Modern French Literature
Modern French Literature
The history of French literature is closely linked to the state of French politics, ideology, and culture, often reflecting and shaping these realities in France. Equally important is the place given to the French language; language has often been perceived in both French literature and critical study as being instrumental in creating the order and hierarchy of society. The political and social dimensions of the French literary canon, therefore, are central to the study of modern French literature.
French writers have consistently used their work to expostulate political and philosophical ideology, and thus, the relationship between literature and social and political attitudes has been acutely important in French society. Many scholars of French literature have remarked on the importance the French place on literary figures in their society, including electing a number of them to political power. And often, French opposition literature has had enormous influence with the citizenry of France as well as intellectuals throughout Europe. Although politically motivated literature has seen a decline in France in the latter half of the twentieth century, primarily due to the increasing popularity of other media, the French literary scene continues to experiment with new forms and techniques, now focusing more consciously on the development of form rather than content.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the French literary scene was dominated by the popularity of naturalist writers and their mode of realistic, mostly linear narratives, reflecting the social and political realities of their time. A significant change to this legacy began in the works of such authors as Marcel Proust, and his novel À la recherché du temps perdu (1954; Remembrance of Things Past), published posthumously, is considered one of the seminal works marking the departure from naturalist thinking. With its examination of the nature of literature in the narrative, as well as its themes of the search for permanence and coherence in human identity, Proust's writing, note critics, is a blend of realism, philosophy, and psychology, and ultimately represents the struggle between reality and experience versus the primacy of art. The advent of World War I, the most violent and widespread conflict in human history at the time, had engendered in many French intellectuals the feeling that the entire European cultural tradition had been dishonored. Many writers saw the slaughter of thousands as deeply disheartening, final proof of the negative impact of the culture of rationalism on which the common language and culture of the time was based. This disillusionment was in part what led to the creation of the Dadaist movement. Although it originated in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916, the main activity of this movement took place in France, involving such authors as Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Benjamin Péret. The movement eventually evolved into the Surrealist philosophy, focusing on an agenda of literary and political revolution.
By the 1930s, however, there was growing tension between writers and political figures, symbolized most clearly by the relationship between the Surrealists and the French communists, leading to an acute polarization along political lines among French intellectuals. André Malraux, disheartened by the decline of western culture in the face of western bourgeosie individualism in the colonies, wrote La Condition humaine (1933; Man's Fate), a novel that reflects his perception of the struggle between these opposing forces. The beginning of World War II forced a new strain of French literature to emerge, where the writing mainly became a branch of political and military activity of collaboration or resistance. At the end of the second World War, the French literary scene was dominated by Existential activity and the work of such authors as Jean-Paul Sartre, who aimed to establish existentialist values as a replacement for the bankrupt values of prewar France. Sartre explored issues of commitment in such works as L'Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness) and L'Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason). Another major literary figure of the time was Albert Camus, whose L'Etranger (1942; The Stranger) epitomized his philosophy of revolt. Camus rejected the possibility of an afterlife, believing only in the certainty of death.
While the idea of the French Resistance remained an integral part of French popular literature well into the 1960s, several writers began to question the myth of French national unity and sacrifice as exemplified by the Resistance, and works of such authors as Roger Nimier offered an alternative, disillusioned view of the bond forged during the war. However, it is Samuel Beckett who is often regarded as the most serious challenger to the humanist ideals of the postwar years. In works such as En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot) Beckett put forth the challenge to the existing novel tradition, facilitating the move away from Existentialist literature. Now concern focused on language and narrative technique and not political and ethical ideology, and a new phase of experimentation emerged. Based on the narrative techniques of American authors such as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, the nouveau roman (new novel) created a new relationship between author and reader.
Equally relevant in the development of modern French literature is the growth of French theater, which in many ways paralleled the development of French fiction. During the early half of the twentieth century and even up to the Second World War, French theater was mainly based in Paris. A major change occurred at the end of the war, when performances moved away from Paris and into the rest of the country. Evolving from an austere and elite literary style to a more diverse mixture that allowed for a wider selection in performance and production, French theater in the 1930s, led by such directors as Jacques Copeau, saw a revival of the classics as well as staging of quality contemporary plays. Copeau, along with Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, and others formed what became known as the Cartel, the objective being to promote respect for the text, simplicity in staging, and poetic impact in contrast to spectacular effect. After the 1940s, theater activity focused in Paris again, with new writers emerging, showcasing complex dramas of multiple viewpoints. The period between the 1930s and the 1940s, led by the Cartel, is often referred to as one of the best in French theater, with both new and established authors writing. Major authors of the time included such established playwrights as Camus, Sartre, Henry del Montherlant and Marcel Aymé, as well as newcomers to the literary scene such as Eugène Ionesco, Vauthier, Beckett, and others. In the 1970s, French theater had evolved again, with playwrights now used more as literary consultants rather than creators of the script that actors then produced. Instead, as David Bradby notes in his book on modern French theater, the writer became almost secondary to the production and actors.
A major trend in the critical study of modern French literature has been the marginalization of women authors. Much of this rejection is traced to the dominance of fascist and other right-wing political influences in France in the early twentieth century. In their book discussing fascism and French politics, Richard Golsan and Melanie Hawthorne discuss the role of women in fascist ideology and psychology as well as in the history of fascist movements, parties, and regimes. They suggest that male sexuality and misogyny form crucial building blocks of the fascist male psyche that dominated France through the early twentieth century, shutting out the feminine perspective in both political and intellectual arenas. The postwar years, however, have seen a revival of female writing as well as interest in critical study of female authors who continued to write during the war years, including Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, and others.
Simone de Beauvoir
L'Invitée [She Came to Stay] (novel) 1943
Le Sang des autres [The Blood of Others] (novel) 1945
Le Deuxième Sexe [The Second Sex] (prose) 1949
Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée [Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter] (prose) 1958
La Femme rompue [The Woman Destroyed] (novel) 1968
Malone meurt [Malone Dies] (play) 1951
Molloy (play) 1951
En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (play) 1952
L'Innommable [The Unnamable] (play) 1953
Mercier et Camier [Mercier and Camier] (play) 1970
Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve [On the Motion and Immobility of Douve] (poetry) 1953
L'Improbable (poetry) 1959
Pierre écrite [Words in Stone] (poetry) 1965
Un rêve fait à Mantoue (poetry) 1967
L'Etranger [The Stranger] (novel) 1942
Le Mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus] (novel) 1942
La Peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947
Dimanche (play) 1974
Partage (play) 1981
Un Barrage contre le Pacifique [The Sea Wall] (novel) 1950
Moderato cantabile (novel) 1958
Le Ravissement de Lol V....
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Birkett, Jennifer, and James Kearns. “Changing Forms and Subjects.” In A Guide to French Literature: From Early Modern to Postmodern, pp. 200-75. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.
[In the following essay, Birkett and Kearns provide a detailed history of modern French literature, including an overview of novels, plays, and poetry.]
I THE NOVEL
1914-39: NEW IDEAS AND FORMS
The most profound challenge to the Naturalist legacy in the novel came from Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in À la recherche du temps perdu (published 1913-27). All of Proust's early work was in one form or another a preparation for this novel, which he began writing in July 1909.1 Reading Ruskin had confirmed his sense of the over-riding importance of art; translating him had reinforced the apprenticeship of writing also evident in his pastiches of the style of major French writers.2 In the fragments of Jean Santeuil, he described the pleasure derived from identifying elements common to sensations in the past and present. In Contre Sainte-Beuve, what began as an attack on the biographical approach to literary history developed into a series of autobiographical texts in which essential characters and themes of À la recherche were developed towards their final form. Just as the critical work extended into episodes of fiction, the novel...
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Criticism: French Theater
SOURCE: Bradby, David. “Introduction: The Inter-War Years.” In Modern French Drama: 1940-1980, pp. 1-15. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
[In the following introduction to Modern French Drama: 1940-1980, Bradby presents a brief overview of the state of French theater following World War I.]
When the second war broke out in Europe, the French theatre had come to the end of an era. The inter-war period had witnessed the triumph of literary drama and poetic production style; Jouvet, Dullin and other outstanding directors had achieved world-wide fame with glittering productions of plays by a new school of playwrights led by Giraudoux, Cocteau, Salacrou. By the end of the thirties, this literary and poetic theatre was firmly established in the public eye as the distinctive French contribution to modern drama. It received the official seal of approval when Jacques Copeau, the man who was considered to be its chief architect, was appointed director of the Comédie Française in 1940.
Four decades earlier, at the time of la belle époque, Copeau had set himself the task of purifying the decadent elements of the French stage. His career in the theatre started, not as a director, but as an author and critic. In the early years of the century he published a series of theatre reviews in which he developed a searing criticism of the state of Parisian theatre....
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SOURCE: Bradby, David. “Playwrights of the Seventies.” In Modern French Drama: 1940-1980, pp. 224-49. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Bradby discusses major French dramatists and directors of the 1970s, focusing on both playwriting and staging issues.]
In the course of the seventies, major changes have taken place in French playwriting which are still difficult to assess. In the excitement of the création collective experiments, during the early years of the decade, the traditional role of the playwright almost seemed to have disappeared: instead of starting with a text, theatre companies started from an idea, theme or situation; where playwrights were still employed, it was as literary advisers or adaptors, serving the interests of actors and directors. Among the factors contributing to this situation were: the emphasis on group responsibility; developments in literary theory; the questioning of established artistic methods; and the all-pervading ‘gauchisme’. Gauchisme was the pejorative name given to that brand of extreme intellectual left-wing attitude that proclaims the revolution now. Among actors, it led to the insistence that, as the ‘proletariat’ of the theatre, they had to be free to speak with their own voice. To speak a text written by someone else, especially if that someone was a professional writer (i.e....
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SOURCE: Guérin, Jeanyves. “Is There Something Rotten in the State of French Theater?” In Myths and Realities of Contemporary French Theater: Comparative Views, edited by Patricia M. Hopkins and Wendell A. Aycock, pp. 13-35. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Guérin traces the development of French theater from the 1930s to the 1960s, noting that the non-establishment authors of the 1960s are now part of the established French literary scene and as such are focusing on experimentation that is based in realism and the use of traditional imagery.]
During the nineteenth century, the French theater went through a long period of decline. Musset, Labiche, and later Giraudoux are like giant oaks called upon to hide a stunted forest. Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello and others had no French counterparts of their stature. But renewal came from the professionals in the theater. Louis Becq de Fouquières published L'Art de la mise en scène in 1884, and three years later André Antoine founded the Théâtre libre. After 1914, Jacques Copeau, one of the founders of La Nouvelle Revue Française, and the “Cartel”—Gaston Baty, Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, Georges Pitoeff—revived the classic repertory, introduced foreign masters to France, and encouraged poets to write for the theater. All of them relied on the intelligentsia and on an enlightened...
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SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. Introduction to French Theater: 1918-1939, pp. 1-14. London: Macmillan, 1985.
[In the following essay, Knapp provides a brief history of French playwrights and directors during the years between the two world wars.]
11 November 1918. The Armistice. The end of World War I. A spirit of intense joy swept over France. Jazz bands howled out their brash sounds and rhythmic beats; dancing became popular once again; parades filled the streets. Theatre flourished. Entertainment and excitement were the rule of the day. A counterpoise, certainly, to the harsh facts of war: one and a half million Frenchmen had died; countless had suffered in the trenches; still more had been permanently disabled, deprived of a normal future.
After the Armistice, Paris remained a composite of opposites. Its theatres seemed to satisfy the requirements of all classes, all types, all tastes. The classical and historical repertoire of the state subsidised Comédie-Française and Odéon offered the works of France's greats: Corneille, Molière, Marivaux, Musset, Beaumarchais, and so many others. Here young and old alike listened in rapt silence to the declamation of ‘sacred’ stanzas and monologues they had committed to memory in school.
Other people went to the theatre simply to be entertained and distracted. For these individuals, the so-called boulevard theatre answered...
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Criticism: Gender Issues And French Women Writers
SOURCE: King, Adele. “Nathalie Sarraute.” In French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style, pp. 85-107. London: Macmillan, 1989.
[In the following essay, King examines the works of Nathalie Sarraute, noting that the writer did not associate her strong sense of political feminism with her work.]
When I write, I am neither man nor woman, cat nor dog. I am not me. … I don't exist.
(Rykiel, 1984, p. 40)
I have never understood how some writers can display their life as they do. … What counts is the books.
(Saporta, 1984, p. 23)
Nathalie Sarraute's strong ‘political’ feminism does not, she has said, have a direct relationship to her creative work. She does not think as a woman, she says, and one must not consider men and women as separate, for this leads to a ‘destructive segregation’. Any definition of l'écriture féminine would include elements found in works by male authors, Proust, for example (Rykiel, 1984, p. 40). Women in her work are not militant feminists or even career oriented: ‘These images of women that I have shown are images of feminine behaviour as you continue to see it everywhere. Many women accept playing the role that society imposes upon them’ (Besser, 1976, p. 286). She also considers that her own life has no...
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SOURCE: King, Adele. “Marguerite Duras.” In French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style, pp. 134-63. London: Macmillan, 1989.
[In the following essay, King presents an overview of Duras's writing, focusing mainly on her novels.]
Woman is desire. … We don't write at all from the same place as men. And when women don't write in the space of desire, they don't write.
(Duras, 1977, p. 102)
Of all twentieth-century French women writers, it is Marguerite Duras who is most often cited as an example of a feminine author.1 Hélène Cixous, for instance, does not see Nathalie Sarraute as ‘feminine’, places Monique Wittig a bit on the side, but finds that Marguerite Duras produces exemplary texts (Cixous, 1976a, p. 879). Duras has inspired, along with Cixous herself, the most overtly feminine critical readings, if we accept that in feminine readings the critic will be personally engaged, will not be primarily giving a detached explication.2
Duras's works lend themselves to feminist analysis in their themes (the emphasis on a passion that is all-powerful but never fulfilled, the search for self-definition, a ‘madness’ that rejects ordinary society, a consideration of politics in its relation to private life), in their formal structure (the paucity of events in the plot, the confusion of...
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SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. “Resisting Romance: Simone de Beauvoir, ‘The Woman Destroyed’ and the Romance Script.” In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 15-25. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Fallaize examines de Beauvoir's ideology of romance in the context of The Woman Destroyed.]
The feminist credentials of Simone de Beauvoir's fictional texts are sometimes assumed to be guaranteed by the fact that their author also produced The Second Sex, and indeed Beauvoir's fiction is most usually read against her essays (or Sartre's). However, more recently, there has been a tendency to judge the fiction—and to find it wanting in some respects—against the conventions of the romance plot.1 It is indeed difficult to deny that elements of the romance plot are easily discernible in Beauvoir's early fiction: heterosexual couple formation plays a large part in the narrative, and within this couple the woman tends to be in what Rachel Blau Duplessis has called romantic thraldom (by which she means a totally defining love between apparent unequals—the lover has the power of conferring a sense of identity and purpose upon the loved one) to the often strongly gendered man.2
In the early fictional texts, published in the forties and...
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SOURCE: Houlding, Elizabeth A. “‘L'Envers de la guerre’: The Occupation of Violette Leduc.” In Gender and Fascism in Modern France, edited by Melanie Hawthorne and Richard J. Golsan, pp. 83-100. Hanover, England: University Press of New England, 1997.
[In the following essay, Houlding examines feminine and gender issues occupying French intellectuals during the war years based on an examination of Violette Leduc's La Bâtarde.]
At night I dreamed that the war was over, that the people with real ability had returned, that I was scurrying like a mangy dog to the refuge of an unemployment bureau. I would wake up soaked with sweat, convince myself with a stammering voice that it was a nightmare, then fall asleep again.1
Nightmarish images of the liberation of France from Nazi occupation recur frequently in Violette Leduc's autobiographical work, La Bâtarde (1964). At no point in this work does Leduc take part in her country's euphoric anticipation of Allied victory over the German occupying forces. Rather, for Violette Leduc, the liberation of France portends a dysphoric return to unemployment, despair, shame, and submission to those more able than herself. Who, we might ask, or what kind of woman would dread the end of Nazi domination and of history's most horrific international conflict? And, perhaps more scandalously, who would...
(The entire section is 10325 words.)
Criticism: Ideology And Politics
SOURCE: Anderson, Kirsteen H. R. “Imagination and Ideology: Ethical Tensions in Twentieth-Century French Writing.” Modern Language Review 96 (January 2001): 47-60.
[In the following essay, Anderson traces the development of the French ethical imagination in the twentieth century, noting that as the century progressed, French intellectuals moved away from forms of thought that were morally accountable to their historical and cultural context.]
Four prophetic presences could be taken to represent stages in the development of the French ethical imagination in the course of the twentieth century. Valéry's Hamlet, questioning the very ground on which European intellectual identity stands and the precariousness of its continuing existence (La Crise de l'Esprit, 1919); Camus's Clamence, denouncing yet simultaneously affirming the guilt-ridden hypocrisy of European bourgeois consciousness (La Chute, 1956); Tournier's Ogre, poised on the Franco-German frontier as he sifts the debris of Nazi totalitarianism for any redeeming shards of meaning (Le Roi des Aulnes, 1970); and Irigaray's Antigone, appealing ironically for rebirth from beneath centuries of phallogocentric rubble (Ce Sexe qui n'en est pas un, 1977).
Under their aegis I shall examine the tendency for imagination, as a concept implying subjective agency and accountability, to lose ground, as the century...
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Criticism: Modern French Poetry
SOURCE: Balakian, Anna. “From Mallarmé to Breton: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Poetics of Ambiguity.” In Writing in a Modern Temper: Essays on French Literature and Thought in Honor of Henri Peyre, edited by Mary Ann Caws, pp. 118-34. Saratoga, CA: Amna Libri, 1984.
[In the following essay, Balakian traces the path of modern French poetry with an examination of the works of Stéphane Mallarmé and André Breton.]
Separated by half a century, Stéphane Mallarmé and André Breton follow each other like two milestones on the path of modern poetics, and their roles as heads of literary schools, symbolism and surrealism, invite comparison. Their positions as masters in the throes of the poetic activities of the avant-garde of their respective times had gained for them a cosmopolitan following in Paris, clusters of poets who were as much affected by the stature of their two personalities as by their pronouncements. By associating poetics with the processes in the other arts, such as music and dance in the case of Mallarmé and painting in the case of Breton, they succeeded in reducing the distance between poets and other categories of artists but also increased the gap between poetry and the other forms of literature, particularly in the dislike both expressed of the narrative form. At the end of their careers both reached advanced forms of writing, Mallarmé with his Un Coup de dés jamais...
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SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. “Yves Bonnefoy.” In The Contemporary Poetry of France: Eight Studies, pp. 117-36. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1985.
[In the following essay, Bishop presents an overview of Bonnefoy's poetry, characterizing the poet as one of the most influential in modern French letters.]
Les mots comme le ciel Infini Mais tout entier soudain dans la flaque brêve(1)
From the publication in 1953 of his first major collection of poetry, Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, Yves Bonnefoy has exercised a fascination and influence in the realm of French letters that, having steadily grown, may now be said to have reached their point of full blossoming. His importance in the history of modern French literature is quite assured and may well be deemed ultimately even greater than those responsible for the 1983 colloque de Cerisy devoted to his work clearly already think. Author of fine translations of Shakespeare, eloquent and profound writings on the history and nature of art and poetry, Bonnefoy has allowed his poetic, and his creativity to develop away from the strict confines of literary schools and even broad contemporary intellectual trends, and rather in loose, though intimate contact with powerful and solitary voices of both the past—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Jouve, for example—and his own time: Jacques Dupin, Philippe Jaccottet, André Frénaud, André du...
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Criticism: Resistance Literature
SOURCE: Higgins, Ian. Introduction to Anthology of Second World War French Poetry, pp. 1-51. London: Methuen, 1982.
[In the following excerpt from the introduction to Anthology of Second World War French Poetry, Higgins provides a critical analysis of French war poetry.]
A remarkable literary feature of the war was the sudden popularity of poetry. Many looked to it, both as readers and as writers, for a crystallization of their suffering and grief. The same was true, though less spectacularly, in Britain. But poetry also had practical advantages for résistants wanting maximum impact in clandestine publications. For instance, it need not take up much space—an important factor if you cannot get your hands on paper (which at that time was severely rationed). Another advantage is that rhythm and rhyme implant poetry more easily in the memory—an important factor when it was dangerous to carry compromising pieces of paper—and so many morale-boosting texts were spread by word of mouth. One of the most notable features of the Occupation, however, was the combination of legality with subversiveness in a kind of writing known as contrebande.
A lot of the poems in this anthology are of this type. Contrebande poetry has two themes: one on the surface—for example, love, nature, God—to which the authorities cannot take...
(The entire section is 8591 words.)
SOURCE: Atack, Margaret. “Structures of Irony.” In Literature and the French Resistance: Cultural Politics and Narrative Forms, 1940-1950, pp. 208-31. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Atack examines postwar French literature.]
‘THE GAME OF WAR AND CHANCE’1
In L'Univers concentrationnaire (The Concentration Camp World), David Rousset places the concentration camps under the patronage of the modern masters of the grotesque, Jarry's Ubu, Kafka and Céline,2 to present the incongruous juxtaposition of terror and bureaucratic order; but the discovery of the grotesque absurdity of this closed world is a key to survival, a sign of human resilience defying inhuman degradation. The post-war novel of the Occupation is paradoxically both less bleak and more pessimistic, burlesque or grotesque rather than tragic, as the incongruities of the human tragi-comedy are ironically highlighted by the narrator or by the structure of the narrative. All the novels of ambiguity accentuate to a greater or lesser extent the incoherence of the times, its failure to be accommodated within clear moral categories. The kaleidoscope of opinions and actions in Les Epées and La Culbute are reduced to appearing no more than absurd posturings as the main characters at the centre move between pro-Resistance, pro-Vichy and...
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Britton, Celia. The Nouveau Roman: Fiction, Theory, and Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 231 p.
Focuses on the nouveau roman style of novel-writing in France, leading into a discussion of the counter-reaction to this style of writing during the 1980s.
Hamer, Kathyryn. “Cultural (Pre)Occupation: Comoedia and French Identity, 1941-44.” Literature and History 10 (spring 2001): 42-53.
A discussion of literary activity in France during the second world war.
Hodson, Leighton, ed. Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage. London and New York: Routledge, 1989, 421 p.
Selected essays from a conference focusing on the exploration of the relationship between aspects of history, literature, and film.
Hollier, Denis, ed. A New History of French Literature. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1989, 1150 p.
A detailed history of French literature, from 778 A.D. to the present day.
Kaplan, Alice Yaeger. Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, 214 p.
Study of the effect of fascism on French literary and intellectual activity.
Poster, Mark. Existential Marxism in...
(The entire section is 251 words.)