The Year in World Literature The Year in World Literature (Vol. 86)

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The Year in World Literature (Vol. 86)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

The two biggest literary events of 1994 outside the Anglo-American orbit both occurred in France and both involved posthumous publications.

The first came in April with the much-belated release of Albert Camus's final, incomplete novel, Le premier homme (The First Man), thirty-four years after the Nobel Prize-winning author's death in a car crash. Long withheld from publication by his family both because the manuscript was unfinished and because of the strong opposition it surely would have aroused among staunch Gaullists and ardent supporters of Algerian independence alike, the novel interweaves three basic story lines: the Algiers childhood of one Jean Cormier, a figure closely resembling the young Camus; the adult Cormier's quest to learn about his father, killed at the Battle of the Bulge when the boy was only ten; and the history of French Algeria, at the point now when it was about to vanish. (The vast majority of pieds-noirs or French Algerians fled to France in 1962 upon the triumph of the Front de Libération Nationale and the onset of negotiations between the FLN and the French government that led to Algerian independence.) A complex, ambitious, and ambiguous work, the novel has occasioned endless and heated debate in France ever since its springtime release and has racked up astronomic sales figures as well (50,000 hardback copies sold the first week). Originally, Le premier homme would likely have been issued at approximately the time of the pieds-noirs' flight; in a large irony of history, it now appears as Algeria is again slipping almost ineluctably into sociopolitical chaos, fueled by—among other factors—FLN decline and Muslim fundamentalism and aggravated by a virulent strain of hostility toward North African immigrants among the more nationalistic elements in France. The novel is a marvelous evocation of childhood, of a particular time and place, and of the pieds-noirs' right to be heard; it may also help to some degree toward an understanding of how the present troubles came about.

Even more remarkable perhaps than the publication of Camus's manuscript was the discovery and release of Jules Verne's long-lost 1863 novel Paris au XXe siècle (Paris in the Twentieth Century). The work is nothing less than astonishing in its clairvoyance, as Verne envisions a Paris brimming with electric railways, "gaz-cabs" that jam streets lit with electricity, air pollution from industrial discharges, recorded music blaring from loudspeakers, urban flight and concomitant suburban boom, and a general dominance by "machines and money," including faxes and computers—all of it much too familiar in the latter half of our century but more than prescient 130 years ago. The book's narrative, which follows a teenage orphan and would-be poet's unsuccessful efforts to integrate himself into the new society of no-nonsense business and assembly-line culture while continuing to preserve his artistic integrity and his love of classical literature, music, and painting, is minimalist, clearly serving only as a vehicle for the author's speculative description of what Paris in the 1960s would look like and feel like. It is a cold and cruel place, where naked ambition and avarice have killed all sensations of the heart, just as the city and society literally—if melodramatically—kill the sensitive young poet.

Aside from the Camus and Verne works, "La Francophonie"—the French-speaking world outside France proper—dominated French letters in 1994. The poet and essayist Edouard Glissant of Martinique brought out his second novel, a huge and ambitious effort titled, appropriately, Tout-Monde (All the World). The "world" or universe it depicts is one marked by créolité , a creolization of peoples, language, genres—of all facets of human life and endeavor, a commingling amply reflected in the very nature and structure of this massive, all-encompassing opus, which takes the reader on a world tour and international...

(The entire section is 3,591 words.)