Conclusion: the twenty-first century: literature after paper?

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

Conclusion: the twenty-first century: literature after paper?

French literary culture at its pinnacle is still in some respects very traditional. The Académie Française, founded in 1635, still meets in the magnificent buildings of 1680 assigned to it in 1795, its forty members (’les Immortels’, elected for life) wearing on ceremonial occasions the heavily embroidered green uniforms (’l’habit vert’) designed for them in the late eighteenth century, complete with sword. They are engaged on producing the ninth edition of their dictionary, supposedly the most authoritative account of correct usage. The first part (of the ninth edition) appeared in 1992, reaching enzyme, and in the ensuing eighteen years they have worked their way from éocène to promesse. The Comédie-Française is still performing the ’grands classiques’ of the seventeenth century, though nowadays also foreign works in translation. Perhaps even more strikingly, the Lycée Louisle-Grand, formerly the Collège de Clermont, where Molière, Voltaire, Diderot, Robespierre, Baudelaire, Hugo, Césaire, Sartre and Barthes all studied, is still functioning in mostly nineteenth-century buildings on its original site on the cardo (the north-south axis) of Roman Lutetia. It is one of the two most sought-after secondary schools in the country (the other, the Lycée Henri-IV, is about five minutes’ walk away), taking an utterly disproportionate number of places in the competitive entrance examination for the Ecole Normale Supérieure (nursery of most of the twentieth-century philosophers), which with the other grandes écoles (professional schools) forms the main way into a steady and well-paid intellectual career.

These are all institutions that a nineteenth-century Frenchman would recognize, though he would be astonished to see women attending them. But the country they serve, and in particular the potential audience for literature, has changed and is changing in dramatic ways. First of all, written texts, and particularly written fiction, now have to compete with various visual media offering quicker stimulation, starting with the cinema (now more than a hundred years old), but now including television, DVDs, downloads and interactive video games. The French intellectual world has been quick to co-opt these as new ’arts’: not only new films but also new computer games are given serious reviews in newspapers and magazines. Indeed film (’le 7e art’) is now seen as an art under threat from newer media, and is subsidised and heavily promoted to children by schools as well as the cinema industry. But the most popular new films are usually American, dubbed or sub-titled. Both children and adults are keen consumers of stories in strip-cartoon form called BD (bande dessinée), sometimes referred to as ’le 9e art’ (TV was the eighth). Even A la recherche du temps perdu has recently appeared in strip form. If one enters Gibert Joseph, the five-storey bookshop opposite the old Sorbonne site where generations of students have bought their texts, one finds that the whole of the ground floor is given over to BD albums. And on the ’literature’ floor, the second, another surprise awaits. More shelves are given over to translations from other languages than to works originally written in French. Many French readers now seem happier reading translated than French work: not only children, who of course devour Harry Potter and the Twilight series along with their contemporaries around the world, but adults too.

Schools still try to support the reading of French literature: all school examinations, even the vocational ones, include a compulsory test of formal French, and usually the study of at least a handful of literary selections. But they face an uphill battle with a texting and tweeting generation of students. Also, fifty years of immigration have ensured that, in the cities and inner suburbs, the home language of many of their students is not standard metropolitan French, in which almost all published texts are still written. Gifted and committed teachers can face all these challenges and achieve the seemingly impossible: a recent film, L’Esquive (2004, translated in the US as ’Games of Love and Chance’) shows a class of fifteen-year-old students, mostly of immigrant background, putting on a play by Marivaux, of all unlikely choices. But the difficulties remain, and are well illustrated by Laurent Cantet’s 2008 film Entre les murs (The Class — literally ’Within the Walls’).

New ’literary’ novels usually sell poorly, unless they are nominated for or win one of the numerous prizes awarded every year, when their sales can increase ten or a hundredfold. It is still a ritual part of the rentrée, the slow return from the long summer holidays, to read the book or books of the year, and a very large proportion of new titles are published in time for September reviews, in the hope of catching these seasonal readers. Newly published poetry barely sells at all, but then it never has since the days of Victor Hugo and François Coppée. Performance poetry, called ’slam’, is popular at present: it is staged in cafes and clubs, anyone can participate and there is drink and sometimes music.

In general, and particularly in Paris where the left-wing city council controls subsidies and venues, there seems to be a wish to deprofessionalize writing, to play down traditional French literary forms and promote new media and productions associated with the former colonies and the now large population of immigrant descent. The Paris equivalent of ’Poems on the Tube’ are almost invariably very short, and usually by little-known or unknown writers.

Symbolic of changing tastes is the fate of the Gaîté Lyrique theatre, once run by Offenbach and the home of operetta in the twentieth century, which has just been converted by the city, in a programme taking years and costing millions, to be the home of ’les arts numériques’: digital arts. Its programmes will include rock concerts and ’projections numériques’: there is also a permanent bank of seventy screens on which visitors can play ’artistic’ — i.e. not commercial — computer games.

In the face of all this, the fact that written texts may soon migrate from paper to electronic reading devices seems a relatively manageable change. But will people still want to read, to define themselves as readers and writers? The large number of people still to be seen reading books on the Metro (and they almost always are books so far, rather than other hand-held devices) suggests hope. But a certain relationship of the French to their literature does seem to be changing. The nineteen-year-old Rimbaud, still with only three or four poems published, when he had to fill in an official form described himself as an ’homme de lettres’. Will any twenty-first-century young men or women think of themselves in this way? The future will tell.