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French literature

The Twentieth Century

The Novel

In the 20th cent., as in the 19th, the novel was the chief form of literary achievement. Although the impact on fiction writing of such factors as the vast changes in political climate, the new concentration on modern culture, the great wars, the development of major publishing houses, the introduction of the paperback, and the evolution of the movies has been very great, French writing has maintained a concern for moral questions, individual liberty and character, and, above all, respect for language and form.

The novelists Paul Bourget, Maurice Barrès, and Pierre Loti explore the psychological explanation of human behavior. Colette, in her novels, stories, and journals, expresses penetrating insight into human nature. Marcel Proust, in his great novel cycle À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) makes subtle use of subconscious memory. Psychological examination continues in the works of André Gide. The cyclical novels of Jules Romains and Roger Martin Du Gard comment on society and morality. The surge of writing with strong Catholic inspiration include the works of François Mauriac and the novels of Georges Bernanos.

Jean Giraudoux's dramas are distinguished for exquisite style and treatment, as are the varied works of Henri de Montherlant. The novels of André Malraux, Édouard Peisson, Roger Vercel, and Joseph Kessel treat humanity's commitment to action, while the extraordinary and complex works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir developed a form of existentialist philosophy to express the pain of living. Existentialism was also a primary aspect of the early writing of Albert Camus.

In the mid-20th cent. the standard novel form was abandoned by many writers of fiction, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vercors, Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Roger Vailland, and Romain Gary. The post–World War II writers established a type of novel not greatly related to earlier works of fiction. The nouveau roman or new novel, sometimes called the antinovel, dispensed with previous notions of plot, character, style, theme, psychology, chronology, and message. By the latter part of the century it had created a tradition of its own and was widely considered to have diminished the stature of French fiction and to have forced a self-indulgent subjectivity onto the novel form.

Among the authors who continued working in a more traditional and still popular vein are the detective-story writer Georges Simenon and the novelists Françoise Mallet-Joris, Jean Cau, Boris Vian, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Cesbron, Jean Louis Curtis, Pierre Daninos, Henri Queffelec, and Roger Peyrefitte.

Theater

At the end of the 19th cent. the Théâtre Libre was founded, the first of a number of theatrical groups that invigorated the French stage. Alfred Jarry scandalized Paris with Ubu Roi (1896), a play now seen as ancestral to the theater of the mid-1900s. François de Curel, Georges de Porto-Riche, Jules Renard, and Eugène Brieux adapted the new social realism to drama.

Symbolism was fitted to the drama by Maurice Maeterlinck and later by Paul Claudel. Tristan Bernard and Henri-René Lenormand exploited psychoanalytical techniques. The experimental plays and films of Jean Cocteau reflect his astonishing versatility. Sartre and Camus brought to the stage a deep concern for man's predicament. The human situation is described as tragically absurd in the theater of Jean Anouilh, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugène Ionesco. The brilliant plays of Michel de Ghelderode were granted tardy recognition.

Poetry

The early years of the 20th cent. proved a fertile time for poetic writing. Among outstanding works are the powerful verses of Paul Claudel, the experimental poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, and the elusive imagery of Paul Valéry. In the 1920s André Breton issued a manifesto of surrealism, rallying around him Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault, René Char, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, and Elsa Triolet.

Poets who reacted against the force of surrealism include Francis Carco, Léon Paul Fargue, Robert Desnos, and Pierre-Jean Jouve. The poetry of Alexis Saint-Léger Léger is distinguished for its imagery. Among the outstanding poets of the decades after World War II are Jacques Prévert, Francis Ponge, Jules Supervielle, Raymond Queneau, Patrice de la Tour du Pin, Pierre Emmanuel, Jean Tardieu, Jean Follain, Georges Clencier, Andrée Chédid, and Kateb Yacine.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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