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Gascar, Pierre

GASCAR, Pierre

Nationality: French. Born: Pierre Fournier, Paris, 1916. Career: Prisoner, German prison camps, World War II. Worked as a journalist and book critic. Awards: Prix Goncourt, 1953, for Les Bêtes; Grand Prix de Litterature, 1969; Prix Roger Caillois, 1994. Died: February 1997.

Publications

Novels

Les Meubles. 1949.

Le Visage clos. 1951.

Les Bêtes, suivi de le temps des morts. 1953; as Beasts and Men, 1956.

La Graine. 1955; as Seed, 1959.

L'Herbe des rues. 1956.

La Barre de corail: Suivi de Les aveugles de Saint-Xavier. 1958; as The Coral Barrier, 1961.

Le Fugitif. 1961; as The Fugitive, 1964.

Le Meilleur de la vie. 1964; as The Best Years, 1967.

Les Charmes. 1965.

Le Présage. 1972.

Les Sources. 1975.

Short Stories

Les Femmes. 1955; with Soleils: Récits, as Women and the Sun, 1965.

Soleils: Récits. 1960; with Les Femmes, as Women and the Sun, 1965.

Les Moutons de feu. 1963; as Lambs of Fire, 1965.

Auto. 1967.

Le Gros Chêne. 1977.

Le Fortin: Nouvelles. 1983.

Pour le dire avec des fleurs. 1988.

Play

Les Pas perdus. 1958.

Memoirs

Terres de mémoire: Gascogne, Guyenne, Quercy, Périgord noir. 1980.

Le Temps des morts: Le Rêve russe [The Season of the Dead:The Russian Dream]. 1998.

Other

Aujourd'hui la Chine (travel essay). 1955.

Voyage chez les vivants (travel essay). 1958.

Le Feu mal éteint; Nazis, fascistes, racistes se regroupent dans le monde et préparent leur jour J (as Pierre Fournier). 1961.

Luc Simon: 28 novembre 1962-12 janvier 1963. 1962.

Chambord. 1962.

Vertiges du présent, ce difficile accord avec le monde. 1962.

Normandie (nonfiction). 1962.

Saint-Marc (photo essay). 1964.

Normandie (photo history). 1967.

Histoire de la captivité des Français en Allemagne (1939-1945). 1967.

L'Or (history). 1968.

Chiméres (essays). 1969.

Rimbaud et la Commune. 1971.

L'Arche. 1971.

Les Bouchers (history). 1973.

Quartier latin. 1973.

L'Homme et l'animal. 1974.

Dans la forêt humaine. 1976.

Charles VI: Le Bal des ardents (biography). 1977.

Toffoli: Ou, La force du destin (biography). 1979.

Un Jardin de curé (nonfiction). 1979.

L'Ombre de Robespierre (biography). 1979.

Le Boulevard du crime (history). 1980.

Les Secrets de Maître Bernard: Bernard Palissy et son temps (biography). 1980.

Le Régne végétal. 1981.

Gérard de Nerval et son temps (biography). 1981.

Buffon (biography). 1983.

Le Diable á Paris. 1984.

Humboldt l'explorateur (biography). 1985.

Du côté de chez Monsieur Pasteur (biography). 1986.

L'Ange gardien. 1987.

Montesquieu (biography). 1989.

Album les écrivains de la révolution (photo history). 1989.

Portraits et souvenirs (literary criticism). 1991.

La Friche. 1993.

Gascogne (history). 1998.

Le Transsibérien: Récit (narration). 1998.

Aïssé: Récit (narration). 1998.

*

Critical Studies:

"The Concentrationary World of Pierre Gascar" by Chester Obuchowski, in French Review, 34, 1961, pp. 327-35; "The Metamorphoses of Animals and Men in Gascar's Les Betes " by Judith L. Radke, in The French Review, 39, 1965, p. 85-91; "The Grammar of Water, the Syntax of Fire" by Nancy Willard, in Chicago Review, 22, 1971, pp. 104-18.

* * *

In reference to his origins in the region of Gascony in southern France, Pierre Fournier changed his last name to Gascar when he became a published author in the years following World War II. The name suggests the simple, rustic flavor for which his writing was to become known. Gascar is known primarily as an author of short fiction, a far less popular genre in France than in the English-speaking world, but he also published novels, plays, and assorted nonfiction. He is not especially known as a writer on the Holocaust, but the novella The Season of the Dead from 1953, featuring a narrator who witnesses the deportation of Jews from the vantage point of his prisoner-of-war camp, is one of his best-known works. In 1998, shortly after his death, a memoir of the real-life war experiences upon which his story was based appeared under the title The Season of the Dead: The Russian Dream. It can be argued that several of his other early works are poetic treatments of certain aspects of World War II, including the Holocaust.

In the 1998, autobiographical version of The Season of the Dead, Gascar relates his experience with left-wing politics in the 1930s and his sympathy for the Soviet Union, which had already started to cool by the time the war began. Captured on the front during the 1940 invasion of France, he was to spend the rest of the war in German prison camps. After two failed escape attempts, he was transferred, along with other refractory French prisoners of war, to a remote camp outside the town of Rawa-Ruska, then in the Polish province of Galicia (now part of Ukraine). Both the 1953 and the 1998 versions develop in detail the following true circumstances. On their way from the train station to the camp, the prisoners noticed members of the local Jewish population from the white armbands with blue Stars of David that the Germans forced them to wear. During the years Gascar spent in the camp, he could see the Jews from afar, especially those who were pressed into work crews by the occupiers. When the Jewish population from areas east of Rawa-Ruska began to be deported to concentration camps, the trains stopped there on the way. The prisoner-of-war camp was close to the railway depot, and the prisoners could hear the cries of the victims from the cattle cars. At first the Jews of Rawa-Ruska were not included in these deportations, which made Gascar wonder if they enjoyed some sort of protection. Any such illusion was destroyed, however, when he and the other prisoners discovered one day that all of the Jews in the area had disappeared. Not long afterward, the camp was liberated by the Soviet army, and Gascar gradually found his way back to France. The 1953 novella uses the Holocaust as its main plot device, while the 1998 memoir, although it gives even more details about Gascar's perspective on the Holocaust than does the story, is far more wide-ranging in scope. For example, it provides an unrelated analysis of Soviet history and ideology, which explains the subtitle, The Russian Dream.

Gascar earned his living as a journalist and book critic while working on the stories that would eventually appear under the title Les Bêtes in 1953 and in English translation in 1956 as Beasts and Men. Le Temps des morts (The Season of the Dead ) was published the same year in a combined volume with the collection of stories, a fact that brings out subtle thematic and stylistic links between the two. While The Season of the Dead deals explicitly with the Holocaust, his other stories from that time can be seen as allegories of the dehumanizing power of war. All of them can be said to define the concept of the "concentrationary world" that he discovered as a prisoner of war and witness to the Holocaust. (The term comes from Chester Obuchowski's 1961 article in French Review titled "The Concentrationary World of Pierre Gascar.") Whether they are about the psychosis of a man charged with herding horses during a war ("The Horses") or the training of dogs to attack humans in a postwar French military camp in Germany ("The Dogs"), stories in this early collection draw upon concentration camp imagery to show the fragility of the boundaries separating humans from animals.

The rest of Gascar's large subsequent output rarely makes reference to his war experiences. One of several possible exceptions is Les Femmes (1955; Women and the Sun, 1964), a collection of stories that further develop the dark theme of captivity and escape characterizing his early work. Although he continued to be known as a writer with an ability to give voice to the nonhuman in an often unsettling manner, earning the label "kafkaesque," his fiction progressively took on a more hopeful cast as he matured.

—M. Martin Guiney

See the essay on The Season of the Dead.

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