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"The need to express oneself in writing springs from a malajustment to life, or from an inner conflict which the adolescent (or the grown man) cannot resolve in action. Those to whom action comes as easily as breathing rarely feel the need to break loose from the real, to rise above, and describe it. . . . I do not mean that it is enough to be maladjusted to become a great writer, but writing is, for some, a method of resolving a conflict, provided they have the necessary talent."

André Maurois (1885-1967), French author, critic.


The 20th century in France has been characterized by a tremendous expansion in literary output and the ever-faster pace of experimentation with new means of expression. Both Marxism and Freudianism have left a deep imprint on literature, as on all the arts. Two world wars have tried France sorely, while the technological revolution confronts the current generation with an altogether new world. The result of such profound socioeconomic and political change has been a continuous questioning of all moral, intellectual, and artistic traditions.

In poetry, symbolism continued to serve as an inspiration without stifling new departures. Paul Claudel, notable as both dramatist and poet, injected a mystical Catholicism into his masterpiece, Five Great Odes (1904-10; Eng. trans., 1967). Paul Valéry became famous for delicate poems that were at once meditative, musical, and rich in imagery. Guillaume Apollinaire deliberately aimed for modernity in his poetry, which was full of whimsical surprises. He not only coined the term surrealist but in The Breasts of Tiresias (1918; Eng. trans., 1961) produced the first surrealist play. Under the leadership of André Breton, the movement's theorist, SURREALISM aimed for a complete revolution in poetry and the visual arts to be achieved through an exploration of the subconscious, considered as poetry's deepest source. A rejuvenator of poetic imagination, surrealism launched, among others, the poet and novelist Louis Aragon, although Aragon after 1930 found inspiration in his Marxist beliefs.

The novel thrived especially during the first half of the century. Anatole France kept the tradition of political satire alive with his allegorical spoof, Penguin Island (1908; Eng. trans., 1909). Romain Rolland, with his 10-volume Jean-Christophe (1904-12; Eng. trans., 1910-13), followed later by Jules Romains with his even larger Men of Good Will series (27 vols., 1932-47; Eng. trans. in 14 vols., 1933-46), demonstrated the continuing popularity of the roman-fleuve, or cyclical novel, in France. Andre GIDE, from The Immoralist (1902; Eng. trans., 1930) through The Counterfeiters (1926; Eng. trans., 1927), novels that are still compelling, championed the individual at war with conventional morality. France's greatest 20th-century novelist, however, was Marcel Proust, the extent of whose contributions to the genre can be compared only with those of James Joyce. In the multivolume, multilevel Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27; Eng. trans., 1922-31), Proust sought to recapture the essence of lost time, for him a spiritual reality, through reconstructing the external shape or sensations of the past; the whole was narrated chiefly by means of an interior monologue.

Working on a smaller canvas, Colette produced short novels that shrewdly analyzed the complexities of intimate relations, while François Mauriac took as his special preserve, in a series of novels influenced by his Catholicism, the eternal battle between spirit and flesh. Two of the freshest voices in the decade before World War II belonged to Louis Ferdinand Céline, whose cynical, often scurrilous Journey to the End of Night (1932; Eng. trans., 1934) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936; Eng. trans., 1938) spoke for the fascism to come, and to the then politically radical adventurer-writer André Malraux in Man's Fate (1933; Eng. trans., 1934) and Man's Hope (1937; Eng. trans., 1938).

Philosophical EXISTENTIALISM dominated literature in postwar France, spilling over into the novel as onto the stage. Jean Paul Sartre, leader of the movement, had previously explained its tenets (namely, the human freedom to choose and to forge one's own values) in the novel Nausea (1938; Eng. trans., 1949), the play No Exit (1944; Eng. trans., 1946), and a trilogy of novels dealing with World War II. Its themes would be echoed by others, most notably by Albert Camus in The Stranger (1942; Eng. trans., 1946) and The Plague (1947; Eng. trans., 1948), in which the absurdity, or meaninglessness, of life is stressed. Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre's lifelong friend and disciple, also dealt with existentialist problems in her novels but is probably best known for her massive treatise on the status of women, The Second Sex (1949; Eng. trans., 1952), and a series of distinguished memoirs.

From the 1950s, the dominant trend was the NEW NOVEL, or antinovel, as represented by Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Although these authors have no common doctrine, all reject plot and verisimilitude as traditionally understood. Their work, allied with new insights provided initially by the adherents of STRUCTURALISM, has had a marked effect on literary expression, analysis, and criticism (as for example, in the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.

The French theater, perhaps more than any other form, illustrates the profound literary revolution that has swept France since the days of Edmond Rostand's flamboyant Cyrano de Bergerac (1897; Eng. trans., 1937). The poetical plays of Jean Giradoux, especially the astringent Madwoman of Chaillot (1945; Eng. trans., 1947), continued to appeal to postwar audiences, as did the productions of Jean Anouilh, some smiling, some ferocious. But with Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1950; Eng. trans., 1958), an altogether new drama, called the THEATER OF THE ABSURD, came into being, marking a sharp break with the past. Samuel Beckett best exemplified both the strengths and limits of this theater in Waiting for Godot (1953; Eng. trans., 1954) and Endgame (1957; Eng. trans., 1958). In these two plays the sets, the characters, and language itself disintegrate into an awesome void. The plays of Jean Genet, such as The Balcony (1956; Eng. trans., 1958) and The Blacks (1958; Eng. trans., 1960), also aim at destruction, but in a fuller, more theatrical, sacramental way. Yet however baffling and depressing these productions are, there can be no doubt that they powerfully illuminate the underlying somber concerns of the present era. Above all, they testify to the ever-present originality and vitality of French literature and confirm its enviable avant-garde role.

Jean Boorsch.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996.

Atkinson, Geoffrey, and Keller, Abraham C., Prelude to the Enlightenment: French Literature 1690-1740 (1971); Atkinson, Geoffrey, The Sentimental Revolution: French Writers of 1690-1740 (1966); Balakian, Anna, Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute (1959 rev. ed. 1970); Becker, Lucille F., 20th Century French Women Novelists (1989); Birkett, Jennifer, Sins of the Fathers: Decadence in France, 1870-1914 (1987); Bree, Germaine, 20th Century French Literature, 1920-70 (1983); Brereton, Geoffrey, A Short History of French Literature, 2d ed. (1976); Brombert, Victor: The Hidden Reader: Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert (1988); Broome, Peter, and Chesters, Graham, The Appreciation of Modern French Poetry, 1850-1950 (1976); Cazamian, L. F., A History of French Literature (1955 repr. 1967); Crocker, Lester G., ed., The Age of Enlightenment (1969); Crosland, Jesse, Medieval French Literature (1956); Cruickshank, John, Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt (1959); Engler, Winfried, The French Novel, from 1800 to the Present, trans. by Alexander Gode (1969); Esslin, Martin, The Theater of the Absurd (1961 rev. ed. 1973); Fowlie, Wallace, Dionysus in Paris: A Guide to Contemporary French Theater (1960), French Literature: Its History and Its Meaning (1973) and Poem and Symbol: A Brief History of French Symbolism (1990); France, Peter, Rhetoric and Truth in France: Descartes to Diderot (1972); Frank, Grace, The Medieval French Drama (1972); Gay, Peter, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols. (1966-69); Guicharnaud, Jacques and June, Modern French Theater (1967); Hollier, Denis, ed., A New History of French Literature (1989); LeGoff, Jacques, The Medieval Imagination (1988); Lough, John, An Introduction to 17th Century France (1954 rev. ed. 1969); Maurois, Andre, From Proust to Camus, trans. by Carl Morse and Renaud Bruce (1968); Moore, W. G., French Achievement in Literature (1969) and French Classical Literature (1965); Mornet, Daniel, French Thought in the 18th Century, trans. by Lawrence M. Levin (1929 repr. 1969); Mylne, Vivienne, The Eighteenth Century French Novel (1965); Peyre, Henri, French Novelists of Today (1967) and What is Romanticism? (1977); Picon, Gaetan, Contemporary French Literature: 1945 and After (1974); Robinson, Christopher, French Literature in the 20th Century (1980); Stone, Donald, France in the 16th Century (1969); Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, Feminist Novelists of the Belle Epoque (1990).

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