Modern French Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.