René-Émile Char was born on June 14, 1907, the son of Émile Char, a manufacturer, and Marie-Thérèse-Armand Rouget of Cavaillon. Char’s father, who served as the mayor of L’Île-en-Sorgue, was the son of a ward of the state who had been given the name “Charlemagne,” later shortened to “Char-Magne” and, eventually, to “Char.” Char spent his childhood in L’Île-en-Sorgue in the Vaucluse region in the south of France. The Vaucluse has a lush landscape ringed with mountains, the beauty of which would later fill his poetry. It is also an area of diverse industries, and the young Char became familiar with men of many occupations, especially craftsmen, peasants, and Sorgue River fishermen. Their rugged independence helped to instill in him a lifelong love of freedom. The boy had begun his education in the public schools when his father died in 1918. He then continued to the lycée in Avignon (the closest large city) for his baccalauréat. In 1924, he spent some time in Tunisia, where he developed a distaste for colonialism. He returned to study briefly at the École-de-Commerce in Marseilles, leaving from 1927 to 1928 for artillery service in Nîmes. In 1928, he published his first book of poems, Les Cloches sur le cœur.
Char sent a copy of his second collection, Arsenal, to Paul Éluard, the chief poet of Surrealism, in Paris. Éluard was impressed with Char’s work and went to L’Île-en-Sorgue to meet him. They became lifelong friends, and Char moved to Paris, where Éluard introduced him to the leading figures of Surrealism, including André Breton. Char cowrote the poem Ralentir travaux (works slowed down) with Éluard and Breton and helped found the periodical La Surréalisme au service de la révolution. In 1933, Char married Georgette Goldstein (they were divorced in 1949) and a year later published Le Marteau sans maître (the hammer without a master). During the early 1930’s, he resided sometimes in Paris, sometimes in L’Île-en-Sorgue, and made several trips to Spain.
By the mid-1930’s, the political climate in Europe was changing, and Char broke with the Surrealists in 1934, as Éluard soon would, sensing a need for the kind of action...
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