Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921
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,...
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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 hinted at in Le Marteau sans maître: the defense of the oppressed and the fight for justice. In 1935, Char accepted a job as manager of the chalk pits in Vaucluse, but he soon resigned. In 1936, he was seriously ill as a result of blood poisoning, and he spent a year—the same year the Spanish Civil War began—convalescing in Cannes. He published Placard pour un chemin des écoliers (sign for a bypath) and Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (somewhere night is ruled) in the late 1930’s, both titles indicating his growing sense of commitment. As 1939 ended, Char found himself mobilized into the artillery in Alsace, where he fought until the French surrender.
Returning to L’Île-en-Sorgue, Char was suspected by the Vichy police of being a communist because of his association with Surrealism. He fled with Georgette to the Alps and there began his activities as a maquisard in the Armée Secrète. Using the name Captain Alexandre from 1943 to 1945, Char became the departmental commander of the Parachute Landing Division of the Second Region of the Forces françaises combattantes, and deputy to the regional commander of the Free French operations network. He was wounded in combat against the Germans in June, 1944, and, after being cared for by Resistance doctors, he continued to Algeria in July, 1944, in response to a summons from the North Africa Allied Council. Subsequently, he was parachuted into France and participated in the battles to liberate Provence. Demobilized in 1945, he received several decorations for his service, including the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.
From 1939 to the liberation of France, Char had not published any poetry. When Seuls demeurant (the only ones left) and Leaves of Hypnos appeared, he became famous. Georges Mounin’s critique Avez-vous lu Char? (1947; Have you read Char?) praised Char’s work and contributed to his success. Char again began to live part of each year in Paris and part in the Vaucluse; he did not, however, participate in the “official” literary life. He has generally declined the honors offered to him, although he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and received the Prix des Critiques in 1966, and he argues that poetry should not be considered a means of making a living. He also stood apart from the partisan political involvements which entangled many French writers of the time—especially those who shared Char’s leftist sympathies.
One of Char’s closest friends was the novelist Albert Camus, who, like Char, linked literature with the struggle toward freedom and human dignity. Char also exchanged letters with the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak and, beginning in 1955, kept in close contact with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, the audience for Char’s poetry grew, and he was translated into numerous foreign languages. Beginning with his association with Georges Braque in 1947, Char has often published his poetry in beautiful editions, illustrated by celebrated contemporary artists such as Picasso, Nicolas de Stäel, Louis Broder, and Louis Fernandez. Char also illustrated his poetry himself. His interest in philosophy has dominated his later poetry, and since the 1950’s, Char saw his role as poet as that of a commentator on society, a revolutionary in the service of humankind. He died in Paris on February 19, 1988.