French Literature

François Villon, Poems
 [1431-after 1463]
      Villon was the original bohemian poet, hanging out in the taverns and brothels of Paris with prostitutes, beggars and thieves, and being something of a thief himself. Some of his poems are even written in underworld slang. There are numerous translations, but the older rhyming versions are often atrocious. Get a modern bilingual edition with a more or less literal translation. Anthony Bonner’s and Galway Kinnell’s versions are both reasonably good.
      Here is a literal version of his most famous poem, Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times, along with my free translation (designed to be sung to Georges Brassens’s tune).

François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel  [1553]
      This is one of those utterly unique works that no one would ever have predicted. Right in the middle of the bitter wars of the Reformation a Catholic priest and doctor creates one of the most bawdy and exuberantly funny books ever written. Full of extravagant wordplay that would not be equaled until Joyce, this literally “larger than life” story of the adventures of two giants satirizes law, education, politics, philosophy, religion, and just about everything else, and even sketches a quasi-anarchist utopia (the Abbey of Thélème, with its motto: “Do as you wish”). Rabelais’s language is so wild and rambunctious that no translation can be more than a very rough approximation. You can examine eight different versions here and see which you prefer.
      [Rexroth essay on Rabelais]

Michel de Montaigne, Essays  [1588]
      The French word essai originally had nothing to do with literature. It meant attempt, test, trial, experiment, assessment. Montaigne applied the term to his writings because he intended them as exploratory ventures — attempts to find out about himself by examining his reactions to various subjects, keeping an open, almost childlike mind and seeing where things would lead. Taken as a whole, his leisurely, rambling, chatty observations form a candid self-portrait of a kind that had never been seen before. You get to know a real person rather intimately, and he is a very pleasant person to know. M.A. Screech’s translation is usually the clearest, but Donald Frame’s is also good. You can compare them and several others here. Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is an excellent introduction to Montaigne and his continued relevance.
      [Rexroth essay on Montaigne]

Molière, Selected Plays  [1622-1673]
      Molière is probably the greatest of all comic dramatists. His plays represent a delicate balance between raucous farcical satire and the rigorous formality of French culture in the age of Louis XIV. Perhaps some of their vitality comes from the constant tension between the two. In any case, they are direct and universal enough that most of the humor comes through even in translation. We laugh at the follies and absurdities of his characters, then come to realize that we ourselves are not much different. Richard Wilbur and Donald Frame are among the better translators. Try Frame’s versions of The Miser, The Doctor in Spite of Himself and The Would-be Gentleman and Wilbur’s of Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. (Save the latter for last — it’s rather untypical, and more subtle than the others.)

Madame de Lafayette, The Princesse de Cl>èves  [1678]
      This small book is the first subtle psychological novel (with the notable exception of The Tale of Genji, also written by a woman) and thus the ancestor of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. But it’s more than a mere ancestor. Page for page, it’s as pithy as any of those later authors and far more concise (a mere 150 pages). The translation by Terence Cave (Oxford World’s Classics) is among the most accurate, and also has helpful notes on the historical context and the psychological nuances.

French “Moralistes”  [17th-18th centuries]
      In French a moraliste is not someone who preaches morality, but someone who writes aphorisms, maxims or reflections about human nature and social customs. The aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues and Chamfort would in fact often be considered immoral by conventional-minded people. At their worst, they are nothing but clever cynicism for its own sake; at their best, they present a healthy challenge to prevalent illusions and pretensions. Their extreme brevity almost guarantees that they are oversimplifications, but it also makes them an amusing and easily accessible provocation to debate and discussion:

Maxims and axioms, like summaries, are the work of persons of intelligence who have labored, it seems, for the convenience of mediocre and lazy minds. The lazy are happy to find a maxim that spares them the necessity of making for themselves the observations that led the maxim’s author to the conclusion to which he invites the reader. The lazy and mediocre imagine that they need go no further, and ascribe to the maxim a generality which the author, unless he was mediocre himself, as is sometimes the case, has not claimed for it. The superior person grasps at once the resemblances and the differences that render the maxim more or less applicable in one instance and inapplicable in another. [Chamfort]

Many other French writers are considered moralistes even though they did not publish collections of aphorisms. La Bruyère composed brief sketches of “Characters” illustrating different types of social roles and pretensions. Aphoristic observations can also be found within larger works, such as Montaigne’s essays or Pascal’s Pensées, in memoirs, letters, orations, conversations, and in fact just about anywhere among cultivated French people. They are one of the most typically French traditions, whether you enjoy them for their penetrating wit or are put off by their blasé cynicism. Isidore Ducasse was reacting to this tradition in his Poésies, where he detourns dozens of aphorisms from Pascal, Vauvenargues, etc., and Guy Debord also drew on it and added to it in his own way. La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims and Reflections and La Bruyère’s Characters are both available in Penguin. W.S. Merwin has translated Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort.

Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master  [1773]
      Voltaire and Rousseau seem rather dated to me, but Diderot still has a lot of sparkle. Rameau’s Nephew is a lively dialogue reflecting the collapse of values toward the end of the Ancien Régime. Even more entertaining is Jacques the Fatalist, a light-hearted picaresque novel in which, in contrast to Don Quixote, the servant is far more intelligent than his master. It has numerous modernistic or even “postmodern” narrative elements, partly inspired by Tristram Shandy. For some of the more radical implications of the book, see Josef Weber’s article.

Pierre de Beaumarchais, The Barber of Seville; The Marriage of Figaro  [1775, 1784]
      Talk about sparkle! The Barber of Seville (Rossini) and The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart) are the two best comic operas — I highly recommend them even if you think you don’t like opera — but the original plays by Beaumarchais are just as entertaining, and some of the funniest bits are left out of the opera versions. In these two plays you can see some of the attractive qualities of classical eighteenth-century society just before the French Revolution, but also how the edifice is beginning to show some cracks. . . .

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses  [1782]
      This novel (a.k.a. Dangerous Acquaintances) is a brilliantly cynical story of two manipulator-seducers. Modern readers are often tempted to identify with the manipulators, as opposed to the insipid and conventional victims, but in the end neither side comes out looking very good. With each stage of the plot there is a new twist of the knife. . . .

Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne, Monsieur Nicolas, or The Human Heart Laid Bare  [1797]
      Restif was a French peasant who came to Paris and became a typesetter, an ardent womanizer (he recounts even more amorous episodes than Casanova, and is extremely sentimental about all of them), and one of the most prolific writers who ever lived (240 volumes). He’s one of those people like Henry Miller who has not only conceived the idea that there’s something unique about his life, but who somehow manages to make you agree — the narration draws you in so you want to find out everything about him. Monsieur Nicolas is his twelve-volume autobiography. I read the first volume almost literally without putting it down (staying up all night) and soon went on to read the whole thing, but I imagine that most people will be satisfied with the one-volume abridgment (trans. Robert Baldick).

Stendhal, The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma  [1830, 1839]
      These two great novels are the ancestors of all the modern novels of black comedy. The protagonists are not just antiheroes, they are outsiders: the world in which they have found themselves seems absurd and alien to them, they can no longer take its official values seriously. When young atheist Julien Sorel (in The Red and the Black) decides to go into the Catholic priesthood because he perceives it as the easiest route to worldly success, he does this in a more detached manner than earlier characters like Molière’s Tartuffe or Shakespeare’s Iago, who still seem to take for granted the dominant social values even if they violate them. Going along with this moral detachment of the characters is the terse, ironic detachment of Stendhal’s narration. This is a sharp contrast to the conventional moralism and sentimentality of Victorian novels, and in fact to most fiction until well into the twentieth century. (Nowadays, in contrast, a certain glib cynicism is assumed, and readers are almost shocked if it’s absent.) Stendhal is also noted for his intimate and psychologically brilliant autobiographical writings: The Life of Henry Brulard, Memoirs of an Egotist, and Private Journals. For a good study, see Robert Alter’s A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal.
      [Rexroth essay on The Red and the Black]

George Sand, Consuelo  [1842]
      I read this romantic historical novel out of curiosity, because Debord mentioned that it contained psychogeographical scenes that might be worth detourning. However that may be, it’s certainly an engrossing story. The title character is a young soprano in eighteenth-century Venice. Toward the end of the book, and continuing in the sequel, The Countess of Rudolstadt, she leaves Venice, becomes the lover of a mysterious musical genius modeled on Chopin, goes through some eerie Gothic-type adventures in a Bohemian castle, hits the road as a traveling musician with the young Haydn, is initiated into a Masonic sort of radical underground organization. . . .

Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot; Lost Illusions  [1835, 1843]
      Balzac envisioned his nearly one hundred novels (written, he once calculated, with the aid of more than 50,000 cups of coffee) as interrelated parts of a vast “Human Comedy.” They are marked by an unusual combination of naturalistic detail, melodramatic plots, and impassioned characters. “All his characters have the same vital flame that was burning within himself” (Baudelaire). I suggest starting with Père Goriot (get the Norton Critical Edition, which contains Burton Raffel’s excellent translation plus a good selection of essays about Balzac). If that gets you hooked, try Lost Illusions and its thriller sequel, A Harlot High and Low (which among other things include the continuing story of the sinister Vautrin, who first appears in Père Goriot). Other good Balzac novels include Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons.
      Georg Lukács’s Studies in European Realism includes a lot of insightful remarks on Balzac in general and Lost Illusions in particular (compared and contrasted with Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola, Tolstoy, etc.).
      [Rexroth’s Classics Revisited essay on Balzac]

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Sentimental Education  [1857, 1869]
      An extremely meticulous stylist, Flaubert spent countless hours trying to find le mot juste — the precisely appropriate word — paring away anything that did not contribute to the exact tone he was trying to convey. These two novels are his masterpieces. Madame Bovary is the story of a woman whose romantic dreams are frustrated by the boredom and banality of provincial life. Sentimental Education, set in Paris, paints a broader picture of the degeneration of values in the new bourgeois society into greed, cynicism and disillusionment. (Ford Madox Ford, who strove to bring Flaubert’s aesthetic seriousness into English fiction, said he read Sentimental Education fourteen times!)
      You might also want to try Flaubert’s unfinished final work, Bouvard and Pécuchet, a satirical novel about two office workers who retire to the country to explore (and become successively disillusioned with) the entire range of human endeavors — agriculture, science, medicine, archeology, history, philosophy, psychology, literature, politics, love, occultism, religion, education. . . . The characters are fairly realistic, but the work has a fablelike quality more reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote or Gulliver’s Travels than an ordinary novel.
      I recommend Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary.
   [Rexroth’s Classics Revisited essay on Sentimental Education]

Charles Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil  [1857]
      I would have thought that Rexroth would have just loathed Baudelaire (as he did Poe). But while fully aware of his numerous flaws, he had no hesitation in calling him “the greatest poet of the capitalist epoch.” If he is, it is not for his dandyism, his morbidity, his drug dependencies, his reactionary politics, his miserable personal relationships, or his many other neuroses and eccentricities, but for a nobility of attitude that comes through despite all that — an uncompromising devotion to his prophetic vocation, an aesthetic intensity that burns away all the dross, a courage and dignity that transforms the banal, the bad and the ugly. Embodying all the splits and tensions of the modern world, he goes so deeply into his self that he ends up going beyond it, transmuting it in a strange sort of way, to the point that he becomes universal and speaks with the most direct impact to all kinds of people all over the world. This is why, despite all the qualities that might seem likely to limit his appeal, he has been translated hundreds of times into dozens of languages.
      Even if you don’t know any French, this is one poet who’s worth the effort of reading in the original. Get a bilingual edition, preferably the one by Francis Scarfe which has a literal prose translation at the bottom of the page, so that you can at least examine the French from time to time while reading the English version. You can find diverse versions of one of his poems here.
      In addition to his verse (Flowers of Evil), Baudelaire wrote Paris Spleen (prose poems), Intimate Journals, and lots of interesting art criticism. There are numerous biographies and studies of him from all sorts of different perspectives.
      [Rexroth’s Classics Revisited essay on Baudelaire]
      [Another Rexroth essay on Baudelaire]

Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror  [1869]
      Lautréamont is the most important precursor of the surrealists (with the possible exception of Rimbaud). Maldoror is in fact more truly mind-blowing than anything the surrealists ever wrote. The reader is almost physically jolted and disoriented. Senses are twisted, expectations are upset, coherences are disrupted, literary forms are undermined. The hallucinatory content is quite insane, often sadistic, but it’s far more intriguing than the works of Sade himself. (Personally, I’ve always found Sade pretty silly, and have never been able to understand why so many people take him so seriously.) The mysterious author, whose real name was Isidore Ducasse, was found dead in a Paris hotel room at the age of 24. His one other work, Poésies, a collection of “detourned” and often mutually contradictory maxims, is as strange and unique as Maldoror, but with a totally different tone. It seems at first sight to represent a renunciation of Maldoror, but should probably be understood rather as a new stage of the same revolt, continuing the negation at another level by negating any illusions that might have been engendered by the previous work. The best translations of both works are by Alexis Lykiard.
      [Situationist essay on détournement]

Arthur Rimbaud  [1854-1891]
      An adolescent rebel who undertook the most audacious visionary adventures, wrote some of the most astonishing poetry of all time, then abandoned literature before the age of 21, Rimbaud has inspired countless readers to obsession. Much of what has been written about him exaggerates and distorts his life and work — people tend to project their own fantasies onto him — but behind all the hype there is a truly remarkable poet and individual. There are numerous translations. I still like Louise Varèse’s versions of Illuminations and A Season in Hell as well as any others I’ve seen. Of the complete editions, Wallace Fowlie’s edition is relatively literal and the original French text is conveniently located on facing pages.
      [Rexroth’s Classics Revisited essay on Rimbaud]
      [Another Rexroth essay on Rimbaud]

Émile Zola, L’Assommoir  [1877]
      A powerful naturalistic novel about down-and-out working-class life in nineteenth-century Paris. Note: The book has sometimes been translated as The Dram Shop or The Gin Palace, but most translations retain the original French title, a slang term that literally means “a place where you get knocked out” — i.e. a cheap lower-class bar where you go to get dead drunk.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time  [1922]
      Proust’s immense work can seem tedious or ridiculous if you’re not in the right mood. But if you settle down in a quiet place and immerse yourself in it, it’s like entering into another person’s life. No other book gives the same impression of the infinite richness of memory and subjectivity. Reflecting the fact that our lives move in constantly shifting and overlapping subjective times (in addition to conventional uniform chronological time), the book consists primarily of the interweaving of different themes within the narrator’s reveries, as he mulls over his past and tries to recapture his most cherished experiences; so that the work is organized more like a contrapuntal musical composition than an ordinary novel with a sequential plot — a composition in which long and complex sentences like the one you are now reading are used to reinforce the impression of the endless twists and turns of time and memory. The society that Proust portrayed happened to be a relatively interesting one (in a decadent sort of way); but the real point, I think, is that anyone’s life, if examined in such depth and with such sensitivity, is full of interest.
      The two editions with the title In Search of Lost Time (one revised by Terence Kilmartin and then further revised by D.J. Enright, the other done by several different translators under the editorship of Christopher Prendergast) are somewhat more accurate than the earlier Moncrieff translation entitled Remembrance of Things Past, as well as being based on a more recent and more definitive French edition. Get whichever one you feel most comfortable with and try at least the first volume (Swann’s Way).

      As an adolescent I was fascinated by surrealism, but in many ways it now seems pretty silly to me. Its stress on desire and subjectivity, understandable as that may have been as a reaction against the repressive forces of the existing order, at the same time tended to reinforce some rather self-indulgent tendencies in its proponents, and its vaunting of the unconscious and the irrational tended to foster the notion that the problem with the ruling system is that it is too rational (whereas it is actually, of course, characterized by its fundamental irrationality). These one-sided positions prevented surrealism from developing a comprehensive, all-sided vision of life. Whole terrains — history, science, ethics, spirituality — were abandoned to the enemy without a fight. Even aesthetically, the surrealists’ literary and artistic creations were mostly pretty thin stuff. Free-associated poetry soon became boring, however exciting it may have seemed at first, and the paintings, if somewhat more interesting, ultimately revolutionized nothing more than the walls of museums and the homes of a few wealthy consumers.
      Still, surrealism did represent a powerful striving for freedom and adventure. What remains interesting is its explorations and experiments in everyday life, along with some of its outrageous scandals and polemics. These contain lots of suggestive ideas that were to some extent appropriated by the situationists and that might still be drawn on for new subversive ventures.
      André Breton’s Nadja and Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant give some taste of the surrealists’ practice of random strolling, which carried on a long tradition since De Quincey and Baudelaire and influenced the “dérives” of Guy Debord and his friends in the 1950s. Most of Breton’s other works have been translated. I suggest that you get one of the anthologies — Mark Polizzotti’s André Breton: Selections or Franklin Rosemont’s What Is Surrealism?: Selected Writings of André Breton — and perhaps also the Manifestoes of Surrealism.
      Maurice Nadeau’s The History of Surrealism is the standard history. Breton gives his own perspective in Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. Raoul Vaneigem’s A Cavalier History of Surrealism is a briefer and more critical assessment.
      [Debord essay on surrealism and other avant-garde movements]
      [Debord essay on dérives]

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night  [1932]
      A dynamite autobiographical novel, beginning on the battlefields of World War I and continuing with down-and-out adventures in the jungles of Africa, the factories of America and the slums of Paris. The narrative is very colloquial and antiliterary — somewhat like Henry Miller but more bitter and cynical. If you like it, you may want to read the sequel, Death on the Installment Plan (a.k.a. Death on Credit), which has an even more bitter tone and a much more slangy and frantic style. Céline later became fascistic and rabidly anti-Semitic, but in these two early novels his assault on society still has an underlying humanity. The best translations are by Ralph Manheim.

French Poetry 1850-1950
With the exception of Villon, early French poetry has never impassioned most foreign readers. But beginning around 1850 it really takes off — no other country can claim so many consistently great poets during the following hundred years, and many of them resonate with readers all over the world even in translation. Victor Hugo, Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Isidore Ducasse (Lautréamont), Tristan Corbière, Jules Laforgue, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, André Breton, Antonin Artaud, O.V. de Lubicz-Milosz, Léon-Paul Fargue, Francis Carco, Pierre Mac Orlan, Jules Supervielle, Henri Michaux, and Jacques Prévert are among the most notable, but there are many others.
      Baudelaire is the source and inspiration of virtually all the poets who came after him. In one sense he (along with Nerval and Hugo) can be seen as the culmination of the Romantic movement, but he also began the revolt against it. The succeeding currents went in many different directions. Verlaine exemplified the more traditional lyrical tendency, Rimbaud and Lautréamont the most innovative and apocalyptical. Corbière and Laforgue developed new forms of ironic detachment that were later adopted by T.S. Eliot. Mallarmé was a pioneer of “art for art’s sake” aesthetic subtlety, seeking an ideal of pure poetry. Valéry carried on a similar quest but in a more cerebral manner. Apollinaire heralded the modern age with poems on contemporary urban life in a new style influenced by the dissociative techniques of cubist art. Reverdy represents a more stark, intense, interior form of “poetic cubism.”
      Many of these poets challenged the limits of literary art, at one extreme by abandoning it (Rimbaud), others by pushing the envelope of poetic content or form, sometimes in a violent and explicitly revolutionary manner like Breton and the other surrealists, sometimes in a more psychological or spiritual manner, sometimes in both at once. Nerval, the explorer of dreams, and Artaud, the explorer of himself, both ended up going insane. Max Jacob (Picasso’s pal) and Lubicz-Milosz (a Lithuanian exile) were both mystics of sorts, the first more whimsical, the second more somber. Cendrars (greatly admired by his friend Henry Miller, whom he somewhat resembled) wrote poems that are expansive and Whitmanesque. Michaux explored the world of “inner space,” sometimes with the aid of psychedelics. Supervielle gently celebrated the outer world of nature, animals, and the simple things of life. Carco and Fargue were noted for their nostalgic evocation of now-vanished Parisian ambiences. Mac Orlan went further afield (Gypsies, sailors, distant voyages). His poems, like those of many of the others, have been set to music. Some of Prévert’s have even become internationally popular songs (e.g. “Autumn Leaves”). Such crossovers between highbrow and pop are not unusual in France, which has a long tradition of popular songs with high-quality poetic lyrics, from the nineteenth-century cabaret singers to great post-World War II poet-singers like Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, Félix Leclerc and Anne Sylvestre.
      I suggest that you explore some collections such as William Rees’s The Penguin Book of French Poetry: 1820-1950, Angel Flores’s An Anthology of French Poetry from Nerval to Valéry, Wallace Fowlie’s Midcentury French Poets, and Paul Auster’s The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry and then follow up with the poets who appeal to you. Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the French is unfortunately rare and hard to find, but his translations of Reverdy and Lubicz-Milosz are both in print. There are individual collections of most of the other poets mentioned above.
      [Rexroth essay on Pierre Reverdy]
      [Rexroth essay on modern French poetry and its influence on American]
      [Rexroth translations of modern French poetry]


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

No copyright.