On Stereotypes Surrounding French Lit


It’s cool that the LA Times published an overview of some new, untranslated literature coming out of France, but they might have shed some of the stereotypical baggage:

Until the 1980s, more common literary topics were “man and nature, the writer in Montmartre,” said novelist Jean-Pierre Ostende, whose new book about an audit firm, “Et voraces ils couraient dans la nuit” (Voracious, They Ran in the Night), is another example of the shift. “You were not supposed to write about telephone poles or the decorations in an airport.” Instead, French fiction focused on creating literary forms and “literature for literature’s sake” and avoided stories with the so-called nouveau roman (new novel) or honed in on the inner world of the writer.

“It was a little hard to talk about reality,” said Dominique Viart, who teaches at the University of Lille 3. “Literature of the ’60s and ’70s talked about itself,” he said.

But increasingly visible today, “the story is back,” said Viart. “French literature is no longer self-absorbed at all. It talks as much about the problems of Rwanda, globalization, the great questions of society. And not just the little world of Paris and the little world of writers. François Bon was one of the first to write about the world of the worker, and since then it hasn’t stopped.”

As I’ve mentioned before, New Novelists tend to have plenty of “story” in their books. I also disagree with drawing a line between talking about “reality” and talking about yourself. Are you (the writer) not a part of reality too? And, as Enrique Vila-Matas has demonstrated so well, does talking about yourself not bridge over to the rest of the world around you?

Of course, the reality that Vila-Matas discusses isn’t the “reality” as Dominique Viart construes it, which it seems would comprise something vaguely journalistic and highly moralistic. But that only brings me right back to Robbe-Grillet, whose Jealousy is, among other things, very much a postcolonial story. Of course it’s not a dumbly postcolonial story (which, I fear, is the kind that Viart wants to read).

But anyway, for me it all gets to be a little too much at this line:

French literature from Baudelaire to Balzac, Zola and the surrealists has a lofty tradition of focusing on the subject of contemporary society.

That would be the same Baudelaire who attempted to defend himself from charges of obscenity under the argument that his poetry was art for art’s sake, which, yes, the Times article decries about half a page up.

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