Jean Giraudoux Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Giraudoux’s plays dominated the French theater of the 1930’s; his work for the stage sustained the aesthetic revolution begun after World War I and anticipated the avant-garde developments of the 1940’s. A prolific essayist, Giraudoux wrote novels and short stories that continued the tradition of highly stylized, imagistic fiction established by Symbolist writers.

Early Life

Hippolyte-Jean Giraudoux and his elder brother, Alexandre, enjoyed the idyllic childhood experience of growing up in the tranquil province of Limousin in central France. Their father, Léger, was a government surveyor and inspector, and the family moved often. Several towns from Giraudoux’s boyhood appear as fictionalized locales in his writings. His mother, Anne (née Lacoste), was highly cultivated and guided her sons through high school in Châteauroux. Giraudoux received a scholarship to study at the Lakanal Preparatory School in Paris; he was admitted to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1903.

Giraudoux distinguished himself as a well-rounded high school student; his principal interests were classical literature, German, Spanish, acting, and sports. At the École Normale Supérieure, he began to concentrate on German Romanticism, which inspired him deeply. In 1906, with a press card from Le Figaro, he traveled through Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland in the company of Paul Morand, the son of a curator at the Louvre. Before returning to France, Giraudoux taught French to the Prince of Saxe-Meiningen. In 1907, he went to Harvard University as an exchange student. At this time, he apparently decided to pursue a diplomatic career. After receiving le diplôme supérieur in German philology, he began his writing career by contributing stories to Le Matin, a Parisian newspaper that he edited. A collection of essays entitled Provinciales was published in 1909. An assortment of stories, L’École des indifférents (the school for the uncommitted), appeared in 1910 while Giraudoux was preparing to take examinations for the French Foreign Ministry. By 1913, he had risen to the rank of vice consul, and he served on diplomatic missions to northern Russia and the Orient.

Giraudoux became the protégé of Philippe Berthelot, an influential administrator at the Quai d’Orsay. During World War I, Giraudoux was wounded during the Battle of the Marne. He recuperated in Paris and returned to active service as a lieutenant in the Dardanelles campaign. He was wounded again, and an intestinal ailment weakened him considerably. In 1916, he was sent to Lisbon to train Portuguese soldiers, and the following year he joined a mission of French military instructors at Harvard. In the years after the war, he continued to write essays and stories (some based on his war experiences), married Suzanne Boland, and became head of Le Service des Oeuvres Françaises à l’Étranger, a government agency that promoted French culture. Several successful novels contributed to his reputation as an influential figure in French literary circles.

Life’s Work

Giraudoux’s prestige was enhanced when Siegfried et le Limousin (My Friend from Limousin, 1923) won the Prix Balzac (the award was split) of 1922. This intriguing novel explores multilevel relationships between France and Germany. The two protagonists—one a German Francophile, the other a French Germanophile—represent characters caught between two abstractions. Prussian nationalism and its accompanying industrialization are weighed against the Romantic ideals of an older Germany as Giraudoux articulated the reciprocal qualities of two cultures. The rarefied diction and libertarian gaiety became trademarks of Giraudoux’s theatrical style.

The novel Bella (1925; English translation, 1927) is a political roman à clef in which the characters re-create the feud between Philippe Berthelot and Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré, who disgraced his rival in 1924 and demoted Giraudoux to embassy secretary in Berlin. Giraudoux’s defense of Berthelot represents his political philosophy regarding the ideal statesman. These political views crystallized in 1935 when he reacted to Adolf Hitler’s rearmament program by writing one of his most famous plays, Le Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (Tiger at the Gates, 1955).

Giraudoux, who often wrote under a pseudonym, reintroduced some of the characters from Bella in a series of intercalated novels and stories. In these works, he examined the contrast between purists, often ambiguous, beguiling women, and pragmatists. The purists invest their daydreams with a false charm that prevents them from realizing their dreams. This theme is developed in his tragedies; the tragic character is torn between self-fulfillment and the world of practical affairs. The only resolution is the middle way between egoism and madness. Giraudoux endowed these distinctions, labeled by critics as a divorce between humanity and destiny, with symbolic resonances suitable to numerous interpretations, as in Eglantine (1927), a novel that analyzed the fundamental incompatibility of Eastern and Western thought.

Giraudoux’s later fiction, written when his success as a playwright was at...

(The entire section is 2193 words.)