Paul Morand Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Morand, Paul 1888-1976

French short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, travel writer, poet, screenwriter, biographer, and autobiographer.

A globetrotter, diplomat, and bohemian, Morand specialized in short stories and travel essays and was one of the best-known French writers during the era between the two World Wars. His work evoked the cosmopolitan atmosphere and energetic social life of the postwar period while creating psychological portraits of hedonistic, often disillusioned characters. His witty, fast-paced descriptive prose is rich in imagery and has led some critics to categorize him as a French modernist and imagist. Like several modernist writers, Morand dispensed with transitions between poignant events and images in order to sustain narrative intensity. Despite his immense popularity in the 1920s, Morand had remained largely unknown to Englishspeaking readers until Ezra Pound's translations of two of Morand' s most important works, Tendres stocks (Fancy Goods) and Ouvert la nuit (Open All Night), were belatedly published in 1984. These bold translations elicited excitement among critics, renewed interest in Morand, and introduced Morand's work to a new generation of English-speaking readers. In a review of these works, Richard Sieburth observed, "The Morand of these short stories is still news. . . . [He is] one of the great nomads of 20th-century French literature, racing through the apocalypse with the haste and glamour of an Orient Express."

Biographical Information

Morand was born in Russia, the only son of French parents who later established themselves in Paris. His father was a playwright, painter, Louvre curator, and director of the École des Arts Décoratifs. The young Morand was thus introduced to such French and international cultural luminaries as Marcel Schwob, Auguste Rodin, Sarah Bernhardt, Stéphane Mallarmé, Vance Thompson, Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Jean Giraudoux, the latter of whom became Morand's tutor, lifelong friend, and a major influence on his work. From the time he was thirteen, Morand spent summers in England learning English. He undertook studies at the Écoles des Sciences Politiques in 1906 in prepararation for a career in foreign affairs, attended Oxford in 1908, and traveled to Italy, Spain, and Holland from 1909 to 1912. These travels had an important impact on Morand's personality and development as a writer, and he continued to be an avid traveler for most of his life. Capitalizing on his social privilege, Morand served as a cultural attaché to England at the outbreak of World War I, and later became a diplomat and ambassador for the French government; from 1914 to 1918, he lived variously in England, Rome, Madrid, and Paris, there frequenting Dada and avant-garde circles and beginning lasting friendships with Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust; and he met a Romanian princess, who became his wife. After publishing two volumes of short, impressionistic poems, Lampes à arc (Arc-Lamps) and Feuilles de température (Temperature Records), Morand gained significant praise and attention for his first short story collection, Tendres stocks, and enjoyed tremendous success with Ouvert la nuit, which yielded 100 printings less than two years after its publication and has been reissued many times since. Although Morand was a popular and prolific writer during the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote sparingly after the onset of World War II. In 1958 Morand was nominated to the Académie Française, but was forced to withdraw his candidacy because he had acted as ambassador to Switzerland for the Vichy government of Occupied France during World War II, a role that had caused him to be banished from France. He was eventually elected to the Académie in 1968, at the age of eighty. Morand died in Paris in 1976.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Morand's short stories are products of Morand's wanderlust and reflections of the moral, physical, and spiritual devastation left by World War I. His stories are marked by eccentric characters, fast-paced narration, disorderly descriptions, and unexpected, humorous imagery. Each of the three stories in Tendres stocks, "Clarissa," "Aurore," and "Delphine," describes the experiences of three young women drifting in wartime London, while Ouvert la nuit contains six stories, each set in a different European city and featuring a different female victim of the moral and material disintegration of Europe. Tendres stocks keenly observes the evolution of morality and the relationship between the sexes and Ouvert la nuit unveils exotic and erotic themes. These were portraits of young women whom, as Proust pointed out, "we refused to consider as women before such artists as Renoir, Giraudoux, or Morand brought them to our attention." Fermé la nuit (Closed All Night), considered to be a male counterpart to Ouvert la nuit, similarly portrays the chaotic lives of four colorful men: a German, an Irishman, a Frenchman, and an Asian refugee in London. Morand's other short fiction collections include L'Europe galante (Europe at Love), in which the common themes are love and sexuality; East India and Company, twelve stories written in English and set in the Orient; and Magie noire (Black Magic), a series of stories in which African characters living in Western societies feel compelled to return to their African heritage.

Critical Reception

Although Morand's early short stories were praised by such literary figures as Pound and Proust, who wrote a preface for Tendres stocks, Morand's sporadic output after the 1930s contributed to the gradual decline of his reputation as a popular and critically respected writer. His importance in French literature is debated: critics acknowledge his command of style and technique and his descriptive powers, yet several contend that his themes are often superficial, his characters exaggeratedly eccentric, and his observations on cultural characteristics overly generalized. Other critics have pointed to what they consider misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, and pro-Nazi themes in Morand's work. Nevertheless, Morand's early stories continue to be regarded as representative of international literary and cultural tastes of the 1920s. George Lemaître, writing in 1938, commented: "Beyond any doubt Morand is the most typical representative and interpreter in French literature of the world of today. . . . His defects and his merits, are they not the defects and merits of the world today? . . . That is why his recording of our ordeals and woes will remain permanently one of the most invaluable and illuminating testimonies of the spirit of our age."