French literature: tradition and modernity

The writers of today must prove themselves worthy of the inspired generation of modern classic authors who preceded them: Gide, Sartre, Camus, Céline, Cohen, Aragon, Malraux, Mauriac, Anouilh, Beckett, Genet and Montherlant. Their task is all the more difficult because literature and the arts are no longer marked by clearly identifiable movements or schools, as they were at the time of the Surrealists. Admittedly, the group known as the Hussards, despite being orphaned since the deaths of Roger Nimier, Antoine Blondin and Jacques Laurent, can still rely on Michel Déon to perpetuate the nonconformist traditions fashioned in the years immediately following the war. The Nouveau Roman authors of the fifties such as Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute have pursued their literary experiments, while Claude Simon’s work received an ultimate accolade in the shape of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985.

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The Book Fair, Paris
The Book Fair, Paris
a yearly event that attracts
over 185,000 visitors.
© F. de La Mure / M.A.E

In fact, the dominant impression today is that of a series of remarkable experiences, each of which follows its own individualistic path from one work to the next. A prime example is Julien Gracq, who has been pursuing a solitary dialogue with the great classical tradition since the publication of Chateau d’Argol. Mention should also be made of Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman to be elected a member of the French Academy, who left behind a body of works deeply rooted in history (Memoirs of Hadrian, L’Oeuvre au noir), Marguerite Duras, who finally won over the general public with her novel The Lover, and Michel Tournier, author of Friday and The Ogre. Philippe Sollers, Jean-Marie Le Clézio, Patrick Modiano, Patrick Grainville, Pascal Quignard and Jean Echenoz are among the most reputed writers of the following generation, but since the 1980s talented authors such as Erik Orsenna, Jean Rouaud, Patrick Chamoiseau, Didier Van Cauwelaert, Daniel Pennac, Andreï Makine and Patrick Rambaud have also emerged. The debate aroused by the novels of Michel Houellebecq (Atomised/The Elementary Particles, Platform) and Vincent Ravalec (Melody for a Hustler) bear witness to the continuing vitality of literary criticism.

The novel remains the genre most appreciated by the public, but poetry still has its place in France: a new generation has taken over where Aragon, Saint-John Perse, René Char, Jacques Prévert and Francis Ponge left off. Jean Tardieu, who died in 1995, but also Jacques Roubaud, Michel Deguy, Yves Bonnefoy and Jacques Reda are transforming poetry’s vast heritage and putting up skilful resistance in a climate that unfortunately does not look kindly upon this literary genre. The literary prizes awarded every autumn, and particularly the Goncourt Prize, play an important part in the French cultural season.

Dernière modification : 09/02/2008

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