There were
seventeen printings and three translations into English during 1759.
Voltaire was already, of course, one of the most famous names in
Candide is derived from candidus (white) and is therefore a nod to John Locke’s conception of the mind as a blank slate on which experience writes its tale. The corollary of this idea (mistaken though we now know it to be) was that knowledge must be empirically based, rather than the product of revelation or innate ideas. Voltaire is spiking Leibniz’s philosophical optimism, the view, allied to the doctrine of final causes (we have noses so we can rest our spectacles on them) iterated over and over that “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Pope gave the notion glib expression in the Essay on Man (1734):
“And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite
It also underpins some of the thinking in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). If nothing is random or malicious in God’s universe, if everything that looks evil is merely, as Smith puts it a “partial evil” because it must serve the ultimate good of the creator’s teleology, then there can be no evil under the sun. Voltaire is too disabused to believe such pap ( just as he responded to the Ecstasy of St Theresa by remarking that if that was her ecstasy, he knew it well.)
When Cacambo asks Candide what optimism is, as his master is on the verge of renouncing Pangloss’s assumptions, the reply comes:
“,,it’s the mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.”
Perhaps it is this which keeps the novel up-to-date. All writers who matter succeed in touching on elements of what it means to be human which never change. Voltaire did it more than most and Nicholas Cronk’s essay is full of insight and original observation on this crucial figure.
There is one eighteenth century French novel almost everyone has heard of: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782). Unfortunately, some of the interest is more salacious than literary. Laclos retreats to the boudoir the better to spike public morals. His concern is abuse. He is the enemy of manipulative sexual relations, and by extension of manipulative relations per se. The novel is set in the aristocratic world, one where raw power reigns. Power likes to operate behind closed doors. It wasn’t until the following century that the bourgeois concern with the visible, public world fully replaced the aristocratic preoccupation with private spaces. Laclos inherits something from Marivaux’s Le Paysan parvenu (1735) described by Pierre Saint-Amand as “a novel of transistion”. It is a curtailed picaresque in the sense that the concatenation of adventures becomes internalized and, as Saint-Amand observes, engenders a psychological novel. Crébillon’s Les égarements du Coeur et de l’esprit (1738) illustrates the tension between public and private space. The public, official world is essentially stripped of passion, so lovers must find their own, somewhat hole-and-corner spaces. In a way, this is nothing more than a study in hypocrisy, but at the same time it develops the exploration of the psychology of seduction which would be vital to Laclos. The radical disjuncture in fiction took place in 1761 with the publication of Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloise. Rousseau effectively destroyed the ethos of aristocratic manipulation, the idea that relations between the sexes are always a power play in which the actors have one eye on themselves and one on the way they are viewed in the social hierarchy. He brought sexual relations into the light of emerging bourgeois practice. Saint-Prieux must become a friend of to Julie’s household to have access to her. He encounters her as a mother, amongst her children. The boudoir gives way to the drawing-room. Of course, Rousseau also has to have his characters spend time in nature, even if the tamed nature of Julie’s orchard. Rousseau enthrones the family and dispenses with the bed of illicit encounters. That his enormously successful novel pre-dated Laclos’s by twenty years, doesn’t make it any the less a watershed. Rousseau was anticipating the moral atmosphere of the nineteenth century, Laclos looking back on that of the eighteenth. Later than both (1799) came de Sade’s Juliette. “I never sleep so soundly as when I have….befouled myself with what our fools call crimes..” declares Dolmancé. Sade is the high-priest of sexual psychopathology. He adumbrates what Steven Marcus in his classic study called “pornutopia”. A world where there is nothing but one debased desire after another and from which, inevitably, three things are absent: love, pregnancy and children. The physical mechanics of sex divorced from affection and reproduction are what create the fantasy world of Sade’s characters. Women in Sade’s universe are mere devices for male relief, but Saint-Amand draws attention to two female writers who, seizing on the space hacked out by Julie, drove the novel in a direction which would permit a full exploration of women’s experience. Isabelle de Charrière (1740-1805) and Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758) both raise women from the bed of male desire, release them from the boudoir and the bourgeois bedroom and explore their malcontentedness, pushing aside male assumptions about their role and asserting the complexity of their feelings and the power of their intellect. Neither of these writers is as famous as Laclos. Their work deserves fuller studies and ought to be required reading for undergraduates in French.
Catriona Seth focuses on the women who made a significant
contribution to the French Enlightenment: Olympe de Gouges, Marie Le
prince de Beaumont, Louise d’Epinay, Félicité de Genlis, Julie de
Lespinasse (who features as a major character in
Le rêve de d’Alembert),
Jean-Marie Philipon, and, perhaps the most influential among her
gender, Germaine de Staël. She was the daughter of a highly gifted
woman who might have been a writer of some importance had she not
renounced her artistic activities on marrying Jacques Necker, the
foxy financier who became Louis XVI’s most important minister and
whose decisions helped trigger the events of 1789. Staël’s
Corinne, explores the
impossibility of women fulfilling their natures in a culture which
refuses them common standards. Frustrated in both her attempts to
develop her intellectual and social possibilities and her love life,
her heroine dies a virtuous but thwarted woman. Influential though
the novel was, it’s arguable that
De la littérature (1800)
l’Allemagne (1813) were
Staël’s most lasting accomplishments. They were crucial in defining
modernity both by stressing the importance of northern melancholy to
the modern sensibility and by bringing the principles of German
Romanticism to the attention of the French. Exiled from
“It is a strange enterprise to make respectable people laugh” remarked Molière. In the eighteenth century two French dramatists succeeded: Marivaux (1688-1763) and Beaumarchais (1732-99). The censor was never far away and offence could result in prison. Yet, as Susan Maslan remarks, “No one wants to be ridiculous, not even the wicked.” Moral turpitude must always cloak itself in pretended virtue because we are wired for universal values. Intuitively we know Christ is a better human being than Caesar. It’s because we know that kindness is superior to cruelty, generosity to meanness, equality of social relations to exploitation, cooperation to coercion that the sight of bad people trying to maintain an outward dignity is so funny. Marivax and Beaumarchais make ample use of the master servant relation. The servant is a metaphor for the lower orders of the ancient regime. Ninety percent of the French population were peasants. Of those, ninety percent lived at subsistence level. Domestic service was the recourse of men who had no land to work and women who had no dowry. Servants were often addressed not by their given name, but by the name of the province from which they came.
Marivaux’s characters lack any clearly defined social relations, They are aristocrats or peasants, and that’s all. This is very different from Molière where family relations provide the setting for the struggle of virtue against vice. Widows had a good currency in eighteenth century French drama because they were effectively the only women in the society of the time who had independence. Wives were legally minors. Yet Marivaux grants almost all his female characters a significant degree of independence. Silvia, the heroine of Le jeu de l’amour et de l’hasard (1730), his most famous and enduring play, is remarkably autonomous. She is permitted to choose her husband. She disguises herself as her maid in order or observe her love interest, Dorante, unaware that he has disguised himself as his valet for the same purpose. Thus, they find themselves mutually attracted to people of low social station. This represents a clever dissolution of the false identity of social hierarchy and the exposure of true character. Yet it was Beaumarchais who took this further by moving out of the personal realm in which Marivaux tends to work and into the public, political sphere where power thwarts love and virtue.
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was a remarkable individual. His family was talented and happy. He invented a watch escapement still in use today. His greatest invention though was Figaro. Beaumarchais was known as fils Caron (the final n was not pronounced). His hero bears his name, thinly disguised. Like his creation, the playwright had to outwit power. It took six years of struggle before Le Mariage de Figaro could be staged, and its triumph was a defeat for Louis XVI. Beaumarchais is remembered widely for only two plays: Le Mariage (1778) and Le Barbier de Seville (1775). Nevertheless, his influence on European drama is potent and the later of these two works helped to bring down the ancient regime. Figaro is arguably the most subversive character in European literature. He has no conscious political ideology, which is one of the reasons for his radicalism. He has to circumvent the Count Almaviva in order to live. Therefore, he is not acting according to some externally imposed doctrine, but from his deepest needs. He succeeds through guile, which engenders the moral complexity of the play. Is he justified in his deceptions and tricks?
The argument from ends is easily made: he is pursuing goals which uphold impersonal values and common standards: people should be free to choose their partners; aristocrats should not have the right to demand sex. What flows from this, of course, undermines the ancient regime at its core. The elites are not superior. Almaviva merely “took the trouble to be born” as Figaro remarks. Yet, though the ends are universally applicable and therefore consonant with real moral values, are the means? Is it right to employ deceit in order to defeat unjust power? The argument in favour is that Figaro has no possibility of negotiating with Almaviva whose values are beyond moral defence because they refuse impersonal values and common standards and do not admit of universalisation. His only possible strategy is to out manoeuvre and if that involves tactics of deceit, those can be universalised: anyone facing the tyranny of absolute power would be justified in escaping through guile. To lie to tyrants to protect the innocent is a moral value which can stand scrutiny.
Le mariage is a funny, witty and morally complex play. There are few works of drama about which we can say that without them the course of theatre history would have been different, but this play is one of them. Figaro remains, in our world of too many tyrants, a model of how to respond to them.
“Philosophes are a breed who are anathema to powerful men to whom they refuse to kneel. They are anathema to magistrates, the licensed defenders of the very abuses philosophes attack; anathema to priests, who rarely see them bow their heads at their altars; anathema to poets, those unprincipled men who stupidly regard philosophie as taking a hammer to art, not to mention the ones who engage in the odious practice of satire and have therefore never been anything but vile flatterers; anathema to the people who are permanently enslaved by the tyrants who oppress them, the rogues who cheat them, and the jesters who keep them amused.”
Thus, Diderot in Jacques le
fataliste (1780). Kate E. Tunstall proposes Diderot as the
central figure of the Enlightenment. In the above definition of the
philosophe he effectively brought into existence the committed
intellectual, subservient to neither person nor creed, enemy of all
forms of sycophancy and time-serving, unafraid to challenge
assumptions and received ideas, free-ranging and independent.
Diderot was imprisoned for three and a half months and released only
when he signed an undertaking not to pen any more subversive work (a
promise he, of course, didn’t keep
- like Figaro, he had to outwit his persecutors). As editor
of the monumental
Encyclopédie he created one of the most astonishing intellectual
feats of modern
“None shall have wit save us and our friends” says Armande in Les femmes savantes. The criticism levelled at Diderot and his fellow philosophes was that they set themselves up as an elite. Palissot attacked them in his play Les philosophes (1760) as did Moreau in 1757, seeing them as enemies of the church, patriotism and all things French. The counter was the creation of the figure of the pauvre diable (miserable wretch). Making his appearance in Voltaire’s play Le café ou l’Ecossaise, he haunts bohemian cafes where he advertises his neglect and promotes his scribbling. He is a hired pen, a Grub Street hack more interested in attention that will flatter his ego than the serious work the philosophes engage in as they play down the figure of the writer.
Tunstall devotes a fair portion of her essay to an analysis of Le neveu de Rameau, a work which influenced Hegel and thus his inheritors, concluding, that in spite of its spiking of the pauvre diable and his ilk, it evades simplistic interpretations and is perhaps, as a product of the Enlightenment, at the same time, its most potent criticism.
On 25th February 1830 a near-riot occurred at the Comédie Française on the occasion of the performance of Hugo’s Hernani. The conflict was between supporters of Hugo as the leader of the Romantic movement and the defenders of neo-classicism. There was a factitious element to the whole business as the claque was, as ever, in play ie a group of paid spectators required to applaud or jeer as their paymasters dictated. Nevertheless, it’s worth reflecting that challenging art usually elicits passionate opposition and sometimes support. Ibsen was met by riots, as was Sean O’Casey (his depiction of a prostitute on stage outraged middle-class Dubliners who claimed there were no such creatures in their country.) We live in era when art that is not easily and quickly accepted is denigrated. Nothing points more decisively to the timidity of artists. If people aren’t walking out of theatres or protesting at what is being staged, theatre has lost its way.
There is an irony in this event having attended a drama as the nineteenth century was pre-eminently that of the novel. Poetry, of course, held a high place, but it was through Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Zola that the novel became the form which most pertinently engaged with the nature of French life of the period. Aleksander Stevic considers the first two, Peter Brooks writes about Flaubert and his masterpiece, Madame Bovary (Flaubert wrote only two supremely good works, Bovary and Les Trois Contes – like Beaumarchais he is a reminder that climbing high is more important than running far), but there is no chapter on Zola. Both Balzac and Stendhal examine the nature of ambition and success under nineteenth century French capitalism. Rastignac and Julien Sorel are trying to make their way. This is the world delivered by 1789, the arena of the career open to talent, the period then when identity, selfhood, become entangled in the struggle of each against all for money and place. Flaubert occupies slightly different territory. Emma Bovary is destroyed by money but Flaubert’s focus is on her inner life. Like Don Quixote her mind has been formed in naïve sentimentalism partly by reading the wrong things ( a lesson to those who claim reading anything is better than reading nothing at all). Flaubert is unsurpassed in depicting how her inner world is constructed from the tawdry, cheap, exploitative, manipulative, deluded culture of her society. It is this culture which kills her. A meticulous stylist, in contrast to the careless prodigality of Balzac, Flaubert created the most devastating critique of the capitalism of his time by showing, not what it does to classes, but how it wrecks individuals.
The poetry of the century is reviewed by Clive Scott in his study of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine. Baudelaire was an astonishing innovator and a brilliant technician. He took part in the revolution of 1848 and was the first thoroughly urban poet. Alert to how the creation of an urban, capitalist culture was transforming sensibility, he set about defining it and bringing it to life. Essentially neurotic, it has lost Diderot’s confidence. Shifting, unstable, weak, tormented, constantly fighting upwards, it is essentially sickly. Baudelaire defined its negative pole as Spleen: “It is the ailing body that undermines the spirit and the will, or it is spiritual cowardice that exhausts the body, I have no idea. But what I do feel is an immense discouragement, an intolerable sense of isolation, a perpetual fear of some vague misfortune, a complete lack of trust in my own powers, a total absence of desire, the impossibility of finding any amusement whatsoever…That is the true spirit of spleen.” Its positive pole was the Ideal. It doesn’t require much imagination to see these as akin to the extremes of the bipolar personality. Baudelaire was very fond of the exclamation mark. His poetry is superbly achieved, but it is the poetry which explores a culture which has destroyed the possibility of the normative humanism Molière and Diderot believed in.
Rimbaud and Verlaine write differently from Baudelaire, but they live in his shadow. They two are master writers, but doomed individuals. The influence of their tormented identities ( from which French poetry emerged fully only with the arrival of Prévert) still resonates through much contemporary poetry.
Proust had difficulty getting published. His three-thousand-page novel pulls the rug from the feet of fiction as narrative. It has been said that if you want to understand psychoanalysis you should read Proust rather than Freud. At the core of Proust’s enterprise is his observation that “reality takes shape in the memory alone”. Readers who don’t accept this, as Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t, will find the book a little unconvincing. The famous petite madeleine episode is a mere beginning. Proust is intent on exploring consciousness from every angle: hence his convoluted sentences with their shifting time perspectives. Sartre said he and de Beauvoir had put Proust behind them. They sought a way of writing which recognised the other, which saw identity as a social relation. Their reason for distancing themselves has some validity, but perhaps a more potent criticism is that Proust validates in his style the aristocratic pretentions he is trying to spike. His style lacks any demotic feel. He was, of course, a social climber, a man who, like Emma Bovary, dreamed of belonging to the aristocratic elite. He can ironize the snobbery of the class he aspires to, but that doesn’t cancel his aspiration. Crucial to a sensible reading is Proust’s sharp distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory. The former is intellectual and deliberate, the latter takes us by surprise and makes us aware of how what we had consciously recalled is quite different from what we now realize. In this sense, Proust is right: reality is shaped by memory alone which implies that our anticipations of the future are likely to be shaped by fantasy.
Quite unlike Proust is Céline ( the name adopted by Louis Fernand Auguste Destouches because it was that of his maternal grandmother). Voyage au bout de la Nuit is narrated by Ferdinand Bardamu in what the author called his petite musique: a version of spoken French derived partly from Zola but highly original in its evocation of emotion through the syntax and vocabulary of the street. The novel covers fifteen years of Bardamu’s coming and goings to and from Paris. He experiences the insanity of the First World War whose barbarity the book depicts in graphic detail (Céline was assisted in this, of course, by his medical training). Bardamu meets another appalled, disaffected soldier, Léon Robinson who will be murdered after peregrinations to Africa and the USA. Bardamu recognizes that the rich have apportioned themselves the pleasant parts of Paris and that the rest is “merde”. He becomes a doctor in a poor area of the city. The book evokes poignantly the moral attrition of poverty. Here and there are moments of kindness and relief, but the air of degradation never dissipates. Céline is without peer in his understanding of how the dispiriting burden of poverty robs people of the power to understand or improve their condition. He was controversial, of course, because of his rancid anti-Semitism and support for the Nazis. As a citizen, he lacked the courage he had as a writer for which Samuel Becket, with typical understatement, called him “a bit foolish.”
Steven Ungar treats of Céline and Malraux in the same chapter. He makes a glancing reference to Simenon. Of course, there is no place in a book of this kind for a sub-literary genre like crime fiction. The name indicates its commercial orientation: a crime novel is not a novel in which crime takes place: Julien Sorel tries to murder Mme de Renal but Stendhal is no crime writer. Crime fiction is essentially an advertising slogan. No crime writer ever put pen to paper with no concern for sales. This is what makes it sub-literary: it can be judged by extra-literary values. Real literature can be judged only by literary values. A great novel can have poor sales. A crime novel that has poor sales is a failure. Nor has crime fiction ever produced a writer of the status of Flaubert or Molière or Voltaire.
Céline and Malraux are very different writers. Ungar treats them together because he believes they shed light on the relation between the novel and politics during the 1930s. Malraux was criticized by Trotsky for failing, in Les Conquérants to recognize the role of the Bolsheviks in preventing the 1927 Shanghai uprising from becoming a revolution and in failing to establish an affinity between himself and his heroine: Revolution. Trotsky was sunk in ideology and couldn’t see the wood of reality for the trees of theory. Malraux, as Ungar points out, is not a political novelist. His concern is identity. Tch’en Ta Erh, ( a central character in La Condition Humaine) Ungar observes, commits political murder not simply because he is ordered to by his comrades but as a means of “absolute self-possession”. It is in extreme situations that our human condition is brought starkly into focus. Part of the essence of our condition is death. Death is inevitable but it can be chosen. Tch’en kills himself by exploding a bomb he is carrying as he throws himself under a car he believes to be carrying Chiang Kai-Shek. Is this an attempt to deny the arbitrary nature of death, to control life by choosing how to die? The irony is that the car turns out no to have been carrying the leader. If Tch’en believes he is giving his life meaning by dying in an act of assassination, he is deluded.
In a similar way, Maraux shows how political violence drives its perpetrators to extreme isolation. Equally ironic as the death of Tch’en: people working collectively for a collective end, become pathologically isolated because of the means they choose. Malraux focuses on revolutionary intellectuals, ostensibly acting on behalf of a depressed, alienated working class, the miserable, defeated poor of Céline’s Voyage, but in fact distanced from them. Ungar explores the responses of Walter Benjamin, Trotsky, Bataille and Nizan to the relationship between fiction and politics, particularly that of the radical left. He argues that the success of Troyat’s L’araigne (The Spider 1938) marked a retreat, a return to the domestic and to psychological exploration. The Popular Front collapsed. The Vichy regime arrived. Benjamin and others had invested exorbitant expectations in the novel as a means of political change. Neither Céline nor Malraux had either the intention or the capacity to change France the through novel-writing.
Though he coined the much misused term “surrealism”, Apollinaire isn’t granted a chapter. Mary Ann Caws writes about Breton and Char. Nadja (1928) is her principal focus as far as the former goes. Whimsical and sentimental (Léona Delcourt ho served as the model was a troubled, unstable woman ended up in an asylum) Breton’s work exemplifies the division in his character: he was known as The Pope of Surrealism for his readiness to excommunicate members of the surrealist fraternity, while at the same time proselytising for a Freudian freeing of the unconscious. Breton was Parisian, Car belonged to Provence. Char was close to Elurad who left the surrealists for the Communist Party ( a leap from the frying pan of the unguarded and involuntary into the fire of the excessively controlling). Some of Char’s poetry was set to music by Boulez and his influence on poetry in Europe and the USA has been significant. He was a man of stern principle who refuses “the profit of being a poet”. Caws argues that both Breton and Char were non-conformists, but perhaps Breton displayed a rather more conformist way of not confirming than his contemporary.
Mary Gallagher has a chapter on Césaire whose Cahier d’un retour au pays natalwas a key work in the creation of negritude. Soyinka didn’t like the latter, saying, “ a tiger does not declare its tigritude”. Césaire was a practising politician as well as a writer. His work forced the definition of French literature to expand. After the Cahier it could no longer be confined to the hexagon. Sartre recognised that once voices like this were allowed to speak, what they said was bound to be disturbing. Christopher Prendergast, as well as editing this superb study, contributes an excellent essay on La nausée. Its central character, Roquentin, is beset by contingency-sickness. Prendergast includes a reference to Boris Vian’s very funny L’écume des jours, which pokes irreverent fun at Sartre’s seriousness. Can Roquentin’s disturbance bear the philosophical weight it is required to bear, or is it more a sign of psychopathology occasioned by the alienating conditions of modern life? Prendergast concludes that the book sites us where we are: in the “era of suspicion”, but he recognizes too its “fundamental incoherence”. Why should the experience of contingency make us sick? Why not joyous? That curious existential angst about the universe not giving off meaning underpins the book. Yet, as Freud pointed out, to ask about the meaning of life is to be neurotic, for it is our lives as individuals that have meaning.
The final two chapters deal with Beckett and Djebar. Beckett’s relation to French language and culture is considered, substantially through comparison of his French and English versions. Beckett wanted to write without style, but he achieved the opposite. His ambition was derived from Flaubert who wanted to write a book about nothing which would hold together only by the internal force of its style. It was somewhat adolescent. Ironically, Beckett’s style is inimitable. He is one of the most recognisable stylists of the twentieth century. A linguistic, literary and dramatic genius, he was marked by a supercilious defensive mentality derived from his coldly Protestant upbringing and his relationship with Joyce. His work seeks for the absolute it can never attain. Yet it expresses too his compassion, tenderness and humour. The shame is people ask what Godot means instead of laughing and crying at it.
Assia Djebar (a pen-name, her real name was Fatima Zohra Imalayène) was born in 1936 and published her first novel in 1962. A key figure in the development of francophone literature, her most famous work is L’amour, la fantasia (1985). Nichola Harrison explores the ambiguity of the term francophone. No one calls Beckett a francophone writer, though he wasn’t born in France. Is the word implicitly demeaning? Djebar writes about colonialism, but her work is subtle and raises the question of what is biographical, what historical. Harrison is concerned to examine what francophone literature might be, rather than to analyse Djebar’s work. She resisted being confined to a category. The people who create categories control those they assign to them. Djebar had to write about the violent colonial past from which she came, but she was astute about not permitting her work to be classed under a heading which would diminish its originality and power. She is a superb writer, hardy known in Britain, but her work is available in English. There is no excuse.
Objections can always be raised to what is excluded from a study of this kind. It is a history not the history. The absence of Apollinaire and Prévert may disappoint those who recognize their seminal place. Yet, by any standards, this is a marvellous book. Any young person intending to study French at university would be well advised to spend a couple of weekends reading it. Many who graduated in French decades ago will find their enthusiasm renewed. Those who don’t read French will find a guide here which can allow them to find their way to some of the world’s best writers in translation. Above all, what you will find here is the history of the high-minded search for truth by some of the greatest minds Europe, or indeed the world, has produced. It is a thoroughly humanizing read.