French Long Fiction Since the 1850's Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The ascendancy of the novel as the prime literary genre in France was established, by no means accidentally, during the reign of the so-called Bourgeois King, Louis-Philippe (r. 1830-1848). The shifting patterns of population and of economic status had made the middle class dominant, especially in that cradle of culture, Paris; it was perhaps no more than normal that the kind of reading the bourgeoisie preferred—the novel—should in that era have become what the nation as a whole preferred. The key factor in the novel’s development to ascendancy, during the years 1830 to 1850, was that Honoré de Balzac, with his visionary ideal of the novel as society’s true reflection and record, had imposed on the reading public, by his creative energy and example, his private conception of what a good novel should be: an accurate portrayal of some aspect of the contemporary world. By the start of Napoleon III’s Second Empire in 1851, it could be said that, from an exercise in imagination, the serious French novel had become an exercise in observation. The novel had turned decisively realistic. Unhappily, however, the Second Empire, which owed its existence to the violent repression of revolt, was a sternly restrictive regime that alienated writers by its policy of censorship. After Napoleon seized dictatorial powers in the coup d’état of 1851, artists and intellectuals tended to withdraw into silence, concerning themselves with abstract theory rather than with the concrete, observable world around them.

Not surprisingly, the span of the Second Empire (1842-1870) was not a richly productive period for the French novel, or indeed for any of the literary arts. Accurate observation of reality was a risky business under such a regime, unless the reality being observed was inconsequential. On the basis of such reasoning, a literary school took shape in the 1850’s that called itself Le Réalisme, publishing its own journal and offering readers novels exemplifying the aesthetic. Writers of this school avoided the attention of the state censor simply by defining realism as the art of depicting the ordinary, everyday life of humble citizens, arguing that literature had too long neglected the commonplace activities that were reality for the greatest number of French citizens. The novels produced by this school were, by and large, flat and pedestrian and did not sell; their authors had misunderstood the nature and purpose of Honoré de Balzac’s insistence on the principle of realism in the novel.

Only one writer of that period really understood what Balzac meant—Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), a brilliant recluse and a great admirer of Balzac’s work, who managed to revolutionize the course of the modern novel with his first publication, the celebrated Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). Flaubert recognized that Balzac’s ingenious notion of the novel as a record of what exists was focused on the need to be accurate, to avoid distorting reality, rather than on a specific definition of which aspect of reality merited attention from the novelist. Balzac was interested not only in the common person but also in all of society, which is why his novel Le Père Goriot (1834-1835; Daddy Goriot, 1860; also known as Père Goriot) offered a microcosm of Parisian society, from top to bottom, in the cast of characters associated with Madame Vauquer’s boardinghouse. Flaubert’s dismissive comment on the theories of the réalistes of the 1850’s (Jules Champfleury, Louis-Émile-Edmond Duranty, and Ernest-Aimé Feydeau were the best known) was to note, dryly, that “Henri Monnier [author of a comic novel about a bourgeois who thinks and speaks in clichés] is not more real than Racine.”

For Flaubert, the term “realism” as used by his contemporaries had no valid literary meaning, since it was restricted to but one corner of the observable world. Accordingly, he always rejected the label of “realist” whenever it was applied to him. Yet Flaubert fully embraced Balzac’s insistence on fidelity to the real, for that was a matter of being true to the facts, which to Flaubert was not only a writer’s obligation but also an aesthetic necessity; Flaubert was a firm believer in Plato’s conception of beauty, according to which the preconditions for any object to be beautiful were that the object be true and good. Since the only worthy objective for a writer, Flaubert thought, was to create something beautiful, he argued that the writer’s first task is to render the truth—faire vrai was his expression. If the writer’s words faithfully render the truth, they will necessarily be morally good, for the truth cannot be evil, and if the words are both true and good, they meet the Platonic standard of beauty. From that reasoning, Flaubert derived the logic of his own practice as a novelist: Research the facts meticulously to be sure that what was written was true. Since the aesthetic value of what he produced depended wholly, according to his theory, on his fidelity to the truth, he took elaborate pains to get everything correct. Documentary research and recorded observations were indeed part of his method, as he readily acknowledged, but he refused to call that effort “realism,” for that word distorted his literary purpose. The problem he saw with “reality” was that it can be whatever anyone decides it to be, whereas the truth is never merely a matter of opinion.

There was a good deal more to truth, as Flaubert saw it, than merely rendering the facts. To convey truth, words must be chosen and arranged properly, providing all the necessary nuances and distinctions and bearing the imprint of natural human speech. The mode of expression—which is to say, the style—is an implicit element in the truth of any assertion. A sentence or paragraph that is unnatural or artificial in its rhythm, sound, or vocabulary, Flaubert believed, was ipso facto false. For that reason, Flaubert devoted much of his time to rewriting, recasting his sentences over and over again, in search of the perfect arrangement that would “ring true” and pass the test of being read aloud. A sentence that could not be read aloud comfortably, without forcing the reader to breathe abnormally, was to Flaubert unacceptable and in need of revision. That kind of truth, both factual and stylistic, is a difficult standard to meet and explains why Flaubert took so long to complete each of his compositions and why his correspondence is filled with epic lamentations about the suffering he endured for the sake of his art—what he called les affres du style, or the tortures of style. There can indeed have been few writers for whom writing was a slower or more painful process than it was for Flaubert. Yet this strangely excruciating torture to which he subjected himself had a coherent rationale that points clearly to the nature of the revolution that Flaubert effected in the modern novel and...

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French Long Fiction Since the 1850's New realities, new techniques: 1890-1940

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

If naturalism in literature had indeed run its course by 1890, it was surely because faith in science’s role as the savior of French society had proved illusory. As it became clearer in the 1880’s that there were many questions science could not answer, a wave of skepticism, sometimes turning to darkest pessimism, swept over intellectual circles, and it became fashionable to point to those phenomena of the natural order—including human nature—which the rationalism of the scientific method could never hope to explain. The irrational, the supernatural, the metaphysical, in all their variety of forms, once again fascinated those who had been most devastated by the discovery of the limits of science. By the 1890’s, a religious revival and an intense curiosity about the human subconscious were in full bloom in France, and no time was lost in incorporating these new interests into the flow of fiction that continued unabated, inundating the reading public with what writers believed the public wanted to read.

Weary of the analysis of the observable data of their society, writers and readers now directed their attention to what was not observable, though just as real: the mysteries of belief and desire; the power over humans of the will to live and the consciousness of mortality; the exact nature of existence, time, and change—all the intangibles that define and distinguish the human spirit beyond its purely mechanistic components. Novelists began to pursue realities that were, by definition, missing in the naturalistic novel. Yet such is the power of custom that the analytical method, which had served the purposes of naturalism so effectively, continued to be the basic approach employed by the novelists of the 1890’s and beyond. Though these were quite different realities with which they were now concerned, novelists instinctively recognized that the great strength of the novel was its representational or mimetic power, and they were content to use its analytical process to render these nonphysical realities as well.

A typical expression of this new mood among novelists can be found in the opening chapter of a novel about Satanism, Là-bas (1891; Down There, 1924; better known as Là-Bas, 1972), by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), one of the original naturalist group. The protagonist is—what else?—a novelist who has been a practicing naturalist and an admirer of Zola. As the novel opens, the protagonist is discussing naturalism as a literary theory with a physician friend. They agree that Zola and company have served literature well but believe that the theory is now producing dull repetitions of its best work, because there is nowhere else for it to go, given the strict limits of material reality—the only reality naturalism recognizes. After the discussion, the protagonist (whose name is Durtal and who is clearly a surrogate for Huysmans himself) meditates regarding his next work and decides the naturalistic method itself must be adapted to the task of writing, not about the body exclusively but about the body and the soul, a duality that is far truer to the reality of human nature. It is necessary, he said to himself, to retain the veracity of the document, the precision of the detail, the substance and vitality of language in realism—but we must at the same time trace out a parallel path, another road, in order to get at what lies above and beyond the material realm, in a word, a spiritual naturalism.

With such arguments—or rationalizations, as some might say—Huysmans tried to bridge the gap between his past and present outlooks and to apply the methods of naturalism to the evocation of religious ideas, one of the new realities that naturalism had so far not touched.

Huysmans was articulating more than a private, personal mood with Là-Bas. By using a writer as a protagonist and by stressing the moral and spiritual realm as subject matter, he was forecasting the basic characteristics of the novel as it developed among the two generations of novelists whose work appeared between 1890 and World War II. The use of writers and other artists as fictional protagonists was a tradition that had begun with the Romantics and had been memorably represented in the work of Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola, to name only the most important French practitioners. In the original tradition, the focus of attention was on the troubled and often misunderstood personality of the artist, whereas after 1890 the focus tended to be much more on the nature of the art and of the creative process.

It should be noted that the novel about artists was not exclusively French; rather, it was European in scope, and because some of the earliest examples were in German, this type of novel has acquired the name Künstlerroman. What one may say of the European Künstlerroman generally—and it is entirely valid for the French tradition in particular—is that in the nineteenth century, its theme tended to be the sufferings of the artist as a human type. In the twentieth century, its theme shifted to the legitimacy of the art itself and the theoretical basis on which the art could claim to have a valid function in the world. Huysmans’s novel Là-Bas was thus an early instance of what became a hallmark of twentieth century fiction: self-consciousness about the novel itself and a restless, self-scrutinizing investigation into its right to exist as an art. Là-Bas was equally the herald of a second hallmark of twentieth century fiction in France, the impulse to analyze and to probe into new realities not only more immaterial and more elusive than the realities that had preoccupied the naturalists but also more compelling and more urgent as topics of concern: the role of ideas in human conduct and the struggle with the moral and spiritual issues of existence. The twentieth century novel became, in short, a literature of thought and of moral anguish, characteristically centered on the dual themes of the legitimacy of art and of traditional values.

Nothing comparable to the naturalist movement took shape among French novelists as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth century; no one theory or approach won enough adherents to become the focal center of a school or a movement. Novelists went their separate ways, each anxiously seeking new ground on which to stand as a replacement for the outworn naturalism. Between 1890 and 1914, the only coherent trends discernible in the torrent of novels being published were those suggested by Là-Bas: constant self-questioning about the nature of the novel and anxious exploration of ideas and moral problems. These two trends found a wide variety of modes of expression, however, leaving little in common to connect one novelist with another. Huysmans, for example, after Là-Bas, seemed to abandon the novel of invention, writing three barely disguised autobiographical narratives in which his novelist-character, Durtal, traverses the stages of Huysmans’s own conversion to orthodox Catholicism and to acceptance of the monastic life. These narratives, though published as novels, have neither plot nor cast of characters nor structure; they simply record a writer’s inward journey to salvation.

Meanwhile, Huysmans’s contemporary, Anatole France (1844-1924), also wrote a novel with a writer as a protagonist, Le Lys rouge (1894; The Red Lily, 1898), but this novel treated the themes of love and jealousy and offered the ruefully ironic spectacle of a worldly and sensitive writer who could not understand a woman’s desire for independence—in that way making an indirect comment on the limitations of the naturalistic novel. Thereafter, France turned to the theme of the past and tended to emphasize the inability of the historian to recover the past with any accuracy, suggesting the folly of claiming to represent reality exactly with the written word. Others of that same generation, such as Paul Bourget and Maurice Barrès, wrote in an increasingly dogmatic vein about moral and political ideas, to overcome the impasse into which they felt the naturalist novel had fallen by its presumed objectivity and determinism.

As for the younger generation of that period—those born around 1870, who began publishing in the 1890’s and the early 1900’s—they showed by their experiments with form and style, their introspective focus on artistic or intellectual protagonists, and their irresistible gravitation toward the world of ideas and of moral dilemmas that they, too, belonged fully to the postnaturalistic world. They worked in very different ways and had no discernible influence on one another. Among these distinctive voices were those of André Gide, Marcel Proust, Romain Rolland, and Colette. The period that the French call la belle époque (1890-1914) was, in the novel, a time of ferment, experimentation, and an uneasy search for new, viable directions, ways to renew and revitalize an art that had known great achievement but had lost its way when it narrowed its sights to the mere reporting of what can be readily observed.

Gide (1869-1951) and Proust (1871-1922), unquestionably the finest and most original novelists of their generation, succeeded in giving the novel new direction and new principles during the transitional era which preceded World War I, influencing profoundly not their own contemporaries but the next generation, those who came to prominence in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Nothing illustrates better, perhaps, the kind of privacy and isolation in which writers of that era seemed to work than the fact that these two innovators, although born only two years apart and schooled in the same Parisian literary milieu, should have had so little contact with each other and so little apparent appreciation for each other’s work. It is even true that in 1913, Gide, acting as editor of La Nouvelle Revue française, the journal he helped to found, turned down for publication an early segment of Proust’s great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), because he failed to recognize its originality. It is also true, however, that Gide made a full and honorable admission of his error in judgment after World War I, when Proust was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt. The principal works of both authors were...

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French Long Fiction Since the 1850's The age of anxious experiment: After 1940

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Symptoms of the new phase could have been spotted by discerning readers even before the outbreak of war, in 1938, when Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) published his first novel, La Nausée (Nausea, 1949), and in 1939, when Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999) brought out her first work of fiction, Tropismes (Tropisms, 1963)—both works now recognized as belonging in spirit to the postwar era. In the late 1930’s, however, those works passed almost unnoticed; they were not accorded serious attention until a decade later. The war years, mostly years of the Nazi Occupation in France, did not encourage much literary activity, and the production of novels slowed considerably, though one may note that the...

(The entire section is 2857 words.)

French Long Fiction Since the 1850's New voices

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

At the close of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, France, no less than other European countries, embraced the new voices that came with the era of globalization. After Simon won the Nobel Prize in 1985, the next French writer to win it was Gao Xingjian (born 1940), an immigrant from China, who won in 2000 for his novels and absurdist plays. Gao, who majored in French in college, writes in Chinese and has produced Chinese translations of the works of English and French absurdist playwrights. He settled near Paris in 1987 and became a French citizen in 1997. Gao’s best-known novel is Ling shan (1990; Soul Mountain, 2000). The story, based on a trip the author took through rural China...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

French Long Fiction Since the 1850's Bibliography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Baguley, David. Naturalist Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Contains a thoughtful analysis of French naturalist novels written in the late nineteenth century and explains clearly the originality of Émile Zola as a novelist.

Best, Victoria. An Introduction to Twentieth-Century French Literature. London: Duckworth, 2002. Provides an overview of French literary movements and the major writers of the period, including Marcel Proust and Marguerite Duras.

Cardy, Michael, George Evans, and Gabriel Jacobs, eds. Narrative Voices in Modern French Fiction. Cardiff: University of Wales...

(The entire section is 323 words.)