The twentieth century: the age of transgression

French Literature - A Beginner’s Guide - Carol Clark 2011

The twentieth century: the age of transgression

One of the most admired French writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was François Coppée (1842—1908). François who? Exactly. The author of thirteen collections of poetry, seventeen performed plays, many of them at the Comédie-Française (Sarah Bernhardt made her debut in his Le Passant) and six volumes of assorted prose, mostly autobiographical, Coppée is now completely forgotten. It would be safe to say that more people in a year now read the seven brief parodies of his verse written, and no doubt forgotten, by the seventeen-year-old Rimbaud than anything by Coppée himself.

To begin to understand why, we could read the entry on him in the Encyclopedia Britannica for 1911. The author says that Coppée ’concerned himself with the plainest expressions of human emotion, with elemental patriotism, with the joy of young love and the pitifulness (sic) of the poor, bringing to each a singular gift of sympathy and insight’ (in his lifetime in France he was known as ’le poète des humbles’). The author admits that Coppée can be sentimental and even trivial, but ends his appreciation with the words, ’by neglecting that canon of contemporary art which would reduce the deepest tragedies of life to mere subjects for dissection’ (he means Naturalism) ’[Coppée] won those common suffrages that are the prize of exquisite literature’.

Rimbaud wrote his verses in the autograph book of a disorderly dining club calling itself the Cercle Zutiste (Zut, a word that is meaningless but considered vulgar, is an expression either of annoyance or, as probably here, defiance). The album contains parodies and obscene rhymes and drawings by various members of the club, including Verlaine. The entire book (Album zutique) was published in facsimile in 1962. Rimbaud’s parodies are cruelly accurate imitations of Coppée’s manner, all but one in his preferred form, the dixain (poem of ten lines), and on such ’humble’ subjects as a lavatory brush, a pissoir or a sex manual. He cannot have imagined that they would ever see the light of day. But twentieth-century readers, at any rate those considering themselves readers of ’literature’, came to look down upon ’plain expressions of human emotion’ (let alone patriotism of the Coppée sort — he was a virulent supporter of the anti-Dreyfus party), and instead to admire transgression, whether in life or art.

Half a century of war

The twentieth century was, for France, the century of two further invasions by Germany. The first of these led to a four-year war in which a million and a half Frenchmen died, as well as more than a million British Empire and Dominion troops and a hundred thousand Americans. (The figures for Frenchmen include some eighty thousand colonial troops who either volunteered or were drafted to fight for the mother country. Having lost her first empire in the eighteenth century, France had acquired another in the later nineteenth and early twentieth, before losing it again slowly and painfully in the 1950s.) The 1914—18 war was to have been, everyone hoped, ’The War to End Wars’, in soldiers’ parlance ’la der des ders’ (dernière des dernières, last of the last). Yet by 1938 it was becoming clear that war was on the way again, and in September 1939 it broke out. Having struck a secret deal with Soviet Russia, Hitler invaded Poland, which Britain and France had sworn to defend. But nothing happened (except to the Poles) for a few months, until in May 1940 German troops rolled with terrifying speed through the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, heading for the French frontier. The French army, badly led and depleted by 1914—18, could not withstand the onslaught, and in June 1940, with 100,000 men already killed and two million taken prisoner, the French government sued for peace. An armistice was signed on 22 June and a new regime was put in place, led, from Vichy in central France, by the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain, revered hero of the 1914—18 war. The Germans occupied the north of France, leaving the south as a so-called zone libre, which stayed free, of course, only so long as the Vichy regime followed German orders. In 1942 German direct rule was extended to the whole of France. By this time an active resistance movement of men and women was secretly at work in many parts of the country, and a nucleus of soldiers and airmen who had managed to escape to Britain, either directly or via the colonies not occupied by the Germans, had joined the Free French forces led from London by General de Gaulle. These forces fought bravely alongside the much more numerous British and American armies after D-Day, and were allowed the symbolic victory of being the first Allied troops to enter Paris on 25 August 1944.

These two great wars, especially the First, naturally gave rise to a great deal of writing. As most of France was not occupied in the First World War, patriotic literature aimed at the home front could be and was published and sold in great quantity. Little of that writing is now read or even remembered. The only ’First World War Poet’ writing in French who is still widely read is Guillaume Apollinaire (born Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitsky, 1880—1918), a Paris-based Pole who fought with the French army from 1914, received a serious head wound in 1916, which did not completely stop him writing, and died in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918. His most important collections are Alcools (1913), poetry written between 1898 and the year of publication, and Calligrammes (1918), which includes his poetry written in the trenches between 1914 and 1916, but also much poetry on other topics, particularly love (many of the ’war’ poems are also love poems). The ’calligrammes’ of the title are a score of visual poems, where the letters of the text are set out in the form of pictures related to the title. In ’Il pleut’, for example, they are trickling down the page like rain down a window. Apollinaire was a close friend of many of the Cubist painters, and along with other art journalism published essays on their work in Les Peintres cubistes (1913).

The period 1895 to 1914 is often referred to as ’la Belle Epoque’ (the Good Time), a nostalgic phrase that came into use during the First World War. The years 1918 to 1931 (from the Armistice to the Great Depression) are called ’les Années Folles’ — the Crazy Years. This was a time when France admitted foreign — chiefly American — cultural influences to a degree never seen before. The cinema had been invented in France, and French companies, notably Pathé and Gaumont, had played an important part in its early development. But the power of American capital (put together to a large extent by recent immigrants from Europe) and the year-round sunlight of California were too much for any European national industry to compete with, and by the end of the First World War, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Tom Mix were international cultural icons. American troops stationed in France had brought ragtime and jazz with them, and soon French youth was dancing ’le one-step’ and later ’le charleston’. The emblematic figure of ’les Années Folles’ is Josephine Baker, the nineteen-year-old Afro-American dancer who came to Paris in 1925 to appear in the ’Revue Nègre’ (sic) and stayed to become a star of French music hall and in due course a resistance worker decorated with the Légion d’honneur. Dress, and social life in general, became much more relaxed in the 1920s. If one watches a French film of this period it is striking that whereas the middle-aged and elderly men still look Victorian, with dark clothes, starched high collars, waxed moustaches and/or beards, the young men are clean shaven, with soft collars and lighter, looser fitting clothes, while the young women have bobbed hair and — most shocking — knee-length skirts. The impact on the older generation — particularly those who had lost sons in the War — was considerable. Simone de Beauvoir (1908—86) in her Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Well-Behaved Girl, 1958) gives a good account of growing up as the daughter of an upper-middle-class family at this period of change.


The literary movement most associated with the 1920s is Surrealism, which of course was not purely a literary movement: Surrealists were active in painting (Dalí, Miró, Max Ernst, Magritte) and the cinema (Buñuel), and refused to recognize boundaries between the arts, or indeed between art and the chance occurrences of life. The leading French Surrealist poets were Pierre Reverdy (born 1889) and the somewhat younger group of Louis Aragon (also a novelist), André Breton, Paul Eluard and Philippe Soupault, all born between 1895 and 1897. The Surrealists sought total freedom, from bourgeois social conventions and traditional artistic forms, but strangely enough attempted to found an organized movement with manifestoes, group discipline, expulsions and so forth. One is reminded of Jarry’s Ubu enchaîné, in which the Free Men meet daily for Freedom Drill, forming ranks to disobey the orders of their corporal. In fact Jarry was one of the earlier writers the Surrealists most admired and saw as their forerunner, along with Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud and the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont, born Isidore Ducasse (1846—70), a nineteenth-century failed student who had his wild prose poems (Les Chants de Maldoror) printed at his own expense in 1868, followed by Poésies (also in prose) shortly before his death in 1870. (These writings remained perfectly unknown to the literary or any other world until a Belgian little magazine published some extracts from Maldoror in 1885, and some symbolists, including Jarry, began to take notice of them). What all these writers have in common is being what Verlaine called ’poètes maudits’ (poets under a curse): unconventional in their behaviour (in Nerval’s case to the point of periodic clinical insanity) and in their writings; pursuing altered states of consciousness and dying young: Nerval at 47 by suicide, Baudelaire at 46, probably of tertiary syphilis, Rimbaud at 37 of cancer after a life of privations in the East African deserts, Jarry at 34 of meningitis after years of alcoholism, Lautréamont at 24, probably of tuberculosis, but little is known of his life. There is something to be said for the idea that Surrealism was the last gasp of Romanticism. (It would perhaps be cynical to note that most of the Surrealists lived to a ripe old age: Aragon to 85, Soupault to 93, Breton to a more modest 70 and Dalí to 85, the latter two having sat out the Second World War in New York).

The Surrealists wished to break the control of the conscious mind, rationality and the superego (this was the time when Freud’s ideas were becoming current among intellectuals), and to set free the power of the unconscious. One way they tried to do this was by ’automatic writing’: sitting down in front of the paper and managing to make one’s mind a complete blank, so that the hand moved independently of conscious control, producing texts that, they hoped, would surprise the author as much as any eventual reader. Texts produced by this and other methods (some strangely like English pencil-and-paper games such as ’Consequences’) were shared within the group. But most texts published by the Surrealist writers were produced by more conventional means.

One of their favoured themes was the very Romantic one of ’amour fou’: wild, unreasoning love, often provoked by a stranger. Surrealist poets made heavy use of imagery, the more spontaneous and incongruous the better: Breton defined surrealism in poetry thus: ’le vice appelé surréalisme consiste en l’emploi déréglé et passionnel du stupéfiant image’ (the vice called surrealism consists of the unbridled, passionate use of the drug imagery). They loved incongruity in general: it was Max Ernst who first made fanciful, sometimes unnerving collages (much imitated in later years) by cutting and pasting unrelated images from old illustrated books — sometimes commercial catalogues. They despised the established institution called ’literature’: the title of their magazine Littérature (Figure 6) was ironically intended. A definition of the beautiful much quoted by surrealists came from Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror: ’beau comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie’ (beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella). In the original, this wild simile, along with others equally bizarre, is applied to the blond English boy being stalked by the monster-hero.

In politics, the Surrealists were drawn towards the extremes: mostly to the left, and an important part of the history of the Surrealist movement, indeed of French literature in general until about 1970, concerns its relations with national and international communism. The French Communist Party was formed in 1920 by splitting off from the then Socialist party. Communists and Surrealists shared little beyond their hostility to the bourgeoisie, since the Party stressed duty and discipline and indeed enjoined rather a strait-laced lifestyle on its members. Nonetheless it recruited energetically among artists and writers between the wars and also after 1944, when it had managed to consign Stalin’s wartime pact with Hitler to the memory hole and was enjoying its largest ever following among the electorate (twenty-eight per cent of the vote in 1946, the highest of any political party). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s it was supported by industrial workers, but also by many self-defined intellectuals, school and university teachers as well as writers. Despite Hungary, Czechoslovakia and even the fall of the Berlin Wall, it staggered on, controlled and funded by Moscow until the nineties, still attracting ten per cent of the vote in 1997. It can now count on between two and five per cent.


Figure 6 Littérature, a Surrealist review, cover by Francis Picabia, 1923


Notable prose writers of the first half of the twentieth century — all transgressive in their own ways — were André Gide (1869—1951, Nobel Prize for Literature 1947), Marcel Proust (1871—1922) and, a lesser but interesting figure, Jean Cocteau (1889—1963).

Gide’s first publications in fact belong to the 1890s (as a very young man he attended some of Mallarmé’s ’mardis’), and some of his best fiction was written before the First World War, notably L’Immoraliste (1902), La Porte étroite (1909) and Les Caves du Vatican (1914). He did not give the title roman (novel) to any of these works, calling the first two récits (accounts) and the third a sotie (sixteenth-century term for a satirical play acted by fools). What they all have in common is that they are workings-out in fictional terms of aspects of his own life, which was a complicated one. The son of a respected protestant professor of law (Protestants in France are a formerly persecuted and therefore somewhat defensive minority), but spending school holidays with Catholic relatives, he was at first attracted by an almost mystical Catholicism personified by his cousin Madeleine, whom after years of courtship he eventually persuaded to marry him in 1895. The marriage was never consummated, however, since a journey to North Africa in 1893—94 had revealed to him his homosexuality — to be more precise, his attraction to young boys. The fraught relationships that resulted obviously furnish the plot of L’Immoraliste, which is a brief first-person narrative of almost eighteenth-century clarity, told by Michel (the guilt-ridden yet defiant husband) to a group of his friends, one of whom establishes the frame-story. Michel is an unreliable narrator: we cannot always take his word for everything that happened, or for his feelings at various points. Gide did not invent the device of the unreliable narrator: he acknowledges his debt to, for instance, the Scottish novelist James Hogg, author of the Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). But he used it so effectively as to make it distinctively his own. In a similar way, the situation of the central figure of La Porte étroite (Strait is the Gate), Alissa, is very close to that of Madeleine before her marriage. The story is told mostly through letters and diary entries, which again have to be carefully read to try to tease out an understanding of the characters’ real feelings for each other.

After the anguish of these récits, Les Caves du Vatican, a much longer, deliberately complicated tale told in the third person, offers more relaxed comedy. The unlikely plot — about a confidence trickster attempting to swindle money out of French Catholics with the story that the Pope has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner in the Vatican cellars of the title — involves three middle-aged brothers-in-law, each of whom seems to represent one aspect of Gide’s own character at some stage of his life to that point: the pious and sexually naive Amédée Fleurissoire, the aggressive freethinker Anthime Armand-Dubois and the successful novelist Julius de Baraglioul. All are sent on wild goose chases across Europe by the actions of the conman Protos and of the fourth male relative — a much younger illegitimate half-brother of Julius named Lafcadio Wluiki who, on the spur of the moment, murders poor Amédée by pushing him out of a train (see Text 16). This was the first and most notorious example in fiction of what would later be called the ’acte gratuit’ (motiveless action). If the brothers-in-law all embody partial aspects of what Gide was, Lafcadio is the perfect ideal of everything he was not but would dearly have loved to be: young, irresistibly handsome, mercifully free of family, sexually polymorphous without guilt, and capable of spontaneous action, for good or ill, without thought of motives or consequences.


An important value for Gide was what he called ’disponibilité’: the fact of being ’available’ to new experiences, not set in one’s ways. In Les Caves du Vatican, from which this extract comes (Livre V, opening pages), the ’disponible’ characters call themselves ’les subtils’, as opposed to ’les crustacés’, the middle-aged characters set in hard shells or exoskeletons of habit. The ’il’ of the first line is Lafcadio, the young hero recently come in to an inheritance.

Tout seul dans le wagon qui l’éloignait de Rome, il respirait le bien-être par tous ses pores ; le cou non serré dans un col presque haut mais peu empesé, d’où s’échappait, mince comme un orvet, une cravate en foulard bronzé, sur la chemise à plis. Il se sentait bien dans sa peau, bien dans ses vêtements, bien dans ses bottes — de souples mocassins taillés dans le même daim que ses gants ; dans cette prison molle, son pied se tendait, se cambrait, se sentait vivre. Son chapeau de castor, rabattu sur ses yeux, le séparait du paysage ; il fumait une pipette de genièvre et abandonnait ses pensées à leur mouvement naturel.

La vieille, avec un petit nuage blanc au-dessus de sa tête et qui me le montrait en disant : la pluie, ce ne sera pas encore pour aujourd’hui ! ... cette vieille dont j’ai chargé le sac sur mes épaules (par fantaisie il avait fait à pied, en quatre jours, la traverse des Apennins entre Bologne et Florence, couchant à Covigliajo) et que j’ai embrassée en haut de la côte ... ça fait partie de ce que le curé de Covigliajo appelle les bonnes actions, — je l’aurais tout aussi bien serrée à la gorge — d’une main qui ne tremble pas — quand j’ai senti cette sale peau ridée sous mon doigt ... Ah, comme elle caressait le col de ma veste, pour en enlever la poussière! en disant : figlio mio! carino! D’où me venait cette intense joie quand, après et encore en sueur, à l’ombre de ce grand châtaignier, et pourtant sans fumer, je me suis étendu sur la mousse ? Je me sentais d’étreinte assez large pour embrasser l’entière humanité ; ou l’étrangler peut-être ... Que peu de chose la vie humaine ! Et que je risquerais la mienne agilement, si seulement s’offrait quelque belle prouesse un peu joliment téméraire à oser ! ... Je ne peux tout de même pas me faire alpiniste ou aviateur ...

[Alone in the train compartment taking him away from Rome, he was breathing out well-being from every pore. His neck was gently held in a fairly high but not starched collar, from which a bronze-coloured silk tie, slim as a slow-worm, snaked across across his pleated shirt-front. He felt at home in his skin, at home in his clothes, at home in his boots — soft mocassins cut from the same suede as his gloves. In that supple prison his foot could move, stretch, feel itself alive. His soft hat, pulled down over his eyes, cut him off from the surrounding landscape. He was smoking a little juniper-wood pipe and letting his thoughts follow their natural drift. He thought:

’The old woman with a little white cloud over her head that she pointed to and said “It will rain, but not today” ... I carried her backpack for her (on a whim he had walked across the Apennines from Bologna to Florence, taking four days on the way and sleeping at Covigliaio) and kissed her goodbye at the top of the climb... what the priest at Covigliaio would call a good deed, I expect — I could just as well have gripped her throat when I felt that horrible wrinkled skin under my fingers ... How she stroked the collar of my jacket when she was brushing the dust off it, saying “There you are, son! Bless you!” ... Why did I feel that tremendous elation when, still sweating from the climb and without even smoking, I lay down on the grass under that huge chestnut tree? I felt my arms wide enough to embrace the whole of humanity — or to strangle it, perhaps. What a small thing human life is! And how promptly I’d risk mine, if only there were some appealingly rash feat to risk it for! ... I can hardly become a mountaineer or an aviator ...]

Gide’s fictions found more readers, and his moral principles (strict honesty in the free pursuit of one’s individual fulfilment) more followers after the First World War than they had before. In 1924 he decided to publish Corydon, a set of Socratic dialogues in defence of homosexuality, which he had been working on since 1910, but which previously had circulated only among his trusted friends. The scandal this caused was only intensified by the appearance two years later of Si le grain ne meurt (If It Die), an account of his childhood and early adolescence. Sexual reminiscences in fact play only a small part in this study of a developing consciousness but, as if determined to shock, Gide devotes his second paragraph to a brief description of his four-year-old self playing with his willy under the dining-room table, in the company of another little boy similarly engaged. Shining in his angel-infancy this was not, and readers of 1926 responded with foreseeable outrage. The year before, Gide had published Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters), the only one of his fictions to which he was willing to give the name of roman. It is indeed a complex, carefully worked-out story involving characters of several families and generations, from schoolboys to their grandparents. The central figure is a middle-aged novelist called Edouard, who narrates more than half of the story. He has an intense curiosity about the lives of much younger people, mostly boys and young men, though his interest in them is at first not overtly sexual. Rather, he involves himself in their lives and influences their decisions, usually for the worse. He is writing a novel to be called Les Faux-Monnayeurs, and many of his diary entries relate to the writing process. Just to make complication complete, Gide himself was keeping a diary while writing this novel, and it was also published the following year under the title Journal des Faux-Monnayeurs.

A prolific writer of fiction and essays, Gide also had an active public life. A keen traveller, he published accounts of his journeys, which involved him in political dispute, whether anti-colonial (Voyage au Congo, 1927, and Le Retour du Tchad, 1928) or with supporters of communism. He had gone to Russia as a sympathetic fellow-traveller, but what he saw there disillusioned him entirely, and his Retour de l’URSS (1936) made him persona non grata with the French Communist Party, then very influential among intellectuals. Indeed, all his life he seems to have thrived on controversy.

He was also one of the founders, in 1909, of the Nouvelle Revue Française, which was the leading literary journal throughout the inter-war period and still appears as a quarterly today. In the capacity of reader for the NRF he had the doubtful distinction of turning down Du côté de chez Swann, the first part of what was to become the life-work of Marcel Proust (Gide came to regret the decision and later apologized for it: Proust joined the NRF stable in 1916).


Marcel Proust (1871—1922) is probably the twentieth-century French novelist whose name has been most familiar to English-speaking readers since the 1950s. (The 1970s comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus even included a game-show sketch in which contestants had to ’Summarise Proust [mispronounced Prowst] in Twenty Seconds’.) He was the son (like Flaubert) of a respected and successful doctor, while his mother was the daughter of a convert Jewish banking family. Brought up a Catholic, Proust was conscious of his Jewish ancestry: he could hardly have failed to be so, since the Dreyfus affair was raging throughout his middle and late twenties. He signed the first intellectuals’ petition for a retrial, in 1898, thereby closing many houses to himself: a sacrifice he must have felt, since in his early youth he had been ambitious for acceptance in aristocratic as well as artistic society.

After 1905, in increasingly poor health, he turned away from the fashionable world to devote himself entirely to writing. He had already written a thousand pages of notes for a novel about a young man’s entry into upper-class society and into the worlds of art and politics. These notes were eventually put into an order by editors and published in 1952 under the title Jean Santeuil (the name of the hero, who is obviously very closely based on the author himself). But Proust was clearly not satisfied with them, since he began the whole work again, this time narrating it in the first person. His first plan was for a work in two volumes, then in three, but as he kept writing, the text kept expanding until, with the addition of the parts written but not yet published at the time of his death in 1922, it reached a total of seven volumes and more than three thousand pages. The complete work, entitled A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), broke almost all the unspoken rules of how a novel should be composed. There is a single central character, whom Proust called ’le monsieur qui dit je’ (the gentleman who says ’I’) and who he insisted should not be identified with himself despite the similarities in many of their experiences. The narration does follow a rough historical sequence, in the sense that the first part of the first volume, ’Combray’, is set in the narrator’s childhood in the 1880s (though few precise dates are ever given), and the last, ’Le Temps retrouvé’ (Finding Time Again) takes us to the years immediately after the First World War. But within every volume reminiscences constantly take us backwards and forwards in time, often within a single page, and the story — to the extent that there is one — is lost sight of in pages of reflection on art, literature or music. But as the subject is the narrator’s slowly developing understanding of these things, as well as of love, ambition and the deception of others and oneself, nothing can be dismissed as irrelevant.

Proust’s determination to grasp everything by writing about it leads him to develop elaborate similes and compose some immensely long, convoluted sentences: the most notorious lasts for a page and a half, though it is broken up by semi-colons. None of this makes for easy reading, and when Proust attempted to publish his first volume, Du côté de chez Swann (The Way by Swann’s) in 1912 it met with a series of rejections and was eventually published at the author’s expense. (One commercial publisher’s reader reported that ’I felt I was going insane’.) The book had an unexpected success with the reading public, however, and was taken up by the NRF and republished by them in 1916 and 1919. All subsequent volumes were published by the NRF or, later, the publisher associated with them, Gallimard.

Part of the book’s attraction no doubt lay, and still lies, in Proust’s sharp sense of social comedy, whether he finds it in the old-fashioned household and village of Combray or in the aristocratic and artistic social milieux that the narrator joins as a young adult. Intense and intellectually challenging, this is also often an extremely funny book. Readers daunted by the thought of 3,000 pages of text could well begin with the middle part of Du coté de chez Swann, called ’Un amour de Swann’ (Swann in Love), which is often printed as a separate paperback of 200 pages or so. The story of a love affair, told in the third person, past tense and rarely interrupted historical sequence, it is much more like a conventional novel than anything else in Proust, but is still a good introduction to his style and humour.

Unlike most of the writers discussed in this chapter, Proust had nothing to do with any political or artistic movement later than the Dreyfus case. Though he is now classed as a Modernist, he never used the word and probably had little idea of the thing. He was inspired more by the music of Debussy and the painting of Monet than by any contemporary French writer, and the nineteenth-century writers he admired, apart from Flaubert and Balzac, were mostly foreign: Dostoevsky, Ruskin, Dickens, Hardy. He never took a public stance as a homosexual, though his orientation was well known to his friends, or as a Jew, though Charles Swann, one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, is a Jew of a convert family like Proust’s mother’s, and the latter part of the novel is a series of revelations, some quite surprising, of homosexuality in a succession of the male characters: never, however, in the narrator, who falls in love with a series of young women. Gide regarded this artistic decision as cowardice on Proust’s part, but Proust believed that his duty was to write, and not to try to bring about social change.


Proust has just explained, at the beginning of Du côté de chez Swann, how he used to spend sleepless night hours deliberately recalling certain events and settings of his early life at Combray. But then, one day, his mother gave him a piece of madeleine (a small, plain cake tasting something like Madeira cake) to dip in lime-flower tea. Suddenly he had a sense of intense pleasure — happiness — joy that he could not explain (his failure to explain is described over two and a half pages), until he remembered that this was the taste of the madeleine his Aunt Leonie (now long dead) used to give him at home on Sunday mornings. Suddenly the whole of his childhood comes rushing back, and becomes the subject of the first section of this first volume.

Et dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi de souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre s’appliquer au petit pavillon donnant sur le jardin, qu’on avait construit pour mes parents sus ses derrières (ce pan tronqué que seul j’avais revu jusque-là) ; et avec la maison, la ville, depuis le matin jusqu’au soir et par tous les temps, la Place où on m’envoyait avant déjeuner, les rues où j’allais faire des courses, les chemins qu’on prenait si le temps était beau. Et comme dans ce jeu où les Japonais s’amusent à tremper dans un bol de porcelaine rempli d’eau, de petits morceaux de papier jusque-là indistincts qui, à peine y sont-ils plongés, s’étirent, se contournent, se colorent, se différencient, deviennent des fleurs, des maisons, des personnages consistants et reconnaissables, de même maintenant toutes les fleurs de notre jardin et du parc de M. Swann, et les nymphéas de la Vivonne, et les bonnes gens du village et leurs petits logis et l’église et tout Combray et ses environs, tout cela qui prend forme et solidité, est sorti, ville et jardins, de ma tasse de thé.

[And as soon as I recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine dipped in lime-flower tea that my aunt used to give me (even though I did not yet know and was not to learn until much later the reason why the memory made me so happy), all at once the old grey house on the street loomed up like a piece of stage scenery and attached itself to the little annexe looking onto the garden that had been built on to the back wall for my parents (the only part of the house that I had recalled up to then), and along with the house, the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I was sent to walk before lunch, the streets where I did errands, the paths where we took walks if the weather was fine. And as in that game the Japanese play, of putting in a porcelain bowl filled with water, little balls of paper that, as soon as they are dropped in, begin to stretch, turn about, take on different colours and shapes to become flowers, houses or three-dimensional, recognizable people, so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the waterlilies in the Vivonne and the village people and their little houses and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of these things taking on shape and solidity, streets, houses and gardens, came out of my cup of tea.]

Jean Cocteau (1889—1963) would be considered a lightweight compared to Gide, Proust or the Surrealists, partly because he worked in so many different media and genres: verse, prose, drama, criticism of literature and music, but also drawing and printmaking, film (as scriptwriter and/or director), and as librettist for operas and writer of scenarios for ballets. In the vanguard of every fashion, he is cruelly caricatured in Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs under the name of the Comte de Passavant, a fame-seeking, sexually exploitative artistic fraud. But he has left at least one excellent novel, Les Enfants terribles (1929) and a beautiful film, La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1945), which is still to be found showing somewhere in Paris practically every month of the year. His distinctive drawings are also often to be seen in card shops alongside those of Picasso and Matisse.

The Second World War and after

The literature of the Second World War was of necessity very different from that of the First. Not that the Germans tried to suppress French culture entirely: some of the officer class admired it and could speak the language well. Indeed, France was promised an honoured place as a purveyor of culture in the new, German-ruled Europe. The entertainment industry — theatre, opera and operetta and cinema — continued to flourish as the large cities, and particularly Paris, became rest-and-recreation bases for German troops, with theatres and nightclubs for the officers, and commandeered cinemas showing German films for the other ranks. But the French-language film industry also prospered despite German censorship. Many of the leading actors and directors had stayed in Paris and some excellent films were made at this time. Some were costume subjects, like Madame Sans-Gêne (1941) or Les Enfants du paradis (1943), others apparently contemporary, but in the latter it was forbidden to mention the war or its consequences for civilians like rationing, and street scenes might not include passing German troops or the ubiquitous German-language notices. Films therefore offered a temporary escape from everyday life under occupation, and cinemas were packed every night, not least because no fuel was available to heat homes. Theatres too, from the Comédie-Française downwards, continued to function, their Jewish managers sidelined where necessary, and some important new plays were performed, including Sartre’s Les Mouches (The Flies, 1943) and Huis clos (In Camera/No Exit, 1944), the first set in ancient Thebes and the second in Hell.

Novels, plays and poems treating the war realistically or supporting the resistance could obviously not be published openly, but some were issued by underground presses printing in small workshops and distributing clandestinely. The best-known of these is Les Editions de Minuit, which went public at the Liberation and remains successful today. After the war it published Samuel Beckett and all the ’nouveau roman’ writers (whom we shall consider later), as well as two highly influential essays on the Algerian war, which were censored in their turn. The first publication of the Editions de Minuit was Le Silence de la mer, published in 1942 under the name of Vercors by Jean Bruller, one of the founders of the press. It is still quite often set as a schoolbook, both for French children and foreign learners, since it is short, not too gory and written in fairly simple language. Despite taking the side of the resistance it contains quite a sympathetic portrayal of a young German officer.

The period immediately following the war was a confused time in many ways. Suddenly everyone had been a resistant, apart from a few writers whose collaboration with the Nazis had been too blatant to be ignored. The most notable of these was Louis-Ferdinand Céline (born Destouches, 1894—1961), who had served in the trenches and been wounded in the First World War and later qualified as a doctor, travelled to Africa and the US, and practised medicine in a poor district of Paris. He used these experiences as the point of departure for a remarkable novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of Night, 1932). Set chiefly in the slums of Paris, the book also takes its hero, a doctor like the author, to Africa, New York and Detroit. Despite the book’s low-life subject, its exaggeration, black humour and highly coloured, invective-laden style make it entirely unlike a Naturalist ’slice of life’. Many of the scenes portrayed are indeed horrible, but for those with the strength to persevere it is a truly memorable read.

Given the narrator’s contempt for authority, for colonialism and American capitalism and his feeling for the sufferings of the poor, one might imagine that the writer would have had sympathy for left-wing ideas. Indeed he accepted an invitation to the Soviet Union in 1936. But on his return he published a pamphlet, Mea culpa, expressing his horror at the Soviet system. From then on, his anarchic impulses took him in the opposite direction, towards fascism. Long before the German invasion he published three vile anti-Semitic pamphlets, as crude in their language as their ideas. So it was not surprising that he welcomed the arrival of the Nazis and became an enthusiastic collaborationist. Fearing for his life after the Allied victory, he fled with the survivors of the Vichy government first to Germany and then to Denmark, where he was first imprisoned and then remained in exile until 1951. On his return, living in poverty in a Paris suburb, he was not able to begin publishing new work until 1957, when a three-part novelised treatment of his life in exile began to appear. Since his death in 1961 he has slowly come to be recognized as the great and original writer he undoubtedly was. But how to reconcile a brilliant style with a contemptible set of political ideas and actions is a problem that French students of literature are still wrestling with.

In the political sphere, the immediate post-war years were marked by a competition for power between pre-war politicians hoping to pick up from where they had left off, Gaullists associated with the Free French army, whose legitimacy was recognized by the victorious Allies, and the French Communist Party, which considered that it had played the main part in organizing resistance from within the country. A new Republic (the Fourth) was proclaimed in 1946, but the power struggles continued.

A further aftermath of the war was the growth of independence movements in France’s colonies. The French colony of Indo-China had remained under the nominal control of the Vichy regime, though in fact under the power of Japan, until March 1945, when Japan took open control. After the defeat of Japan, Laos and Cambodia secured their independence, but France decided to try to regain and hold Vietnam. A long guerrilla war ensued, ending in the disastrous encirclement and defeat of the French forces at Diên Biên Phu in 1954. Soon after that the country was divided and France gave up her claims. But by 1955 America had taken over France’s role of fighting the Communists in the North, and for the next twenty years Indo-China became part of US rather than French history. No sooner had the Indo-China War ended than war flared up in Algeria. Both wars had a strong impact in metropolitan France, not least because (like the American Vietnam War) they were fought by armies of conscripts (draftees). But the impact of the Algerian War was more direct and stronger, since Algeria is much nearer to France and many more people of European descent were settled there. Every expedient was used to hold on to Algeria but without success, and finally General de Gaulle, who had returned to power in 1958 with the support of the army and the settlers, to their fury recognized the inevitable and gave Algeria her independence in 1962. By that time retreat from the French colonies in Africa had already been peacefully secured, on terms that allowed France to retain her financial interests and cultural dominance there.


During the late 1940s and early 1950s one intellectual and literary movement was dominant in France: existentialism. This began as a philosophical school of which the acknowledged leader was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905—80). Trained as a teacher of philosophy (which all French lycée students are required to take for the baccalaureate), Sartre was seconded to the French Institute in Berlin in 1933—4. This allowed him to deepen his knowledge of the classic German philosopher Hegel (1770—1831), but also of his living successors Husserl (1859—1938) and Heidegger (1889—1976). The philosophical approach of the latter two started from human consciousness and experience (rather than abstract theories), and laid great stress on human beings’ ability and obligation to make choices in the conduct of their lives. These are ideas that Sartre developed in his own writings. For him, the mere fact of being a live human being requires us constantly to make choices, and it is the choices we make that determine the person we are. The very idea of ’a good person who somehow keeps doing bad things’ would be nonsense to Sartre. He does not use the terms ’good’ or ’bad’ much, but for him no-one can be ’essentially good’ as no one is ’essentially’ anything: each of us decides each day what person he or she is going to be. Most people, he thinks, fear this freedom and use various devices to hide from it: this strategy he calls ’mauvaise foi’ (usually translated as ’bad faith: the everyday meaning of the phrase is simply ’dishonesty’). ’Mauvaise foi’, an extremely important concept in Sartre’s moral philosophy and fiction, is avoidance of responsibility: pretending that one was not free to have behaved otherwise than one did in the past, or will not be free to choose one’s actions in the future. Such behaviour is clearly not peculiar to twentieth-century people, and one can find striking illustrations of it in much earlier literature: Molière’s Tartuffe protesting that he has to act as he does because the interests of heaven demand it (Act IV sc.1), or Racine’s Pyrrhus saying he accepted betrothal to Hermione because of duty (’Je suivais mon devoir’, Text 5). ’Mauvaise foi’ may take the form of appeals to religion, for example (’I have to do this because my faith requires it’), or to social convention (’What would people say?’), or to one’s ’nature’ (’That’s the way I am’), one’s upbringing or one’s genes. Sartre did not believe in ’nature’ in this sense, and the attempt to explain human behaviour by genes had not really got under way while his failing eyesight still allowed him to read. Obviously no one is wholly free from material constraints — we cannot suddenly decide to fly out of the window, or even to take a plane if we have no money. But Sartre’s bracing view is that we are all much freer than we like to think, and spend too much of our time finding pretexts to deny our freedom.

Other wrong directions people take are when they choose to exist in the eyes of others (pour autrui) rather than for themselves, in their own freedom (pour soi), or when they try to take on the permanence and ’essential’ character of inanimate things, which exist en soi (in themselves), as the young Lucien does in Text 18. Human beings cannot do this, but must always remain ’contingent’, fluid rather than defined. These and other Sartrian ideas are put to work in human situations in his fiction (the short novel La Nausée (Nausea, 1938), the collection of short stories Le Mur (The Wall, 1939) and the long novel sequence Les Chemins de la liberté (Roads to Freedom, 1945—9), and in his plays, especially Huis clos (In Camera/No Exit, 1944) and Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands, 1948). A late and particularly revealing piece of work is his childhood autobiography Les Mots (Words, 1964), in which many of his ideas are shown to have their origins in the life and learning experiences of an unusually intelligent, fatherless only child of the Parisian upper bourgeoisie.


Lucien, the central character of Sartre’s short story ’L’Enfance d’un chef’ (Childhood of a leader) is the only son of a factory owner, who has always known that he will be expected to succeed his father and in his turn become a ’leader of men’. We see the boy first as a small child, then as an older child and here as a teenager. He is always looking for someone else to tell him who and what he is — a mistaken quest, according to Sartre, since no one is irrevocably anything. Here Lucien has taken a Surrealist as mentor. The ensuing scene is a striking portrayal of what is now called ’grooming’. ’Les assis’ is the title of an early poem by Rimbaud.

— Savez-vous, Lucien, comment j’appelle votre état? Lucien regarda Bergère avec espoir : il ne fut pas déçu.

— Je l’appelle, dit Bergère, le Désarroi.

Désarroi : le mot avait commencé tendre et blanc comme un clair de lune, mais le ’oi’ final avait l’éclat cuivré d’un cor.

— Désarroi ..., dit Lucien.

Il se sentait grave et inquiet comme lorsqu’il avait dit à Riri qu’il était somnambule. Le bar était sombre, mais la porte s’ouvrait toute grande sur la rue, sur le lumineux brouillard blond de printemps ; sous le parfum soigné que dégageait Bergère, Lucien percevait la lourde odeur de la salle obscure, une odeur de vin rouge et de bois humide.

’Désarroi ...’, pensait-il : ’à quoi est-ce que ça va m’engager?’ Il ne savait pas bien si on lui avait découvert une dignité ou une maladie nouvelle : il voyait près de ses yeux les lèvres agiles de Bergère qui voilaient et dévoilaient sans répit l’éclat d’une dent d’or.

— J’aime les êtres qui sont en désarroi, disait Bergère, et je trouve que vous avez une chance extraordinaire. Car cela vous a été donné. Vous voyez tous ces porcs ? Ce sont des assis. Il faudrait les donner aux fourmis rouges, pour les asticoter un peu. Vous savez ce qu’elles font, ces consciencieuses bestioles ?

— Elles mangent de l’homme, dit Lucien.

— Oui, elles débarrassent les squelettes de leur viande humaine.

— Je vois, dit Lucien. Et il ajouta — Et moi? Qu’est-ce qu’il faut que je fasse?

— Rien, pour l’amour de Dieu, dit Bergère avec un effarement comique. — Et surtout ne pas vous asseoir, à moins, dit-il en riant, que ce ne soit sur un pal. Avez-vous lu Rimbaud?

— Nnnon, dit Lucien.

— Je vous prêterai Les Illuminations.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Le Mur © Éditions GALLIMARD

[’Do you know what I call your state, Lucien?’

Lucien looked at Bergère hopefully: he would not be disappointed.

’I call it Désarroi [confusion, distress, being at a loss]’, said Bergère.

’Désarroi...’, said Lucien.

He felt solemn and uneasy, like the time he had told Riri he was a sleepwalker. The bar was dark, but the door was wide open onto the street, on the luminous blond mist of spring; underlying the expensive scent that Bergère wore, Lucien could pick up the heavy smell of the dark room, a mixture of red wine and damp wood. ’Désarroi’, he was thinking. ’What does that let me in for?’ He wasn’t sure if he’d acquired a new distinction or been diagnosed with a new disease: before his eyes, Bergère’s agile lips were constantly hiding and revealing the glint of a gold tooth.

’I like people who are “en désarroi”, Bergère was saying. ’I think you’re extremely lucky. It’s a gift you’ve been given. Look at all those pigs. Those are “assis”, people who live sitting down. We ought to give them to the red ants, to liven them up a bit. You know what those busy little creatures do?’

’They eat people’, said Lucien.

’Yes, they clear skeletons of their human meat’.

’I see’, said Lucien, and he added, ’And what about me? What should I do?’

’Nothing, for God’s sake’, said Bergère with a look of comic horror. ’Above all, don’t sit down — unless it’s on a stake’, he added, laughing. ’Have you read Rimbaud?

’N-n-no’ said Lucien.

’I’ll lend you Les Illuminations’.]

All of Sartre’s fictional works are clearly and accessibly written: the plays, indeed, are constructed on conventional, ’boulevard’ lines, and, apart from Les Mouches, had considerable success in the commercial theatre. Sartre’s philosophical writings are a very different matter. His first and most successful work, L’Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943) is readable with determination: the section on ’mauvaise foi’ is perhaps the most accessible. But all the later philosophical works are definitely for professionals only — and professionals within his own philosophical school.

Sartre’s worst legacy to his country has been his decision to invent his own philosophical vocabulary, forming new words on basically German principles (’l’être-là’, the fact of being there, from German ’Dasein’ would be a very simple example). Traditionally, French writers had always aimed at clarity. In 1674 Boileau had told aspiring authors that

Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement

Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément

[What has been thought through properly will be voiced clearly

And the words to express it will arrive easily]

and generations of French schoolchildren were made to learn the couplet by heart, along with the 1784 dictum of Antoine de Rivarol (in fact Rivaroli, an Italian), ’Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français’ (If it’s not clear, it’s not French). All but the most impeccable school answers would come back with one or more red ink comments in the margin: ’pas clair’. But by the 1960s the ideal of clarity was regarded as oppressive, if not fascistic; following Sartre’s example, every self-respecting theorist had to invent a personal terminology and, it sometimes seems, write as cryptically as he or she could manage.

Other notable writers of the existentialist school, broadly defined, are Simone de Beauvoir (1908—86), the lifelong companion and intellectual and political ally of Sartre, and Albert Camus (1913—60), a wartime ally of Sartre and de Beauvoir who later quarrelled with them and refused the ’existentialist’ label.

De Beauvoir, also a professional teacher of philosophy, was certainly the intellectual equal of Sartre (she came second to him in the fearsome agrégation exam, the top qualification for teachers, despite being three years younger), yet in their lifetime she seems to have been content, despite her feminism, to remain in his shadow. Her groundbreaking feminist work Le Deuxième sexe (The Second Sex, 1949) is still widely read and has had a great influence, no doubt partly because she was content to write it in ordinary French, without creating her own terminology. She also wrote several novels and, starting in 1958, a series of autobiographical texts that eventually ran to six volumes, the last (La cérémonie des adieux) concerned with the physical decline, last illness and death of Sartre. On her own death six years later she was buried next to him.

Camus was not a professional philosopher but a working journalist. His father was killed in the First World War and he was brought up in great poverty by his profoundly deaf mother in the then French city of Algiers. A primary-school teacher spotted his talent and got him the scholarship that let him go to lycée and from there to the University of Algiers. But there was no money for postgraduate study and hence no agrégation: Camus had to go to work to keep his mother and himself. (The teacher remained his lifelong friend and Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to him.) In view of all this it is not surprising that his novels and his two philosophical essays (which would not be accepted by professional philosophers as contributing to their discipline) are less theoretical and more down to earth than those of Sartre. For Camus, our main philosophical and moral task is to face up to the absurdity of life. Our life is absurd (in his sense) because it must end in death: it has no intrinsic meaning. We can try to hide from this truth by pretending that it does, by taking refuge in religion or patriotism or social convention (this is very like Sartre’s idea of ’mauvaise foi’), but the Absurd will not go away. What we have to do is look it in the face and then commit ourselves to a human life. Any value our life can have will be the value we ourselves can give it. This notion of commitment (engagement) is common to all the existentialist writers, and for that reason their writing is sometimes called ’littérature engagée’. For Camus, engagement first took the form of working for the wartime resistance, and then of involving himself in the Algerian war, speaking out first against the oppression of the Muslim population, but then against the terror tactics of the Liberation Front and in defence of the mass of European settlers, the pieds-noirs, literally ’black-feet’. They were so called because, in legend at least, many of them had arrived in the country barefoot, fleeing desperate poverty in the south of France or Spain, and many, like his own family, were still poor and struggling. By these attempts to see the complicated situation honestly, Camus managed to alienate both sides and to quarrel with most of the Paris intellectual world. His life was threatened and when he was killed in a car crash in 1960 there were, as with Zola, rumours (probably false) of murder.

Camus wrote three novels, of which L’Etranger (The Outsider/The Stranger, 1942) is probably the best known, though La Peste (The Plague, 1947) was also very successful. Of his four plays Caligula (1938, first performed 1945), about the Roman emperor, is the one most often revived.

A figure very difficult to fit into any formal history of literature is the novelist and playwright Jean Genet (1910—86). A bastard orphan, fostered out in childhood, he had no formal education beyond the village school (where he excelled), and by his late adolescence was a thief and male prostitute, spending long periods in reformatory and prison, followed by a brief spell in the Foreign Legion. Nonetheless he wrote an elegant and even fastidious French, quite unlike the ’tough-guy’ English into which some of his novels have been translated. His themes of homosexual love in criminal and prison milieux attracted the attention of Cocteau and Sartre, who helped him to have his first novels published. Sartre regarded him as an existentialist hero and prefaced Genet’s first collected works with a long essay, originally published anonymously, called ’Saint Genet, comédien et martyr’ (St Genet, actor and martyr: the title was borrowed from a play by the seventeeth-century playwright Jean Rotrou about a Roman actor martyred for his Christian beliefs).

By the late 1940s existentialism had become a fashion, first in France and soon around the world, reaching even Japan. There were existentialist hangouts, cafés in the daytime and jazz cellars at night, and an existentialist look (cropped or very long hair for girls, pale faces with lots of eye make-up, sloppy sweaters preferably in black, capri pants or circular skirts, ballerina slippers — think Juliette Gréco or Audrey Hepburn in ’Funny Face’ — and for boys general dishevelment, a look of not having slept for days). The world centre of existentialism-as-fashion was the Left-bank district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, then a centre for small publishers, booksellers and art galleries, now for expensive clothes and interior design shops. The emblematic figure of the old Saint-Germain-des-Prés was Boris Vian (1920—59), engineer, jazz trumpeter, singer/songwriter, novelist, dramatist and poet. Though he was a friend of Sartre and De Beauvoir, his best novel, the fantastical-tragical L’Ecume des jours (1946) includes a caricatured account of a lecture given by ’Jean-Sol Partre’ with the ’Duchesse de Bovouard’ in attendance, which is overwhelmed by hordes of their unruly fans.


In small theatres in the same ’existentialist’ orbit, plays of a new kind were soon being put on, which were given the name of ’théâtre de l’absurde’ by the German critic Martin Esslin in 1962. The title did not please all the dramatists, and indeed their plays owe less to the existentialist notion of the Absurd, as developed by Camus, than to pre-war experimental theatre like Apollinaire’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Dugs of Tiresias, 1917, called by its author a ’drame sur-réaliste’, the first appearance of this term), or the Surrealist Roger Vitrac’s Victor: ou les Enfants au pouvoir (Victor, or Power to the Children, 1929). In these plays there is much spectacle and humour, but no consistent plot or characterization: the characters speak and behave absurdly, in the everyday sense of the word, and the effect is to undermine and ridicule ’bourgeois’ common sense and consistency.

The early plays of Eugène Ionesco (born Ionescu, 1909—94; Romanians have always had difficulty in France with the final syllable of their names) very much follow this pattern. His La Cantatrice chauve (The Bald Prima-Donna) is set in the drawing-room of an English (so obviously laughable) couple called the Smiths, who are visited by their friends the Martins. Their stilted dialogue, made up of non-sequiturs, was inspired, as Ionesco himself admitted, by the Méthode Assimil (the French equivalent of Linguaphone records), from which he was trying to learn English at the time of writing the play. It was not a great success on its first appearance in 1950, but was revived in 1957 in the 100-seat Théâtre de la Huchette in the then-edgy rue de la Huchette (Arab cafés, jazz clubs and sleazy hotels: now wall-to-wall cheap eateries for tourists). It has never closed, and can still be seen there, in the same fifty-year-old production: Paris’s equivalent of The Mousetrap. Ionesco’s later plays are darker, introducing violence, fear and anguish at the impossibility of communication. Even grimmer are those of Samuel Beckett (1906—89), an Irishman who wrote novels and plays in both French and English. But even at their darkest they are floated on cryptic eloquence and a haunting humour, which made his Waiting for Godot (1949), a chamber piece for four tramps and one tree, an unexpected success when it was revived in London with star actors in 2010. The last of the recognized ’theatre of the absurd’ authors, Arthur Adamov (1908—70), was also foreign, born in Russia of Russian—Armenian parents. This is perhaps indicative of the long-standing attraction of Paris to foreign artists and writers, and also of French readers’ and theatre-goers’ growing receptivity to their work. Indeed there have been few notable French-born playwrights working in the post-war period at all. One was Genet. His deliberately unnerving plays are unrealistic in style and feature people shunned by bourgeois society (exploited maids who eventually murder their mistress in Les Bonnes, 1947; inmates and patrons of a brothel in Le Balcon, 1957; blacks in Les Nègres, 1959). Nevertheless they were successfully staged in the commercial theatre and filmed, and have often been revived in France and abroad.

The period from the end of the Second World War to the oil shock of 1973 is sometimes referred to in France as the ’Trente Glorieuses’, the thirty glorious years. The glory in question was not military or artistic but economic: this was a period of continuous economic growth, during which the standard of living of French people rose in a way it had never done before. This new prosperity was overshadowed in the 1950s by the Algerian War. But De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, followed by the proclamation of a new republic, the Fifth, and the end of the draining war in 1962, introduced a period of fifty years of political stability and considerable prosperity continuing to the present day: something that France had not enjoyed since 1789. Yet this material progress has been accompanied by a loss of cultural influence on the rest of the world. Artists no longer feel the compulsion to come to Paris to paint, or writers to write, as they did in the 1920s, or even in the 1950s, and intellectual fashions are now more likely to originate in London, New York or further afield than in the Quartier Latin or Saint-Germain.

Novel and film

The last internationally influential French novelists were the practitioners of what is still called the ’nouveau roman’, though it is now what French people call ’neuf à la façon du Pont Neuf’, new like the New Bridge (the oldest bridge in Paris). The heyday of this school was the 1950s and 1960s, when most of these novelists were published by the Editions de Minuit, a house that was also gaining notoriety at the time by publishing pamphlets against the Algerian War. The group was given its name, as so often happens, by a hostile reviewer in 1957, but the challenge was picked up by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922—2008) in 1963 when he published a collection of essays, many of which had appeared earlier in literary journals, under the manifesto title Pour un nouveau roman. The ’new’ novel was to be new by discarding what had been considered the key elements of the ’old’ novel: plot, ’believable’ characters, psychological analysis. Instead much attention was paid to the actual business of writing: the workings were to be shown on the surface, rather like the heating and ventilation pipes of the Centre Pompidou, that trophy building designed in 1970 and opened in 1977. Jean Ricardou, novelist and theorist, famously wrote that the novel would no longer be ’l’écriture d’une aventure’, the writing(-up) of an adventure, but ’l’aventure d’une écriture’. Unsurprisingly, the mass readership was less than ready to follow the novelists on this adventure. The chief novelists whose names are associated with the ’nouveau roman’, as well as Robbe-Grillet, are Michel Butor (1926— ), Marguerite Duras (1914—96), Claude Simon (1913—2005) and the much older Nathalie Sarraute (1900—99), an émigrée from Russia naturalized and married in France, who published her first novels before the Second World War and remained faithful to the Gallimard stable. Many of these writers also worked in the cinema, writing scripts for Nouvelle Vague directors or even, like Robbe-Grillet and Duras, directing their own films.

Indeed, it was at this time that film became the ’cutting-edge’ art form in France, endlessly discussed in newspapers, magazines and on the newly popular TV, and imitated abroad as far as Hollywood itself. Like the ’nouveaux romanciers’, the directors of the Nouvelle Vague wanted to break with the old style of filmmaking, the ’cinéma de papa’ as they called it, with its careful plotting, easily comprehensible characters, familiar stars, elaborate studio sets and highly professional camerawork. In came location shooting, hand-held camerawork (helped by the much lighter cameras that were now being produced), vague or barely existent plotting and little-known actors who soon became even more famous than the stars of the previous generation. All of these things are perfectly illustrated by Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) or François Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (The Four Hundred Blows, 1959), which still seem as fresh as if they were made yesterday. (Both titles were very badly translated: ’à bout de souffle’ means ’completely out of breath, on the verge of collapse’, something like ’beat’ in the original American sense, while ’faire les quatre cents coups’ means to keep behaving badly and getting into trouble, as the juvenile hero of the film does.) Most Nouvelle Vague films have not worn so well as these: many, so exciting at the time, can now seem scrappy and irritating, while the best of the ’cinéma de papa’ has in the end lasted better (though to be fair, it is only the cream of these productions that is shown any longer).

’French Theory’

France’s last cultural export of significance was what is given the generic name of ’French Theory’. The writers bundled together under this title, I believe, fall outside the scope of this book, belonging more to history, philosophy and psychology. Of the most famous names, Roland Barthes (1915—80), Michel Foucault (1926—84), Jacques Derrida (1930—2004) and the much older Jacques Lacan (1901—81, the subject of another book in this series), it is Barthes’ ideas that have the most direct bearing on the study of literature, and so will be touched upon briefly here. Each of the four writers mentioned had a different background and, originally, different academic interests: Barthes in literature (originally classics), Foucault history, but soon moving to philosophy and psychology, Derrida philosophy, and Lacan psychology and psychoanalysis. They came to know each other in middle life (Barthes and Foucault served together on the founding committee of the journal Critique, for example), but were never a close-knit ’school’ like, say, the Naturalists. The important thing to bear in mind about their theoretical approach is that it is purely theoretical: at no point does it have to be tested, or indeed to interact with reality at all. Earlier theoreticians (with the possible exception of Rousseau) had typically produced theories that were founded on experience in a given field — Corneille’s dramatic theory, for example, or Zola’s theory of the novel — and that were intended to help the reader produce a better play or a better novel in the future. ’French Theory’ is not of this kind. What it offers is new ways of talking about things. Theories can be borrowed from any field of endeavour and applied in any other: in the 1960s the vogue was for borrowing approaches from linguistics (structuralism, semiotics) and applying them to literature, history or social science, but in more recent times even quantum theory has been pressed into service. When one has mastered the technical vocabulary of these writers (different for each one), what can one do with it? What but write essays, then a thesis, then perhaps lectures? The home of ’French Theory’ is the university, and, so far, definitely the Anglo-Saxon rather than the French university.

The most approachable of the 1960s theorists is certainly Roland Barthes. His name is associated with two formulae of that time: the ’death of the author’ and ’readerly versus writerly texts’. ’La mort de l’auteur’ was the title of an essay he published in 1968. It is not, of course, about the death of any real author, or of authors as a class: instead it takes issue with the idea, then still predominant in French school and university teaching, that the most important thing about any text was its author, what we could learn about him (nearly always him), his life and his intentions in writing the work in question. This idea had been criticized long before: by Proust, for example, in Contre sainte-Beuve (written in 1908—9 but not published until 1954), or Paul Valéry in Tel quel, a collection of earlier essays published in 1925. Among English-speaking critics, Wimsatt and Beardsley had demolished the idea that literary reading was a matter of searching out the author’s intention, in their famous chapter ’The Intentional Fallacy’ in The Verbal Icon (1954).

We even remember the young Rimbaud protesting, ’J’ai voulu dire ce que ça dit’, in the 1870s. But Barthes gave these ideas new, forceful expression — he was a witty, trenchant writer and lecturer, particularly in his early days — and the time was obviously right for their reception. 1968 was, after all, the year when French students briefly revolted and demanded, among other things, a change to the old, authoritarian style of teaching at the Sorbonne and elsewhere. Barthes’s reading method offered more autonomy and power to the reader, inviting him to construct his own reading of the text. This must imply reduced authority for the author: as Barthes wrote, ’la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l’auteur’ (the birth of the [active, engaged] reader has as its price the death of the author).

He returns to this idea in a short work of 1973, Le Plaisir du texte, where he draws a distinction between a text that is lisible (literally, readable) and one that is scriptible (an invented word that, if it existed, would mean ’writeable’). These words have been rather badly translated into English as ’readerly’ and ’writerly’. A ’lisible’ text is one that can be read easily, without really being aware that one is reading, a book to lose oneself in: nearly all fiction before 1950 was, Barthes thinks, of this kind. A ’scriptible’ book demands more work: it will probably keep reminding us that this is a book and that we are reading. As readers, we have to, as it were, also be writing the book as we go along. (There is a striking similarity here to the distinction Brecht made between bourgeois drama, aimed at consumers, and the kind of play he wished to write, which demanded active spectators.) Barthes asserts that while the first kind of book gives us ’plaisir’, pleasure, only the second kind gives ’jouissance’ — fully satisfying, orgasmic pleasure (the usual translation, ’bliss’, is quite misleading). It is doubtful how many readers would agree, but most ’literary’ novels written in the 1960s and 1970s tried to be, in at least some measure, ’scriptibles’. Barthes was also a pioneer of the extension of semiotics, the study of signs, from its home in linguistics to much wider fields. He studied the varied messages of dress (here again forestalled by Balzac in his Traîté de la vie élégante of 1830), took an amused interest in the language of advertising and enjoyed uncovering hidden meanings in fields as varied as food (’Le bifteck’), wrestling or striptease. The short essays, only two or three pages each, in which he discusses these things were collected in Mythologies (1957), and form a good introduction to his outlook and early style.

Later novelists

Notable novelists of the 1970s include Michel Tournier (1924— ) and Georges Perec (1936—82). Tournier writes in a traditional style (i.e. ’lisible’ rather than ’scriptible’), but of strange and sometimes horrifying events and characters. His first published novel, Vendredi, ou les limbes du Pacifique (Friday, or the lost world of the Pacific, 1967) is based on Robinson Crusoe, while his best, Le Roi des aulnes (1970), takes its title from Goethe’s poem ’The Erl-King’. Set in the Second World War, its central figure is a carrier-off of children who is somehow both sinister and beneficent. Tournier also wrote short stories, and one of his collections, such as Le Coq de bruyère (The Grouse, 1978), could be a good introduction to his themes and style. Perec, on the other hand, is a deliberately experimental writer: his early novel La Disparition (The Disappearance, 1969), for example, was written in its entirety without using the letter ’e’. Later works like W ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975), or La vie mode d’emploi (Life, the instruction manual, 1978) have more human appeal, and won him greater recognition before his sadly early death from cancer.

Since roughly 1980, many of the conditions of production of literature have changed. The ’avant-garde’ world, as it existed from the 1890s to the 1960s, seems to have little life left in it: the little magazines have been dying off and small publishers have been bought up by media conglomerates, often losing their risk-taking commissioning editors in the process. What survives in the mass media is the twentieth-century notion that every new work should be entirely original, and if possible shocking. But to really ’épater le bourgeois’ (shock the bourgeois) has long been a hopeless aspiration: the bourgeois simply rolls over and begs ’shock me some more’. When Raymond Queneau spoke in the 1950s of the need to ’décaper la littérature de ses rouilles diverses, de ses croûtes’ (strip literature of its various rusts and scabs), he was using a live metaphor: ’un décapant’ (no adjective listed in the Robert dictionary of 1970) was ’un produit servant à décaper’ — something like paint-stripper. Now every other notice of a play or comedy show uses the adjective ’décapant’ (abrasive, caustic) as a term of praise, confident that it will attract audiences.

Writers of the late twentieth century and the present day show little interest in the technical devices so important in the ’nouveau roman’. ’Lisibilité’ has to some extent returned to the ’literary’ novel (from the commercial novel, of course, it had never gone away). Successful forms include the first-person story with some autobiographical content, now christened ’auto-fiction’, and accounts of family life and disappearing social milieux. The most famous exponent of these genres is Annie Ernaux (1940— ). Others include Pierre Bergounioux (1949— ), Catherine Millet (1948— ) and Christine Angot (1959— ).

In recent times, academics in France, England and the USA have begun to take an increased interest in literature produced in the former French colonies, both before and after independence. Many important works were produced long before independence by such writers as the poets Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906—80), who became the first President of Senegal, and Aimé Césaire (1913—2008) of Martinique, who in fact studied together at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. The novel Rue Cases-Nègres (1950) by the Martiniquais novelist Joseph Zobel (1915—2004), made into a delightful film in 1983, gives a vivid picture of harsh life on the sugar plantations, but also of the educational opportunities the French system offered to a tiny intellectual elite.

African writers read and admired in France from the 1950s onwards include the Senegalese Ousmane Sembène (1923—2007), also a filmmaker, Mariama Bâ (1929—81) and the Guinean Laye Camara (1928—80), author of the very popular ’auto-fiction’ L’Enfant noir (1953), then simply called a novel. Still publishing is the Algerian novelist Assia Djébar (1936—), elected to the Académie Française in 2005, while one of the most successful writers of the 1980s was Tahar ben Jelloun (1944— ), a Moroccan-born novelist and essayist who writes chiefly in French but also in Arabic. Like many of France’s post-colonial writers, he was a product of the international Lycée Français system. Apparently he is now the French writer most translated into other languages.

Most critics would not class Camus or Marguerite Duras as ’colonial’ writers, though both grew up in the colonies and set many of their best-known writings there (Camus’ L’Etranger is set in Algiers and La Peste in Oran, Duras’s Un barrage contre le Pacifique and L’Amant in Indo-China).

Novelists born in the late 1950s or 1960s and active today include, among the best known, Michel Houellebecq (1956— ), who first achieved notoriety for his sexual explicitness of a non-PC kind with Les particules élémentaires (1998) and continued in the same vein with Plateforme (2001) and La possibilité d’une île (2005). He seems finally to have achieved respectability in 2010, winning the Prix Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize) with La carte et le territoire. Frédéric Beigbeder (1965— ) published his first three novels in the 1990s, but achieved fame with Windows on the World (2003) set in the restaurant of that name in the World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001. His most recent and extremely successful novel is the ’auto-fiction’ Un roman français (2009). Reflecting the much greater educational and publishing opportunities available to women in the later twentieth century, many of the most successful writers of this period are female, and are styled by the politically correct ’auteures’ or ’écrivaines’ (just when their English-speaking sisters are refusing to be known as ’actresses’ or, heaven forbid, ’authoresses’). Recognized women writers of this age-group include Christine Angot (1959— ), the Belgian Amélie Nothomb (1967— ), regarded by some as not entirely serious because of her great productivity (one or more novels every year), Marie N’Diaye (1967— ), despite her African name entirely French by upbringing and literary choices, or Marie Darrieussecq (1969— ), a psychoanalyst and novelist almost as productive as Nothomb.

Twentieth-century literary writing, determinedly transgressive in the first sixty or so years of the century, is not so easy to characterize in the latter part, no doubt in part because shock value is no longer so easy to cultivate. But there is still a self-defining ’literary’ world, consciously setting itself apart from mass tastes. What may become of that world in the new century is what we shall now very briefly look at.