France Literature: 20th Century

France Literature: 20th Century

The twentieth century breathes a bourgeois climate. Next to A. France (1844-1924), skeptic and rationalist, who made the good bourgeoisie of France accept his good-natured socialism dressed in the erudite prose of his novels, his historical re-enactments, dominates the Catholic M. Barrès (1862-1923) with its progressive rationalism. But the real dispute broke out with Ch. Péguy (1873-1914). Fierce individualist (he writes, prints and distributes his Cahiers de la quinzaine), with his dramatic fresco Jeanne d’Arc he wants to regenerate humanity by proposing a socialism intended above all as an interior revolution. Converted, he made religion a mystic of nationalism and rewrote the play about Joan of Arc which he called La tapisserie de Sainte Geneviève et de Jeanne d’Arc (1913). His creed was the faith of God’s presence in the world. His poetry became one of the purest voices of Christianity (Le porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu, 1911; La tapisserie de Notre-Dame, 1913). The Church looked at him with suspicion. The war solved the problem for everyone. Péguy was tired; he feared that France was finished, corrupted by pleasure, by money, by politics, and he left for the front convinced that death would hit him, as it did, with a bullet in the forehead. Meanwhile, Symbolism with its innovative charge overlapped the latest neoclassicals. New schools were born, the most important of which was versilibrism, closely related to Symbolism, of which he shared the theses. The word of Fr. Claudel (1868-1955), certainly one of the greatest playwrights in France, is the highest example of this. The verse with Claudel is free, punctuated by the pauses of breathing.

Also a convert like Péguy, he continued his work in a certain sense. But with a rigor of adherence to the Church, to its dogmas, to its teaching that made him uncomfortable for reasons opposite to the questions raised by Péguy. Claudel restored to France the power of the Greek drama (Le repos du septième jour, 1896), to the Church the freshness of the miracle and the exaltation of a spiritual motherhood higher than that of the flesh (La jeune fille Violaine, 1892), to the theater modern the complete work, total (Le soulier de satin, 1929). Claudel’s spiritual influence on the writers of his time was enormous: Jacques Rivière was converted by him; Péguy, James and Gide suffered it. Especially Gide (1869-1951), who opposed his moral rigorism with a lucid nonconformism, which transferred all the anxieties of thought, of feeling, of the flesh into an emblematic anxiety of life, expressed in his vast work: from Les nourritures terrestres (1897) to the Retour de l’enfant prodigue (1909), to his memoir Si le grain ne meurt (1926), to the very famous Journal (1939-49). In this conflict between Catholics and laity there were authors and works of profound significance. Alain-Fournier (1886-1914) wrote Le grand Meaulnes (1913), Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) founded the Dada school , Apollinaire (1880-1918) rejected all rhetorical forms and rules. The futurist message was collected by him with enthusiasm and Surrealism was born; the word is invented by Apollinaire himself. The reality of the subconscious found wide echo in many poets: Bréton, Aragon, Artaud, Éluard. It resulted in the theater with Supervielle (1884-1960), with Audiberti, with Ionesco and with Giraudoux. In the surrealist orbit they also moved Cocteau, Saint-John Perse, Jouve, Max Jacob, Reverdy. And while the poets chose the path of free imagination, of the absurd, made logical only by personalistic sensitivity, the prose remained anchored to more real themes. The very young Radiguet (1903-23), with the Diable au corps (1923) revealed himself to be a classic author and with the Bal du comte d’Orgel (posthumous, 1924) he faced the psychological theme with an unsuspected acuteness in an author of twenty ‘years. Behind him is the greatest French novelist of the century: Marcel Proust (1871-1922), who not only renewed the formula of the novel, but opposed the reality of the present to the reality of memory. True life is relived in the evocation of the past. In his extraordinary work À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) all the feelings of the soul resurface in the clarifying analysis of the past. Art that remains unique, that closes and isolates itself in its own perfection, while a critical literature flourishes that stimulates the creation of writers such as Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958), author with his Thibault of a true fresco of the time, of Jules Romains (1885-1972) and restless Catholics such as G. Bernanos (1888-1948), always on the verge of breaking with the Church, tireless champion of freedom, yearning for a higher Christian civilization, author of denouncing books such as Les grands cimetières sous la lune (1938) and works of the highest commitment such as Les dialogues des carmélites (1948), and like F. Mauriac (1885-1970), also rigorously free in spirit, a bitter supporter of all ideas engaged in the defense or conquest of freedom, author of dense novels, as tormenting as Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927), or stories of poignant poetry, such as Le Nœud de vipères (1932). Equal commitment, in political literature, or rather in the sense, in technique, in the psychology of revolutionary action expressed A. Malraux (1901-76) in his novels Les conquérants (1928), La condition humaine (1933), exaltation of individual action seen as the power of domination over death. And while H. Bergson (1859-1941) subverts the philosophical concept by replacing the rationalism of reason with the value of intuition, J. Giono (1895-1970), innocent in the midst of so many clashes of ideas, so many problems aroused in a world who thinks he can solve them by throwing millions of men to slaughter each other on the battlefields, sings his native Provence, and Colette (1873-1954) reveals a fruitful vein as a narrator. But the two novels destined to remain as classics of our time are due to Albert Camus (1913-1960), who published L’étranger in 1942 and La peste in 1947, the first story of a man alien to himself and to others and who from mature indifference to revolt, the second allegory of an absurd war that plagued minds and hearts first than the world. As he interprets the disintegration of traditional values, Sartre (1905-80), in the dialectical evolution of his philosophy which from the positive concept of freedom understood as creativity of action comes to consider the problem of social conditioning, expressed his existentialist thoughtin novels and plays: La nausée (1938), Le mur (1939), Les mouches (1943), Les mains sales (1948), as well as in non-fiction works. Beside him Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86), existentialist narrator, who achieved her greatest success with Les mandarins (1954). If the Resistance helped to give the new poem a clarity of purpose aimed at soliciting human brotherhood (Aragon, Éluard), the postwar period exacerbated the sense of incommunicability and led to the phenomenon of the école du regard by A. Robbe-Grillet, aimed at denying the “old” psychology and poetically expressing only what is seen.

The reaction in narrative brought to the fore the Catholic moralist M. Jouhandeau (1888-1979) and the historical novel of Aragon (1897-1982), revealing the shocking theater S. Beckett (1906-89) that the formal perfection and value of the word of H. de Montherlant (1896-1972), author of La reine morte (1942) and of Le maître de Santiago (1947), or the rejection of the past expressed by J. Anouilh (1910-87) in Le voyageur sans bagage (1937), opposed En attendant Godot (1953) and Oh! Les beaux jours (1961), dramas of the absurd, where the pain of man, guilty of being born, reaches absolute silence in front of the silence of “nothing”. With these authors a radical change began to take shape in the French literary panorama (imposed by the affirmation of the new human sciences) which caused a complete remixing of traditional genres. Among the factors that contributed to the transformation, the experiences of L.-F. Céline (1894-1961), G. Bataille (1897-1962), H. Michaux (1899-1984), R. Queneau (1903-76), M. Blanchot (b.1907). Both the developments of the so-called “theater of the absurd”, interpreted by A. Adamov, derived from the rupture made by these precursors. (1908-70), R. Dubillard (b. 1923), FP Billetdoux (1927-91), and the more isolated theatrical researches of J. Genet (1910-86) and F. Arrabal (b. 1932). In fiction, alongside “traditionalists”, however of heterogeneous inspiration, such as J. Green (1900-98), L. Estang (1911-92), A. Lanoux (1913-83), R. Peyrefitte (1907-2000), H. Troyat (n. 1911), A. Dhôtel (1900-91), F. Sagan (n. 1935), M. Yourcenar (1903-87), C. (1915-97) and J. Roy (1907-2000), R. Gary (1914-80), other authors aimed to express the sense of a new relationship with reality: B. Vian (1920-59), J. Gracq ( b.1910), A. Pieyre de Mandiargues (1909-91), P. Klossowski (1905-2001), J. Cayrol (b. 1911), M. Duras (1914-96). Still others ricollegarono to linguistic and formal proposals developed by the theoretical Nouveau Roman: in the footsteps of Robbe-Grillet (n. 1922), N. Sarraute (1902-99), C. Simon (b. 1913) and M. Butor (1926) the collaborators of the magazine Tel Quel moved, animated by Ph. Sollers, and qualified experimenters such as J.-M.-G. Le Clézio (b.1940). The contemporary novel is characterized by an extreme heterogeneity of styles and contents. The Holocaust and the horrors of the last world war form the background of Horsita (1999), a novel by L. Nobécourt (b.1968), while F. Depla (b.1948) focuses his interest on the figure of Hitler (La vraie vie de Adolf Hitler, 1999).

France Literature - 20th Century