French Writing Dead?

I’m very pleased to see this article in Prospect giving some more recognition to two recent French novels in translation that Ive been praising over here (more on those here and here), but the framing is very strange to me. The title is “French literature: elitist and pointless?” (and, granted, oftentimes a title is imposed ex post facto by an editor) and the article opens with the following observations:

It seems a long time since writing in French had a global audience. Fifty years ago the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and their disciples commanded the attention of the world: from the terrasses of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, their thoughts on Marxist revolution, the third world or the impossible ethics of simply existing were received everywhere as truths of universal significance. The next generation of French thinkers—led by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—were less immediately engaging or comprehensible, yet still, when they spoke the world listened, even if it did not easily understand the politics of deconstruction they espoused. But since the 1980s or thereabouts it has been a truism among Anglo-American commentators that the influence of French literature—along with the cultural power of the French intellectual—has been in decline.

I just don’t see this at all. For once thing, French literature has rated as having the most titles translated into English over the past few years and probably rates highly among translated literatures for at least a decade. That would certainly indicate evidence of a global audience.

As to the decline of the French intellectual, recall that (recently deceased) leading French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was the go-to intellectual post-9/11, not to mention being the philosophical underpinning of the Matrix franchise, which seems to have had some small influence in the Anglo world.

I don’t know that French lit is at the same point it might have been in the ’50s and ’60s, but this framing strikes me as totally off-base, more contrived to fit an article on new French books in translation than based on anything in the real world.

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It seems a very paltry defense to name Baudrillard and say that that equals the relevance and, yes, cachet enjoyed by names like de Beauvoir and Sartre and Camus, altogether undeserved though that audience may have been and remains (as far as I’m concerned, anyway)…

The truth is that it’s not only in the realm of literature that French society has collapsed. French cinema is in the same situation, with their new extremity nonsense, etc., in the same way that French ‘philosophy’ made itself irrelevant by technicality (M. Foucault is not a philosopher but a social critic, which he conceded, and M. Derrida was, well, he was Derrida, wasn’t he? Which is to say that he made philosophizing ‘invalid,’ and as fun as all of that might’ve been for a really long conversation one night at dinner in a nameless liberal arts college somewhere in New England, it isn’t Hegel, it isn’t Kant, it isn’t even Nietzsche, who was at least a constructive demolisher, and it certainly isn’t Rousseau). The only remotely interesting French mind at the moment is Alain Badiou, and he bears no resemblance to the people being discussed in the article or above as ‘French intellectuals,’ which may be an oxymoron at this point.

As for the translation statistics, I’m sure if one adjusts for the number of people that speak French compared to any other major literary language, we might start to get a more accurate picture, let alone if we took actual quality as a serious consideration. There is no living French novelist that one cannot live without reading, and I really don’t care how long their sentence-long novel is. That’s just the truth.

I agree that the article’s angle is contrived out of basically enough. However, I do take issue with your going along with Dalkey in calling Jean Rolin’s book a novel. It is very clearly not a novel but a chronicle, in the oldest sense of the term. I can’t understand why, in the U.S., any nonfiction work that is not about a definite topic and displays some creativity and literary flair is simplistically labeled a novel. It’s a disservice both to the the book, which is bound to disappoint those readers expecting a novel, and to the term, which further loses its usefulness as a label.

That first sentence should read “…out of basically nothing.”


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The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

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5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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