Dorgelès, Roland (1886–1973)

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DORGELèS, ROLAND (1886–1973)


Prominent French literary figure.

From a provincial middle-class family, Roland Dorgelès (born Roland Lécavelé) was a Parisian journalist and bohemian, friendly with artists and writers, who became well-known as the author of the popular and widely translated novel of World War I, Les croix de bois (1919; Wooden Crosses, 1921). Dorgelès drew on his military experience, first as an infantryman and later in the air force; he was injured in a plane crash in 1917. Although he began work on Wooden Crosses during the war, censorship delayed publication until 1919. While the immediate postwar period was less favorable to war novels than had been the case during the conflict, the book nonetheless was a singular success that won the Femina Prize for the year's best novel; the Prix Goncourt, however, went to A l'Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove) by Marcel Proust (1871–1922). Nevertheless, a decade later, Dorgelès was invited to join the Académie Goncourt.

Although fiction, Wooden Crosses offered a realistic description of army life and the horrors of war. Dorgelès liked to say: "I hated the war but love those who made it." Although his work was less political than that of Henri Barbusse (1873–1935) and less accurate than the diaries of Maurice Genevoix (1890–1980), Dorgelès enthralled his readers with his narrative sweep. His work also reflected the resentment of soldiers who sometimes felt abandoned and even betrayed on the home front. This was a view he expressed again in Le réveil des morts (1923, The rising of the dead), in which, during a dream, the main character envisions dead soldiers confronting living people; the novel has similarities with J'accuse, the Abel Gance (1889–1991) film of 1918–1919. The 2003 publication of Dorgelès's war correspondence has revealed biographical elements relevant to the discord between soldier and civilian. The letters indicate that, while he was at the front, Dorgelès's mistress betrayed him and left him for another man. They also indicate that to some extent he reconciled this personal bitterness and realistic vision of the war with a measure of patriotism.

Moreover, Dorgelès did not readily leave the war behind. In addition to his published work, during the interwar years he presided over the Association des Ecrivains Combattants (Association of military veterans and writers). In 1927–1928, he also defended his views on the literature of war over those of critic Jean Norton Cru, whose famous work Témoins (1929, Witnesses) favored unvarnished "moral accounts."

Dorgelès's career as a journalist provided him with a steady income, and in 1932 Raymond Bernard (1891–1977) directed a screen adaptation of Wooden Crosses starring Charles Vanel (1892–1989), one of the famous actors of his time. The film was partly shot on the original battlefields with actors who were, like the star, themselves war veterans.

Dorgelès traveled widely with his Russian wife, Hania Routchine, visiting Asia and the Soviet Union, writing numerous books that combined expository with narrative writing. One such work was Vive la Liberté! from 1937, a condemnation of bolshevism published after a trip to the Soviet Union. When it came to colonialism, Dorgelès was clearly less critical, even apologetic, in such works as Sur la route mandarine (1925; On the Mandarin Road, 1926), Sous le casque blanc (1941, Under the white helmet), and others.

During the brief French military resistance to the Germans in World War II, Dorgelès worked as reporter for the newspaper Gringoire and used this material in a book entitled La drôle de guerre, 1939–1940 (1957, The phony war)—even claiming he had originated the expression used ever since to describe the period from 9 September 1939 until the French collapse on 10 May 1940. Loyal to the "hero of Verdun," Dorgelès moved increasingly to the right and penned several texts favorable to Philippe Pétain (1856–1951). However, he left Gringoire in 1941 when the newspaper became outspokenly and strongly anti-Semitic.

In the great debate at war's end, Dorgelès supported amnesty for the intellectuals who had collaborated with the Germans. He continued his career but without his former success, renowned but lacking the moral authority he had enjoyed between the two wars. The "Christian anarchist" and veteran became obsolete and unfashionable. Dorgelès was increasingly remembered as the author of one book, Wooden Crosses.

See alsoFrance; Pétain, Philippe; World War I; World War II.


Primary Sources

Dorgelès, Roland. Souvenirs sur les Croix de Bois. Paris, 1929.

——. Les Croix de Bois. Paris, 1919. Reprint, Paris, 1962.

——. Le Cabaret de la Belle Femme. Paris, 1919. Reprint, Paris, 1967.

——. Je t'écris de la tranchée: Correspondence de guerre. Paris, 2003.

Secondary Sources

Dupray, Micheline. Roland Dorgelès: Un siècle de vie littéraire français. Paris, 1986.

Nicolas BeauprÉ

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Dorgelès, Roland (1886–1973)

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