French literature, writings in medieval French dialects and standard modern French. Writings in Provençal and Breton are considered separately, as are works in French produced abroad (as at Canadian literature, French).
Until the 12th cent. AD most forms of writing in Gaul were in Latin. Old French emerged from the Latin vernacular of the south known as the langue d'oïl. Because of the French Crusades and military interests abroad (1050–1210), Old French became an international tongue, and a literature arose that reflected the attitudes and activities of the military, as in the Chanson de Roland (c.1100; see Roland). A tradition of epic poetry was developed by traveling minstrels, or jongleurs. Lengthy narratives were recited in groups of laisses, 10- to 12-syllable lines rhyming in groups of varied lengths (see chansons de geste).
Another early literary strain developed in the 12th cent. from the stories of saints and heroes and the Celtic romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Later, more refined romances and allegories include the philosophical Roman de la Rose and the witty Reynard the Fox.Marie de France and others created new forms, including the lai, animal fable, and fabliau (rhymed anecdotal piece). Many of these were based on themes from classical mythology. The works of Ovid and Aesop were especially popular sources, as was Arthurian legend.
French lyric poetry developed with the songs of the troubadours and the trouvères and from the more personal works of professional poets. Among the best-known lyric poets of the Middle Ages are Colin Muset, Rutebeuf, Christine de Pisan, Alain Chartier, Charles d'Orléans, and the outstanding poet of Old French, François Villon. The earliest French drama consisted of religious plays, the most familiar of which are the anonymous mystères (such as the Mystère d'Adam) of the 12th cent. The miracle plays of the 13th cent. include Jehan Bodel's Jeu de St. Nicolas (1200). By the end of the century secular and didactic pieces, many of them comedies and fantasies, were being performed by nonclerics. French prose literature began with the writings of the chroniclers and historians, among them Geoffroi de Villehardouin, Jean de Joinville, Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Comines, last of the major medieval historians.
The late 15th and early 16th cent. saw the flowering of the Renaissance in France. Three giants of world literature—François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard, and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne—towered over a host of brilliant but lesser figures in the 16th cent. Italian influence was strong in the poetry of Clément Marot and the dramas of Éstienne Jodelle and Robert Garnier. The poet Ronsard and the six poets known collectively as the Pléiade (see Pleiad) reacted against Italian influence to produce a body of French poetry to rival Italian achievement. The early 17th-century critic François de Malherbe attacked the excesses of the Pléiade; his zeal for the correct choice of words has marked French literature ever since.
The civil and religious strife of the later 16th cent. was reflected clearly in the works of the period, particularly in the poetry of Théodore d'Aubigné, Guillaume de Bartas, and Jean de Sponde. The greatest prose of the period was produced in the fiction of the ebullient Rabelais and in the magnificent essays of Montaigne. Under the stable and prosperous Bourbon monarchy Paris became the glittering cultural center of Western civilization.
Classicism: The Seventeenth Century
The 17th cent. produced the great academies and coteries of French literature. The elegant, controlled aesthetic of French classicism was the hallmark of the age: in the brilliant dramas of Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière; in the poetry and satire of Jean de La Fontaine and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux; in the prose of Blaise Pascal, Marie, marquise de Sévigné, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette, and François, duc de La Rochefoucauld. The works of the ecclesiastic François de la Mothe Fénelon, the social philosopher Claude Henri, comte de Saint-Simon, and the satirist and classical scholar Jean de La Bruyère belong to this illustrious period as well as to the 18th cent.
These great writers vary enormously in their attitudes and interests but share a style that is lucid, polished, and restrained. They are, as a group, chiefly concerned with observing the subtleties of human behavior. Their works display qualities that have become permanently identified with the best French writing: wit, sophistication, imagination, and delight in debate.
From the mid-1680s French prose writers honed their critical facility as poetical and theatrical works waned in number and distinction. Ecclesiastical writing abounded and among the foremost figures in this field were Fénelon, Esprit Fléchier, Pasquier Quesnel, and Richard Simon. Major precursors of the Enlightenment of the 18th cent. were the philosophers Bernard de Fontenelle and Pierre Bayle.
Rationalism: The Eighteenth Century
The great French rationalists of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason—François-Marie Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu—produced some of the most powerful and influential political and philosophical writing in Western history. The political and religious opinions expressed by the compilers of the Encyclopédie (completed 1765), led by Denis Diderot and the mathematician Jean d'Alembert, had great impact on French and foreign thought.
The period was also notable for advances in drama and fiction. Successful writers of tragic drama, other than Voltaire, include Antoine Houdar de La Motte and Buyrette de Belloy; the great writers of comedy were Pierre de Marivaux and Pierre de Beaumarchais. The French novel—Diderot and Marivaux contributed to its literary form—gained popularity with the works of Alain René Le Sage, Abbé Prevost, and Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and by the end of the century was among the foremost of literary genres. Another significant form of literature was the memoir; among the many writers of the period who excelled at this sort of autobiography were Mathieu Marais, Edmond Barbier, and Jean François Marmontel.
Romanticism, Realism, and Other Movements: The Nineteenth Century
The upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era were accompanied by new intellectual trends. Romanticism, greatly influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau, was heralded in the writings of Germaine de Staël and François René, vicomte de Chateaubriand. The principal figures of the Romantic period include Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred, comte de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, Gérard de Nerval, Prosper Mérimée, Alexandre Dumas, père, and Théophile Gautier.
The period that saw the transformation from romanticism to the realism of Gustave Flaubert was spanned by the writings of the great 19th-century novelists Stendhal, George Sand, and Honoré de Balzac. The romantics and realists alike wrote of the painful discovery of self-awareness and the torments of the inner life and, in differing degrees, concerned themselves with contemporary social mores. Hugo and Balzac both wrote much-imitated historical novels. Balzac's multivolume panoramic description of French society, entitled La Comédie humaine, stands as a unique literary monument to individual genius and a remarkable portrait of an era. The outstanding critic of the era was Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, whose literary essays were models of perceptive criticism.
In the later part of the century major writers of fiction included Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, renowned for his short stories. The movement toward naturalism had its foremost French representative in the prolific novelist Émile Zola. The plays of Eugène Labiche, Émile Augier, the younger Alexandre Dumas, and later of Edmond Rostand won popularity in France and abroad. Major 19th-century French writers of history include Augustin Thierry, Jules Michelet, and François Guizot. Hippolyte Taine and Ferdinand Brunetière were outstanding critics, and Anatole France is considered the leading satirist of the age.
In poetry the Fleurs du mal (1857) of Charles Baudelaire had enormous influence, both at the time it was published and for many decades thereafter. In the later 19th cent. several circles, or schools, of literary figures became a prominent feature of Parisian letters: the Parnassians, led by Charles Marie Leconte de Lisle; the group around the Goncourt brothers; the symbolists, who were followers of Stéphane Mallarmé; and the decadents, who sought to glorify Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. The great poets of the age, including Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud, Péguy, and later Paul Valéry, worked for the most part outside such groups.
The Twentieth Century
In the 20th cent., as in the 19th, the novel was the chief form of literary achievement. Although the impact on fiction writing of such factors as the vast changes in political climate, the new concentration on modern culture, the great wars, the development of major publishing houses, the introduction of the paperback, and the evolution of the movies has been very great, French writing has maintained a concern for moral questions, individual liberty and character, and, above all, respect for language and form.
The novelists Paul Bourget, Maurice Barrès, and Pierre Loti explore the psychological explanation of human behavior. Colette, in her novels, stories, and journals, expresses penetrating insight into human nature. Marcel Proust, in his great novel cycle À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) makes subtle use of subconscious memory. Psychological examination continues in the works of André Gide. The cyclical novels of Jules Romains and Roger Martin Du Gard comment on society and morality. The surge of writing with strong Catholic inspiration include the works of François Mauriac and the novels of Georges Bernanos.
Jean Giraudoux's dramas are distinguished for exquisite style and treatment, as are the varied works of Henri de Montherlant. The novels of André Malraux, Édouard Peisson, Roger Vercel, and Joseph Kessel treat humanity's commitment to action, while the extraordinary and complex works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir developed a form of existentialist philosophy to express the pain of living. Existentialism was also a primary aspect of the early writing of Albert Camus.
In the mid-20th cent. the standard novel form was abandoned by many writers of fiction, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vercors, Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Roger Vailland, and Romain Gary. The post–World War II writers established a type of novel not greatly related to earlier works of fiction. The nouveau roman or new novel, sometimes called the antinovel, dispensed with previous notions of plot, character, style, theme, psychology, chronology, and message. By the latter part of the century it had created a tradition of its own and was widely considered to have diminished the stature of French fiction and to have forced a self-indulgent subjectivity onto the novel form.
Among the authors who continued working in a more traditional and still popular vein are the detective-story writer Georges Simenon and the novelists Françoise Mallet-Joris, Jean Cau, Boris Vian, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Cesbron, Jean Louis Curtis, Pierre Daninos, Henri Queffelec, and Roger Peyrefitte.
At the end of the 19th cent. the Théâtre Libre was founded, the first of a number of theatrical groups that invigorated the French stage. Alfred Jarry scandalized Paris with Ubu Roi (1896), a play now seen as ancestral to the theater of the mid-1900s. François de Curel, Georges de Porto-Riche, Jules Renard, and Eugène Brieux adapted the new social realism to drama.
Symbolism was fitted to the drama by Maurice Maeterlinck and later by Paul Claudel. Tristan Bernard and Henri-René Lenormand exploited psychoanalytical techniques. The experimental plays and films of Jean Cocteau reflect his astonishing versatility. Sartre and Camus brought to the stage a deep concern for man's predicament. The human situation is described as tragically absurd in the theater of Jean Anouilh, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugène Ionesco. The brilliant plays of Michel de Ghelderode were granted tardy recognition.
The early years of the 20th cent. proved a fertile time for poetic writing. Among outstanding works are the powerful verses of Paul Claudel, the experimental poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, and the elusive imagery of Paul Valéry. In the 1920s André Breton issued a manifesto of surrealism, rallying around him Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault, René Char, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, and Elsa Triolet.
Poets who reacted against the force of surrealism include Francis Carco, Léon Paul Fargue, Robert Desnos, and Pierre-Jean Jouve. The poetry of Alexis Saint-Léger Léger is distinguished for its imagery. Among the outstanding poets of the decades after World War II are Jacques Prévert, Francis Ponge, Jules Supervielle, Raymond Queneau, Patrice de la Tour du Pin, Pierre Emmanuel, Jean Tardieu, Jean Follain, Georges Clencier, Andrée Chédid, and Kateb Yacine.
See P. Harvey and J. E. Heseltine, ed., The Oxford Companion to French Literature (1959); J. Cruikshank, ed., French Literature and Its Background (6 vol., 1968–70); J. M. H. Reid, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of French Literature (1976); 17th and 18th cent.: A. A. Tilley, The Decline of the Age of Louis XIV (1968); 19th cent.: A. Thibaudet, French Literature from 1795 to Our Era (1968); I. Babbitt, The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912, repr. 1981); 20th cent.: J. O'Brien, The French Literary Horizon (1967); H. Peyre, French Novelists of Today (rev. ed. 1967).
"French literature." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 1, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/french-literature
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Biblical and Hebraic Influences
The influence of the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish writings on early French literature is limited. With the exception of the 12th-century Jeu d'Adam, an Anglo-Norman verse-play, and the 15th-century Mistère du Viel Testament, only New Testament themes appear in medieval French plays, poetry, and stories. However, there was one interesting case of "infiltration": the *Midrash and *aggadah became important sources for the French fabliaux. Fables, parables, and didactic tales were not rare in talmudic literature, and they remained part of the Jewish literary heritage throughout the Middle Ages. Indian tales and Aesop's fables mingled with talmudic "Fox Fables" (Mishlei Shu'alim), as is testified by compilations of Jewish writers such as *Berechiah b. Natronai ha-Nakdan and Isaac b. Joseph of *Corbeil. These compilations, translated into Latin by baptized Jews such as *Petrus Alfonsi and *John of Capua, thus passed into the French heritage in the form of the fabliaux. Literary transpositions also occurred, the medievalist Gustave Cohen being the first to note that the midrashic tale of the blind man and the lame (Sanh. 91a; Lev. R. 4:5) – which has a parallel in Aesop – had become the French story of St. Martin. The "Three Rings" tale was the source of the anonymous 13th-century Dit du Vrai Aniel, a Christian author transforming the old fable into propaganda for the Crusades. This tradition elsewhere influenced *Boccaccio and, later still, *Lessing.
In the Middle Ages biblical knowledge was primarily the preserve of the clergy, and it was through churchmen that Hebrew words, biblical expressions, idioms, and proverbs found their way into the French language from the 12th century right up to the 17th. As elsewhere in Europe, various Hebrew terms were absorbed by way of Greek and Latin. Certain French borrowings from Hebrew extend or modify the original meaning: tohu-bohu (chaos, disorder); capharnaüm (lumber room); jérémiade (lament); moïse (wicker cradle); sabbat (tumult, uproar); and cabale (conspiracy, intrigue). Hebrew idioms from the Bible found their way into French, as into other European languages: trouver grâce (find favor), amis de Job (Job's comforters), bouc émissaire (scapegoat). The inclusion of Hebraisms was given a new impetus with two versions of the Bible: the Bible Complète of the University of Paris (c. 1235) and the Bible Historiale of Guyart des Moulins (c. 1295) which was not a literal translation. Until the Reformation, these were the only full versions of the Scriptures in French.
Apart from some stray references in the works of François Villon (c. 1431 – c. 1463), biblical subjects only make an appearance in French literature in the 16th century, under the combined impact of the Renaissance and the Reformation. At the same time there sprang up a widespread interest in the Hebrew language and the original biblical text. In 1530, Francis I established the Collège des Trois Langues (later renamed Collège de France) as a center of learning independent of the intolerant Sorbonne. Readers in mathematics and in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were appointed in accordance with the humanistic principles of the Renaissance, and such was the liberalism of the era that the chair of Hebrew was first offered to a professing Jew, Elijah (Baḥur) *Levita, who declined the honor because of the exclusion of his fellow-Jews from the French realm. The post was not in fact given to a Jew until the late 19th century.
Humanism blazed a trail that was also followed by the new religious trends of the 16th century – early liberal Evangelism and Calvinism. The "return to the sources" inspired new Bible translations by Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples (1523–30), Robert Olivétan (1535), a relative of John *Calvin and Sébastien Châteillon (1551). The Protestant poet Clément Marot composed beautiful metrical renderings of 50 of the Psalms (1545, and much reprinted), which John Calvin later accepted in his reformed hymnal, and which inspired many later imitations. François Rabelais placed considerable store on the study of the holy tongue and of the "thalmudistes et cabalistes," although he himself probably knew no Hebrew.
Later in the same century, Hebrew studies were pursued in a more systematic manner, by both Catholics and Protestants. Pontus de Tyard, a neoplatonist poet and later a bishop, published a French translation, De l'Amour (1551), of the Dialoghi d'Amore by Judah *Abrabanel (Leone Ebreo). Some leading French Christian Hebraists were Guillaume *Postel; Gilbert *Génébrard; Blaise de *Vignère; and Guy *Le Fèvre de la Boderie, a Bible scholar who wrote epic French verse full of kabbalistic references and Franco-Hebraic conceits. Two outstanding Protestant poets whose works owe much to biblical inspiration were Salluste *Du Bartas and Agrippa d'Aubigné, a militant Calvinist whose dramatic and satirical epic, Les Tragiques (1577–94), describes the sufferings of the French Protestants in a series of apocalyptic visions. Likening his coreligionists to the Children of Israel, d'Aubigné prophesies God's final vengeance on their persecutors.
Biblical drama also makes its appearance in the 16th century. Saül le Furieux (1572) by Jean de la Taille presents the theme of man's inability to understand the mysterious designs of Providence. Against God's command, Saul has spared the life of Agag, king of Amalek, and must be punished. This was a direct precursor of the classic French tragedy. In Sédécie, ou les Juives (1583), a drama in the Greek style by Robert Garnier, man's disobedience is again punished by God. Ignoring Jeremiah's injunction, Sédécie (Zedekiah) has sought an alliance with Egypt. The country and the Temple are destroyed, the king taken into captivity and blinded. Sédécie recognizes his sins and acknowledges God's justice. The chorus of Jewish women echoes the king's lament in strains reminiscent of Jeremiah. Minor biblical dramas of the period include: Abraham Sacrifiant (1576) by Théodore de Bèze; Jephté (1567) by Florent Chrestien, translated from the earlier Latin Jephtes (1554) by George Buchanan ("the Humanist"); and Aman and David (both 1601) by the talented Huguenot playwright and economist Antoine de Montchrestien.
the classical age
The 17th century manifests a dual character: classical and Christian. Naturally enough, biblical or post-biblical influences are felt primarily among writers of Christian inspiration; others return to the sources of classical antiquity. Among the great dramatists, Jean *Racine, deeply influenced by his Jansenist training and sympathies, was the only one for whom the Bible provided both subject matter and poetic inspiration. Racine's two biblical tragedies, Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691), rank among the great masterpieces of French drama. Two great French Christian writers of the century, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet and Blaise *Pascal, were exceptionally aware of the importance of the biblical heritage. Bossuet, in his Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle (1681), presents a spiritual perspective of history in which the paths are traced by a mysterious but wise Providence. Here Israel is chosen for a particular mission to the world, and other nations of antiquity, however powerful and important they might appear in relation to the Jews, are but tools used by God to chastise or protect His chosen people. Israel is thus seen as the cornerstone of world history. Bossuet's biblical leanings are apparent in the lyrical and grandiose eloquence of his literary style; not only did biblical rhythm and imagery strongly influence all his works (including the sermons and the Oraisons Funèbres, 1663): he consciously transposed biblical passages and adapted them to contemporary circumstances. Pascal too, in his passionate search for God, saw in the Jews an exceptional and mysterious people, appointed by Providence to preside over human destiny. The Bible was to be read, studied, and interpreted symbolically, and Pascal drew heavily on the Midrash, which he considered a key to the understanding of the Scriptures. In his Platonic Dialogues sur l'Éloquence (1718), Fénelon regarded the Bible as a primary source of poetic inspiration and praised Judaism's religious purity.
In the 18th century, the "Age of Enlightenment," men like Denis *Diderot found it convenient to ridicule both the Bible and the Jewish people as an indirect method of attacking Christianity. Equally if not more virulent was *Voltaire, whose attitude was also more complex. Personally unfriendly toward the Jews, Voltaire, in his Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764), simultaneously attacked their alleged religious fanaticism and argued that Christians ought logically to practice Judaism, "because Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, died a Jew, and said expressly that he was fulfilling the Jewish religion." Voltaire also condemned anti-Jewish persecution in his Sermon du Rabin Akib (1764). Another 18th-century writer, the atheistic Baron d'Holbach, strove in his Esprit du Judaïsme (1770) to prove that the Law of Moses was basically immoral, serving only to justify Jewish political ambitions. Although some other writers of the period, notably *Montesquieu and *Rousseau, made sympathetic references to Jews, they were not especially inspired by biblical or later Hebrew literature.
the romantic age
The 19th-century Romantic movement brought with it a revival of interest in, and sympathy for, religion and Christian values. French poets displayed a noticeable reverence for the Bible and found inspiration in the Holy Land. Thus, François René de Chateaubriand praised the Bible's uniqueness and universality in his Génie du Christianisme (1802). In Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811), he wrote a highly romanticized account of his journey to the Orient extolling the Jews' will to survive and their tenacious adherence to their heritage. Alphonse de Lamartine, a leading Romantic poet, acknowledged his debt to the Psalms and wrote a biblical drama, Saül (1818). After a grand tour which included Palestine, his Souvenirs, Impressions… Pendant un Voyage en Orient (1835) looked prophetically to the future: "Such a land, resettled by a new Jewish nation, tilled and watered by intelligent hands… would still be the Promised Land of our day, if only Providence were to give it back its people, and the tide of world events bring it peace and liberty."
Two other great French poets who were profoundly influenced by the Bible were Alfred de Vigny and Victor Hugo. Vigny, who knew the Bible by heart, based one-fifth of his poems on biblical themes and filled them with Hebrew images and expressions. They include "Moïse," "La fille de Jephté" (in Poèmes Antiques et Modernes, 1826) and "La colère de Samson" (in Les Destinées, 1864). Like all Vigny's heroes, the biblical figures are universal symbols – men of genius whose greatness condemns them to eternal solitude. Hugo was the preeminent biblical poet among the French Romantics. Despite his estrangement from Christian orthodoxy, Hugo constantly turns to biblical themes in such poems as "La Conscience," "Booz endormi," and "Salomon" (in La Légende des Siècles, 1859–83); "Le Glaive" (Fin de Satan, 1887); and "L'Aigle" (Dieu, 1891). He eulogized Isaiah and Ezekiel in William Shakespeare (1864); sought biblical support for his campaign against Napoleon iii; and injected some basic knowledge of the Kabbalah (probably gained from his Jewish admirer, Alexandre *Weill) into Les Contemplations (1856).
Of the prominent 19th-century French novelists, Gustave Flaubert, another great traveler, recreated in his last work, Hérodias (the third of his Trois Contes, 1877), the Judea of the Roman era, the Dead Sea fortress of Machaerus, and the dramatic story of John the Baptist. Pierre Loti, a writer of Huguenot descent, wrote two travel books, Jérusalem (1895) and La Galilée (1896).
the 20th century
In more recent French literature, from the late 19th century onward, biblical and Christian inspiration again go hand in hand. Catholic writers such as Charles *Péguy, Léon *Bloy, and Paul *Claudel meditate on the Scriptures, and their poetic works (whether written in prose or verse) often take on a prophetic tone as they apply the biblical prophecies to contemporary events. Two biblically inspired dramas by Jean Giraudoux are his Judith (1932), a psychological tragedy; and Sodome et Gomorrhe (in Théâtre complet, vol. 10, 1947). In a class of his own stands the novelist and playwright André Gide, whose drama Saül (1898, publ. 1922) strips all heroism from its central character.
Some French Jewish poets of the early 20th century who rediscovered the Bible as a source of inspiration were Edmond *Fleg (Ecoute Israël, 1913, 1935), André *Spire (Poèmesjuifs, 1919), Henri *Franck (La danse devant l'Arche, 1912), Albert *Cohen (Paroles juives, 1921), Gustave *Kahn (Images bibliques, 1929), and Benjamin *Fondane (L'Exode). Two important poets of the post-World War ii era, both Catholic, both intoxicated with the Bible, were Pierre Emmanuel and Jean Grosjean. Emmanuel's mystical lyrics, reminiscent of Agrippa d'Aubigné and Victor Hugo, draw their images from the biblical text, and his vision (cf. Babel, 1951), like theirs, is prophetic, sometimes apocalyptic. Grosjean borrows almost all his themes from the Bible and the Kabbalah. The titles of his verse collections are eloquent: Le livre du juste (1952), Fils de l'homme (1953), and Apocalypse (1962). Other Jewish writers who sought inspiration in Jewish sources were Emmanuel *Eydoux, Arnold *Mandel, Armand *Lunel, Élie *Wiesel, and in Israel, three poets writing in French: Joseph *Milbauer, Jean *Loewenson, and Claude *Vigée.
The Image of the Jew
The appearance of Jewish characters in French literature is determined by the socio-historical role of the Jews in France, where they lived from Roman times until the expulsion of 1394. In medieval French literature, Jews generally appear in an unfavorable light. This attitude changes when they convert. Thus, in the 12th-century Pèlerinage de Charlemagne a Jérusalem, the Jew is presented like other "infidels" as a candidate for baptism. Confronted with the noble figure of the emperor, he readily accepts Jesus. In the 13th-century Desputaison de la Synagogue et de la Saincte Eglise, a play by Clopin which may reflect the Paris disputation of 1240, the representative of the Synagogue (i.e., the Jews) is a skillful woman debater who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the superiority of the Church. A rare exception among medieval writers is Peter *Abelard (1079–1142), who composed a dialogue between a Jewish and a Christian philosopher which was quite favorable to Judaism.
The Jew's first appearance as a figure in French society in the 13th century is reflected in the literature of the period. The satirical poet Gautier de Coincy is particularly virulent against Jews, portraying them as not merely stubborn and blind, but also as rich oppressors of the poor. Two miracle plays, Le Juif et le Chevalier and Le Miracle d'un Marchand et d'un Juif, present a stereotyped Jew, crudely anticipating *Shakespeare's Shylock. In later mystery plays, the Pharisees represent the "hypocritical Jews," the "Christ-killers," filled with hatred and inspired by Satan. The performance of these plays in Paris was finally banned in 1548.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries the Jew is, by and large, absent from the French scene, and is virtually ignored by writers of that period. Even the liberal Michel de Montaigne (see below), a writer of partly Jewish descent who had personal contact with Jews in Italy, makes only a few random allusionsto them in his Essays. Racine, however, defended the Jews in his drama Esther, where the heroine pleads their cause. The Jews, declares Racine, are peace loving, humble, and loyal to God and the king. Pascal also expresses his admiration for a Jewish people miraculously preserved through the ages and unique among nations for its unswerving loyalty to God, for its sincerity, and for its courageous devotion to the Law of Moses. Bossuet, too, marvels at Israel's miraculous survival. During his 17 years in Metz, whose Jewish community enjoyed royal protection, he met Jews and attempted to convert some of their youth. His unorthodox opponent in biblical controversies, the Hebraist Richard *Simon, was more enlightened. In 1690, he championed the Jews in the celebrated ritual murder trial of a Metz Jew, Raphaël Lévy, and in order to fight antisemitic prejudice, translated into French Leone *Modena'sHistoria dei Riti Ebraici (Cérémonies et coustumes… parmi les Juifs, Paris, 1674, 16812).
the 18th-century philosophers
The few writers of the 18th century who were not blinded by anti-religious hatred expressed enlightened opinions about Jews and Judaism. Thus Montesquieu, who devotes no. 60 of his Lettres Persanes (1721) to the Jews, speaks of their passionate devotion to a religion which was the mother of Christianity and Islam. He then makes a plea for tolerance, repeated in the "Très humble remontrance aux Inquisiteurs d'Espagne et de Portugal" (L'Esprit des Lois (1748), 25:13), where the advocate of justice and humanity is a Portuguese Jew whose reasonableness makes a striking contrast to the violence of Christian fanatics. Among the many "Oriental" works inspired by the Lettres Persanes were the Lettres Juives (1736) of the Marquis d'Argens, which present an exceptionally favorable image of Jewish values and morality.
Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, on the other hand, presented a generally unsympathetic image of the Jews, whom they held to be as guilty of religious fanaticism as the Christians. Diderot, in his Encyclopédie article "Juifs," also reflects the prejudices of his time, but in his novel Le Neveu de Rameau (written c. 1774) he introduces a gullible and cowardly Jew who is, for once, neither vicious nor evil. In the fourth book of his Emile (1762), Rousseau, though scarcely better informed than his contemporaries, makes a remarkable plea for a more objective and sympathetic understanding of the Jews. "We shall never know the inner motives of the Jews," he says prophetically, "until the day they have their own free state, schools, and universities, where they can speak and argue without fear. Then, and only then, shall we know what they really have to say."
the jew in fiction
Throughout the 19th century the Jew's growing importance in French society found its reflection in literature, but the image of the Jew in plays and novels generally lacks nuance. George Sand, in her drama Les Mississipiens (1866; originally Le Château des Désertes, 1851), introduces a Jewish capitalist, Samuel Bourset, who is merely a Shylock in modern dress. Jews like Gobseck and Elie Magus in the giant (17 volumes) cycle, La Comédie Humaine, of Honoré de Balzac, are largely stereotypes: bankers and art collectors, generally crafty, rapacious, and miserly, who only partially redeem themselves by their devotion to their womenfolk. Only Balzac's "beau Juif," Naphtaly, is a figure of chivalrous virtue. In Manette Salomon (1867), a novel by the Gon-court brothers Edmond and Jules, the Jewish heroine is unsympathetically treated. She is the corrupting influence who forces the artist Caridis to abandon his ideals. Les Rois en exil (1879), by Alphonse Daudet, is a variation on the same theme.
In his dramas, Victor Hugo at first sacrificed truth to popular prejudice. The Great Protector's agent in Cromwell (1827) is a grotesque travesty of the historical *Manasseh Ben Israel, and another despicable Jewish usurer appears in Marie Tudor (prod. 1833; publ. 1834). Yet Hugo's last great play, Torquemada (1882), reveals the author's real sympathy for the Jewish victims of treachery and oppression – a sympathy he demonstrated publicly by presiding at a Paris rally on May 31, 1882, to protest against czarist persecution of Russian Jewry. Unpleasant Jewish types continued to make their appearance in the novels Cosmopolis (1893; Eng. tr. 1893) by Paul Bourget, Mont-Oriol (1887) by Guy de Maupassant, and L'argent (1891), part of the Rougon-Macquart novel cycle by Emile *Zola. Zola, however, by placing the Jewish Gundermann opposite a far more despicable Christian character, does succeed in restoring some sense of balance.
the dreyfus case
Some frankly antisemitic novels appeared at the turn of the century, reflecting the wave of ultranationalist feeling aroused by the *Dreyfus case. Such, for example, are L'essence du soleil (1890) by Paul Adam, Léon Cladel's Juive-errante (1897), and Léon *Daudet'sLe pays desparlementeurs (1901) and La lutte (1907). In all these novels the Jew or Jewess is a rapacious intriguer, endangering the security of the nation and corrupting morals. A play in the same vein is Le retour de Jérusalem (1904) by Maurice Donnay. Bourget's L'Etape (1902) portraying an idealistic Jew, is a happy exception. Though often cast in the role of a prostitute, the Jewess in the short stories of Maupassant is treated sympathetically and proves herself more noble than her non-Jewish associates. Thus in Mademoiselle Fifi (1883), the Jewess Rachel alone resists the offensive Prussian officer, emerging as a symbol of French patriotism and courage. And in La femme de Claude (1873), a drama by Alexandre Dumas fils, it is the Jewess Rebecca who symbolizes feminine virtue and purity in a decadent and selfish society. The brothers J.-H. and S.-J. Rosny present a fierce and proud Jewess in La Juive (1907). The ambivalent Jewish characterization in the Erckmann-Chatrian novels of life in Alsace such as L'ami Fritz (1864; Friend Fritz, 1873), Le blocus (1867; The Blockade, 1869), and "Le Juif polonais" (in Contes populaires, 1866; The Polish-Jew, 1884) stems from their joint authorship: Emile Erckmann was a pro-Jewish Protestant, and Alexandre Chatrian a Catholic anti semite. Their best-known hero, Rabbi David Sichel (in L'ami Fritz), is a wholly admirable figure.
The Dreyfus case inspired not only a spate of nationalistic and anti semitic novels, but also some important works of an exactly opposite type by three great French writers. Zola's Vérité (1903) describes the "Affaire Simon," a romanticized Dreyfus case in which justice and secularism triumph over prejudice and clericalism. In L'anneau d'améthyste (1899), Anatole France presents a liberal who opposes bigotry, anti semitism, and racism, but it is in his charming L'île des pingouins (1908) that the Affaire is parodied with the most incisive wit. Society, eager to persecute the defenseless Jew Pyrot, is depicted in all its cowardice and greed. Anatole France also presents a likeable Jewish philologist, Schmoll, in Le lys rouge (1894). In Jean Barois (1913), Roger Martin Du Gard approaches the Affaire from a more philosophical standpoint. The central figure, a liberal journalist in search of truth and justice, speaks out on behalf of Dreyfus, under the influence of an admirable Jewish friend, Woldsmuth.
The Affaire also directed the attention of two great Catholic writers toward Jewry. Charles Péguy and Léon Bloy both devoted poems and meditations to the Jewish people, its destiny and mission. Paul Claudel did so too, in his drama Le Père humilié (1916), where the central figure is a blind Jewess, Pensée, who personifies the people of God. Two other writers of the period introduced Jewish figures. One was the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was fascinated by the figure of the *wandering Jew and used the Jew in his poems (particularly Alcools, 1913) and short stories as a symbol of exile and misfortune. The other was Marcel *Proust who, in the particular universe which he created, gave an important place to Jewish characters, including his own alter ego, the half-Jew Charles Swann.
world war i and after
World War i marked a turning point in the treatment of Jewish characters in French literature, and they became increasingly numerous, varied, and interesting. Writers were preoccupied with the search for new social and moral values for a society shattered by war, and tended to give greater recognition to the Jew's specific identity. The Jew was no longer merely a persecuted human being to be defended for the sake of justice, but the bearer of a cultural and spiritual tradition worthy of a place in the broader French or European heritage. Such was the view of the former anti-Dreyfusard Maurice Barrès who, despite his ultranationalism and dislike of the Jew, assigned him in Les diverses familles spirituelles de la France (1917) a role akin to that of the Breton or Alsatian among the "families" constituting the French nation. With the brothers Jérôme and Jean *Tharaud, interest in the authentic Jew was transmuted into a search for the picturesque and the exotic in Jewish tradition. Even Zionism inspired a novel: Le puits de Jacob (1925) by Pierre Benoît, which deals with early pioneering in Ereẓ Israel. But it was Romain Rolland who, even before World War i, had given Jewish values a broad and universal meaning for modern civilization. Not only had the Jew his own traditions to contribute to the French heritage, he also had a special vocation in the western world, being the bearer of "Justice for all, of universal Right." The Jewish characters in Rolland's serial novel, Jean Christophe, are distinguished by their selfless devotion, their passion for improving the world, their boundless energy, and determination.
The first fully developed Jewish hero of 20th-century French literature was Silbermann, in the novel of that name by Jacques de *Lacretelle (1922). This deals with the friendship between two schoolboys, one a Christian and the other a Jew. The persecution of the brilliant and idealistic Silbermann by his anti semitic schoolmates forms the background to the story. The theme was taken up by André Gide in Geneviève (1936), which portrays a similar friendship between two girls. Henri de Montherlant, who otherwise dealt little with Jewish themes, wrote a "counterpart to Silbermann" in his autobiographical short story of World War i, "Un petit Juif à la guerre" (in Mors et Vita, 1932). The author, educated in a reactionary, anti semitic milieu, describes how he is attracted by a sensitive and intelligent young Jew whom he meets in the trenches. Georges Duhamel, in his serial novel La chronique des Pasquier (1933–41), presents a finely drawn Jew in Justin Weill, the loyal and idealistic friend of the storyteller-hero. Although the liberal Duhamel makes his Jewish hero an admirable figure, he is nevertheless presented as the perpetual stranger, alienated from both the French and the Jewish traditions. Throughout the Chronicles it is this fundamental alienation that accounts for the unsuccessful search for a Franco-Jewish synthesis. The same theme is given a slightly different interpretation by Paul Nizan in La conspiration (1938). Here the hero, Bernard Rosenthal, failing to involve the girl he loves in his own philosophical preoccupations, commits suicide. In all these works the Jewish hero has a central role, yet he is always analyzed in terms of the non-Jew's reactions.
To clarify the non-Jew's attitude toward the Jew, some French novelists have created minor, but striking, Jewish characters. Roger Martin Du Gard devotes La belle saison (1923), the third volume of his family cycle Les Thibault, to the story of Antoine Thibault, a young doctor, and Rachel, his Jewish mistress, who becomes intensely real although she is only seen through the eyes of her lover. Another interesting marginal character appears in Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927) by François Mauriac. It is a young Jew, Jean Azévédo, who brings a breath of fresh air into the stuffy atmosphere of a bigoted small town and precipitates Thérèse's revolt.
the impact of nazism
The rise of racialism and Nazism between the two world wars led to the appearance of such antisemitic works as Voyage au bout de la nuit (1922; Journey to the End of the Night, 1959) by Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Gilles (1939) by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle – both writers who would compromise themselves in anti semitic politics under German occupation and Vichy government. On the other hand, in 1941, Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote to his Jewish friend, Léon Werth, the Lettre à un otage (New York, 1943) which was a unique message of comfort and encouragement from a French Gentile to a Jew. Saint Exupéry's meditative Citadelle (1948) contains mystical thinking of Jewish interest.
World War ii and Nazi persecution inspired few Jewish characters among French writers. Some exceptions were La marche à l'étoile (1943) by *Vercors; some minor characters in works like La mort dans l'âme (1949) by Jean-Paul Sartre; and Le sang du ciel (1961) by the Polish refugee Piotr Rawicz, a novel with a Jewish hero about the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine. The leading French writers of the postwar period did not introduce Jewish figures into their works, perhaps because of the irreparable mental shock caused by the war. Essays and theoretical writings on the Jewish question (by Sartre for example) were not rare, but Jewish characters and heroes became the exclusive concern of French Jewish writers.
The Jewish Contribution
Although Jews made no specific contribution to French literature before the 13th century, their links with French culture are more ancient. During the Middle Ages French Jews spoke Old French, which modified their pronunciation of Hebrew, and the somewhat Hebraized French dialect which they wrote in Hebrew characters is known as *Judeo-French. A parallel dialect in the south of France was *Judeo-Provençal. The *la'azim (glosses) which *Rashi and other Jewish commentators used to explain difficult Hebrew terms are an immensely valuable source for philologists and Romance specialists. Even Hebrew-Old French dictionaries have survived. In the 13th century, liturgical poems and a festival prayer book (the fragmentary Heidelberg maḥzor) were composed in Old French, using Hebrew orthography. The most important document of the period is another fragment, the Complainte de Troyes, commemorating the martyrs of the *Troyes massacre of 1288 (text in: E. Fleg, Anthologie juive (1951), 281). Its author was probably Jacob ben Judah de Lotra, who is known to have written a Hebrew kinah (elegy) on the same theme. Jews also began to write secular French verse: two 13th-century Provençal Jewish troubadours, Bonfils de Narbonne and Charlot le Juif, are mentioned and attacked in works by non-Jews; while some fragments have survived of poems by the convert Mathieu le Juif, a trouvère of Arras. With the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1394 this literary activity came to an end, although Alsace, and occasionally Provence, remained havens for Jewish refugees.
After a gap of nearly 200 years, writers of Jewish origin again made their appearance on the French literary scene. Outstanding among them were the celebrated astrologer and physician *Nostradamus (Michel de Nostre-Dame) and the great essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). The latter's mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villeneuve, was a Christian descendant of Mayer Paçagon (Pazagón) of Calatayud who, after his forcible conversion at the beginning of the 15th century, took the baptismal name of Juan López de Villanueva. A skeptical humanist, more deistic than Christian, Montaigne in his Essays reveals a tolerant abhorrence of the Inquisition in Portugal, but only an outsider's interest in Jewish survival. In the revived Jewish community of Provence, *Purim plays had an honored place, a classic example being the dialect verse-drama La Reine Esther, written by Rabbi Mardochée Astruc and revised by Jacob de *Lunel, which was performed at Carpentras in 1774. But in French literature proper, Jews played no major literary role until the era of Louis Philippe (1830–48). Two early writers were the minor novelist Esther Foa and the prolific biographer, critic, and kabbalist Alexandre *Weill.
the 19th and 20th centuries
Few of the many Jewish writers who rose to eminence in 19th-century France showed any real interest in Jewish themes. One rare exception was the poet and educator Eugène Manuel (1823–1901), author of Pages intimes (1866) and some very successful plays, who was a founder of the *Alliance Israélite Universelle. Other writers of this period were the poet and playwright Catulle *Mendès, the poet Ephraïm Mikhaël (1866–1890), the essayist and short-story writer Marcel *Schwob, and a host of playwrights and librettists – Adolphe Philippe d'Ennery (Dennery, 1811–1899); Hector Jonathan Crémieux (1828–1892) and his collaborator, Ludovic *Halévy;Georges de *Porto-Riche; Tristan *Bernard; and the stylish comedy writer Edmond Sée (1875–1959). By the beginning of the 20th century the number of Jewish playwrights had grown considerably. Notable among them were Fernand Nozière (pseud. of F. Weyl; 1874–1931) and Alfred Savoir (1883–1934), who collaborated in the writing of successful comedies and farces; André Pascal (Henri de Rothschild; 1872–1947), whose innovations at the Théâtre Pigalle included the revolving stage; the Belgians, Henry Hubert Kistemaeckers (1872–1938) and Francis de Croisset (1877–1937); Pierre Wolff (1865–1944) and Romain Coolus (1868–1952), two writers of popular comedies; and Jean Jacques *Bernard, son of the more distinguished Tristan Bernard, who became a Catholic. Overshadowing most of these were the social dramatist Henry *Bernstein and the converted literary critic Gustave Cohen. Prominent writers in other literary spheres were the essayists André *Suarès, Julien *Benda, and Benjamin *Crémieux. Maurice *Sachs, a depraved but talented writer, was a World War ii collaborator; and the eminent biographer André *Maurois at first supported Pétain. Outstanding poets of the early 20th century include the convert Max *Jacob, who died in a Nazi concentration camp; the half-Jew Oscar *Milosz, an esoteric writer detached from contemporary trends; and Yvan and Claire *Goll.
Almost all these authors, with the exception of Henry Bernstein, were Frenchmen who also happened to be Jews; but the Dreyfus case had a profound influence in reshaping the ideas of French Jewish writers. The publicists Victor *Basch and Bernard *Lazare were both roused to action by the affair. Even the half-Jew, Marcel *Proust, prevailed on Anatole France to intervene in Dreyfus' favor and, reassessing his own position in French society, gave a place of importance to Jewish characters in his great novel cycle A la recherche du temps perdu.
Two leading poets who rediscovered their Judaism were the symbolist Gustave *Kahn, who became an enthusiastic Zionist, and his even more militant contemporary, André *Spire, who inaugurated an entirely new Jewish and Zionist current in French literature. They were followed by Henri *Franck and Edmond *Fleg, the poet, playwright, and anthologist, whose rekindled devotion to Judaism led him to seek a symbiosis between the French and Jewish traditions.
In the 20th century the conflict of identity preoccupied several writers, including the novelists Jean-Richard *Bloch and Albert *Cohen. Their general approach was, however, very different. Bloch, a Communist, assigned to the Jew the role of "revolutionary ferment" in his adopted society; while Cohen, a Corfu-born poet and mystic, was strongly influenced by his Mediterranean background. The regional element is also important in the works of Armand *Lunel, who dealt primarily with Provençal culture, and Joseph *Kessel, who wrote some novels set in Israel. While Henri *Hertz, a leading French Zionist, devoted much of his attention to Jewish problems, other writers asserted their Jewishness mainly in their protests against anti semitism. Jean Finot (born Finkelstein, 1858–1922), a Warsaw-born lawyer, author of Le préjugé des races (1905; Race Prejudice, 1906), Emmanuel Berl (1892–1976), and Pierre Morhange (1901–1972) all belong to this category. So does Pierre Abraham (1892–1975), the brother of Jean-Richard Bloch, who directed the leftist monthly, Europe, and only recalled his Jewish identity in response to the Dreyfus case and, some 30 years later, to Hitler. A rare example of Jewish anti semitism was René Schwob (1895–1946), a convert to Catholicism, who wrote a series of unpleasant apologies, including Moi, juif (1928), Ni grec ni juit (1931), and Itinéraire d'un juif vers l'église (1940).
On the other hand, the themes of certain 20th-century writers, the problems they analyzed, the characters they depicted, the settings they chose were exclusively Jewish. Such were Myriam *Harry; Lily Jean-Javal (1882–1958), a novelist and poet; Michel Matvéev (b.1893), who evoked in novels such as Ailleurs, autrefois (1959) the tragic fate of the exiled and the persecuted; Pierre *Paraf; Josué Jéhouda; Pierre Neyrac; Joseph Schulsinger; Moïse Twersky, author of L'épopée de Menasché Foïgel (3 vols., 1927–28, with André Billy), the story of a Russian immigrant in France; and Irène Némirowsky (1903–1940), recently rediscovered – whose characters, however, seem to have been influenced by anti semitic stereotypes of the time. Two other figures of note who dealt with the religious implications of Judaism were Raïssa *Maritain, a Russian Jewess who became a Catholic, and Aimé *Pallière, a Catholic who became a liberal pro-Jewish propagandist.
A phenomenon worth consideration is the large number of Romanian-born Jews who either began or resumed their literary career in France. They include the novelist and playwright Adolphe Orna (1882–1925); Tristan *Tzara; the political poet Claude Sernet (1902–1968, born Ernst Spirt); Ilarie *Voronca; Eugène *Ionesco; and Isidore Isou. Another French poet of Romanian origin was the visionary Benjamin *Fondane (1898–1944), who came to France in the 1920s and then published Ulysse (1933), Rimbaud le voyou (1933), and La conscience malheureuse (1936) before being arrested and deported to Nazi camps.
Edmond *Jabès (1908–1991) has attracted considerable attention since the 1960s. His Le Livre des Questions has become the first of a series of works which consist of persistent questioning, sometimes in the form of narratives or dialogues, sometimes in the form of apocryphal talmudic discussions between imaginary rabbis or kabbalistic letter games. The condition of the Jew is for Jabès identified with that of the poet: both the creative writer and the Jew can exist only in the state of exile. The term is of course taken in a spiritual sense and has no political meaning. The title of the first volume is also the title of the whole series; the others are Le Livre de Yukel (1964), Le Retour au Livre (1965), Yaël (1967), Elya (1969), Aely (1972) and El (1973), which is the conclusion of a search for the unity of Judaism and literary creation, and at the same time a ceaseless questioning of the relevance of language His two-volume Livre des Ressemblances (1976–78) is in the same hermetic, broken poetic language as was his Book of Questions. In this new poetic work it is language itself which is being questioned. But the reader or the critic may query the deceptive dress of rabbinic discussion and kabbalistic tradition assumed by Jabès' writing. However, the glaringly inauthentic garment does not contradict the strikingly Jewish tone of this endless meditation, especially apparent in the author's philosophical essay: L'ineffable, L'inaperçu (1980). Un étranger avec, sous le bras, un livre de petit format (A Stranger Holding a Little Book under his Arm, 1989) seeks to characterize the stranger and to describe his role. The book is also a self-portrait. Jabès launches on a description of the central figure, stressing his Jewish specificity and his peculiar relation to the Book: "The Jew is a stranger because the Word in the Book, which adheres tightly to his Jewishness, is his." Yet this relationship of the Jew with the Word poses many questions. The Word is always imperfect since it cannot totally express our own inner self, even less our relationship to God. On the metaphysical level, the question remains unanswered. But the human quality of the Stranger and his function in our midst is more clearly defined. "The Stranger enables you to be yourself, when it turns you into a stranger." "You are the Stranger. And I? I am, for you, the Stranger. And you? The star always separated from the star. What brings them closer is only their will to shine together." The Stranger appears near-sighted, he is there and not there, present and absent, close and far away. "He lives in the margins of an inexhaustible book." Jabès concludes: "The writer is the Stranger par excellence," an eternal exile, like the Jew, who is "the hope and the wearing out of a book which he will never exhaust." In short, "in order to be himself, he must be alone." This is of course an old theme, on which Jabès had often touched, but it becomes the core of a very personal Jewish book and extends into the realm of the universal.
Jabès had, in a sense, prepared the way with an impressive collection of poems, La mémoire et l'oubli (To remember and to forget, 1987), a book which gathers a number of poetic texts composed between 1974 and 1980, some of which are directly or allusively tied to the Holocaust. Le livre du part-age (The Book of Shares, 1990) appeared in English translation as the inaugural volume of a new series on religion and post-modernism at the University of Chicago Press. Whether this latest work indeed marks a new departure remains to be seen. The stricter conceptual essay form Jabès turns to is, at this juncture, dotted with apologies for the author's inadequacies and personal self-conscious remarks, such as: "Forgive my works. They have the excuse of despair."
the memory of the holocaust
A number of French Jewish authors wrote about the Hitler era and the Holocaust of European Jewry. Evoking the past was the main purpose of Roger *Ikor in Les eau mêlées (1955) as well as in Pour une fois écoute mon enfant (1975). Manes *Sperber with his trilogies Ces temps là (1976) and Lele buisson devint cendre (1948/1990) and other novels or essays such as Etre juif (1994) advocated for a "religion of memory." Anna *Langfus, in her semiauto-biographical novels, described characters who, despite Nazi brutality ("I saw a man who stood up on another man who led on the earth"), succeeded in retaining their human dignity and moral values. One may quote Le sel et le soufre ("Salt and Sulfur," 1960) or Les bagages de sable ("Sandy Luggage," 1962). André *Schwarz-Bart, in the international bestseller, Le dernier des justes (1959; The Last of the Just, 1960), produced an epic on the age-old Jewish tragedy, while Elie *Wiesel, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986, wrote a series of haunting novels on the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Wiesel, in Entre deux soleils (1970), unifies his vision of man through narrations, dialogues and legends, and emphasizes his role as witness. After two volumes of portraits and legends, La Célébration hassidique (1976) and Célébration biblique (1977) and a play, Le procès de Shamgorod (1979), very much in the tradition of the Yiddish theater, mixing irony and pathos, Elie Wiesel brought out a major novel, Le Testament d'un poète juif assassiné (1980), which bears witness to the agony and rebirth of Jewish consciousness among the young generation of Soviet writers. The book is couched in the form of a testament, written in a Soviet jail, by a Jewish poet accused of high treason and counterrevolutionary activities. Although the hero Paltiel Kossover is an imaginary figure, his itinerary closely resembles that of many a Jewish dissident. The son of a kind and pious father, he spent his youth in a Romanian shtetl. His messianic fervor took on the garb of revolutionary faith, claiming to bring salvation to mankind and Jews alike. The new Leninist religion, widely followed by young Russian Jews in the thirties, was to bring the hero to clandestine action in Nazi Germany and Palestine, and to fighting in the Spanish Civil War and the Red Army. But Paltiel, though a rebel against traditional Judaism, kept an obscure feeling of loyalty to his father, whose voice often calls out to him in the depth of night. Hardly knowing why, Paltiel carried his tefillin with him throughout. On the Russian front he meets Raïssa, seemingly a hardboiled communist. Though her role remains somewhat ambiguous, they will together uncover the sinister imposture of the Russian regime, and gradually Paltiel's poetry becomes the song of his people. Together they flee with their small son, Grisha, secretly circumcised by his father. The Soviet police submit the hero to its most refined physical and moral tortures, the chief result being to strengthen and elevate the spirit of the victim, who on the threshold of death writes a poignant spiritual autobiography as a legacy to his son. Grisha, the still unknowing child, instinctively feels the presence of a potential enemy: wanting to evade the questioning of a neighbor, a supposedly well-meaning doctor and father figure, he bites off his tongue and will remain mute. A strange witness of Paltiel's martyrdom and death is the clerk of the court, a Jew himself caught in the system, who carries the message to the mute son of the poet. Grisha will eventually reach Israel with a group of refuseniks, expecting his mother to follow. But will she ever come? The reader is carried into a dreamlike world of introspection, into the shadowy recesses of the psyche. Wiesel's book is an emotional and convincing statement of Jewish self-assertion.
The book L'oublié (1989) tells the story of a father and son and moves from Auschwitz to Israel. Its characters are convincing, while the search for a buried past is the motivation and the core of the book. The concluding message is clear: Israel, the land of the prophets, will be and must be the place where memory is kept intact, the land of truth and life, the land of Jewish hope. Elhanan Rosenbaum, born in a shetl of the Carpathian mountains, survives the Holocaust and discovers Palestine. In besieged Jerusalem he falls in love with Talia and a son, Malkiel, is born. In New York, where he settles with Malkiel, Elhanan preserves the memory of the terrible years. But Malkiel, already an American, although close to his father, has no link with Elhanan's past. One thing only is certain: his mother Talia died in bringing him into the world. Elhanan, who has been unable to reveal his treasured nightmare to his son, becomes ill and loses the ability to speak or to remember. Soon the past will be lost forever. Elhanan will have nothing to bequeath to his son who, in turn, will be unable to know the roots of his deepest convictions and to share them with his friend Tamar. The shipwreck of memory is averted in a dramatic manner: the father suddenly starts to tell the story of his tumultuous past, thus feeding his son's memory, while his own will finally be relieved of its intolerable burden. As the old man finally sinks into the night, forgetting all, his son, strengthened by the link regained, discovers the land of his ancestors. This marks his second birth and the revelation of his deeper self. He will conquer his truth with the help of his father's truth. Will Malkiel, in turn, be able to triumph over the indifference of a world devoid of memory? Will he remember his father's deepest hope? Elhanan's most fervent prayer had been never to forget. Indeed "to forget is to abandon, to betray." "Without memory, truth becomes a lie, a mere masking of the truth." A Jew must bear witness, both to joy and distress.
Wiesel also published his memoirs: Tous les fleuves vont à la mer (1994; All the Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995) and Et la mer n'est pas remplie (1996; And the Sea Is Never Full, 1999).
A writer whose reputation had continued to grow into the 21st century is Georges *Perec (1936–1982), whose stylistically dazzling masterpiece, La Vie: mode d'emploi (1978), was translated into English in 1987 as Life: A User's Manual. Called by Italo Calvino "the last great event in the history of the novel," it takes the reader into a Paris apartment house, examining the interlocking lives and possessions of its tenants as part of a shifting mosaic of signs and symbols. Until the end of his life he nurtured a profound memory of his parents, who died during World War ii: "I am a writer because they left their indelible mark. Their tracks are writing, writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life." On these themes, Perec published W ou le souvenir d'enfance (1975), Je me souviens (1978) and Récits d'Ellis Island (1980), which he made into a film with Robert Bober.
In Quoi de neuf sur la guerre (1993), Robert *Bober evokes the post-war period and the survivors' painful personal process of rebuilding. Berg & Beck is the story of two young Jewish boys who one day have to put a yellow star on their coats while walking together to school. Beck is arrested and murdered in a Nazi camp. After the war, Berg regularly writes to him: "It's not because you never answer that History can do without you."
Two dramatists of outstanding talent, Liliane Atlan and Jean-Claude Grumberg merit attention. Liliane Atlan (1932– ), born in Southern France to a Jewish family from Salonica, feltdeeply the trauma of Nazi occupation. At the age of 17 she attended a Jewish communal school and after earning a diploma in philosophy, she started writing for the theater. Her early plays were Monsieur Fugue, staged in Paris in 1967 and in Israel in 1972 under the title Mar Slick; Les Messies (1969); La Petite Voiture de Flammes et de Voix (The Small Car of Flames and Voices), presented at the Avignon Festival in 1971. She also wrote three volumes of poetry in this period: Les Mains Coupeuses de Mémoire (Hands-Cutters of Memory, 1969), Le Maître-Mur (1964) and Lapsus (1971). The same themes recur both in her poems and in her plays. The first leitmotif is the difficulty in living, borne out by the awareness of the human condition: man, trapped by evil, contracts the incurable Earth-Sickness Le Mal de terre (the phrase serves as subtitle to the first two plays.) In Monsieur Fugue the author borrows elements from reality, yet the play is no documentary. Four Jewish children are being taken in a truck in the fog to Rotten Town, or the Valley of Dry Bones. Their guards are soldiers clad in green. One of them, Monsieur Fugue, decides to accompany the children, and during the journey he tells them stories and they enter the game. They live in imagination the life which they will never know in reality: adolescence, love, marriage, old age and natural death; at which point they are killed. But the imaginary has replaced the hideous reality. Dream here is no escape, but rather the only reality; and joy can thus spring forth out of despair. Joy is the recurrent countertheme. In Les Messies, Earth Sickness is no longer viewed from within, but from the outside or from higher up. All realistic elements have disappeared. A group of messiahs, set on an imaginary planet and representing all the ideals and hopes ever invented by mankind, await the moment to jump down and save the earth. But overtaken by dizziness caused by the Earth Sickness, they wait too long and fail. The myths of salvation are deceitful. Consolation lies not in the content of myths, as in Monsieur Fugue, but in the ability to invent them: after a dismal failure the messiahs will continue to pray and hope. La petite voiture represents a passage into subjective theater, set in a fantastic, apocalyptic universe. The two characters, Louise, an invalid in a wheel-chair pushed by Louli, are a projection of the author's split consciousness. How to live in an evil world is the agonizing question pursued in an obstinate, sometimes frenzied, dialogue-monologue. In the end Louli-Louise, facing an apocalyptic destruction, proclaims with all her meager might: joy will be for our descendants if not for us, an inner sun will shine and that's enough to smile for from tonight on. The Holocaust is still prevalent in Liliane Atlan's recent works, as may be seen in Un opéra pour Terezin (1997), which tells the true story of Jewish inmates in the Theresienstadt camp who decided to found an orchestra to play Verdi's Requiem; or in Les Mers rouges (1999), which collects survivors' testimonies, songs, and tales from the Salonika Jewish community mostly exterminated in gas chambers.
Jean-Claude Grumberg (1937– ) was born in Paris, the grandson of a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Cracow. Like Atlan, he felt the wound of Nazi oppression… For him too, the resulting anguish had to be exorcised in dramatic creations. But the tone is different: aggressiveness and humor are the dominant colors. Among his significant plays are Amorphed'Ottenburg and En revenant de l'Expo, and above all Dreyfus (1974), unanimously hailed as a masterpiece. Grumberg seeks to reconcile History, and its seeming absurdity, with Man, trapped in his contradictions. History is invoked frequently, yet often treated with contempt. Man alone, in his human individual quality, really matters, with all his shortcomings. Dreyfus presents a potentially comical and pathetic situation. In a Vilna suburb in 1930, a group of townspeople rehearses a play about the Dreyfus Affair, written by Maurice, a young Jewish intellectual, who dreams of representing the Truth of History, of drawing a moral from past events and of creating genuine popular theater. But as the simple townspeople themselves see it, there is no historical truth; the only truth is what we see and recreate. If Maurice wants a moral, a lecture is preferable. As to popular theater, it has nothing to do with distant, foreign historical events. It must spring from experience and tradition. Michel, the cobbler, feels nothing in common with the French captain; he cannot play the role and remains wooden at rehearsals. Arnold, the barber, who plays the part of Zola, finds his text long and pompous; he would prefer a gay little Yiddish song. Motel, the tailor, sees no reason to make a blue uniform for Dreyfus, like in the pictures: he has a big reserve of red cloth. Zina, Arnold's wife, has to cross the stage, shouting Death to the Jews; she would rather be the captain's mother – a good Yiddische mama! – etc. In short, the towns-people, authentically alive, refuse the lifeless construction of the dreamy intellectual. The clash creates hilarious scenes. At times, emotion and even grandeur take over, as in the scene of the drunken Poles' attack, courageously repelled by the Jew, or the tale of the saintly hasidic rabbi who rose higher than God Himself. And finally in the last scene a taste of irony and tragic humor dominates: after the play's failure, Maurice goes to Warsaw and joins the Polish communist party. In a letter to his friends, one savors the bitter flavor of ideologies espoused by Jewish intellectuals whether communists of the 1930s or leftists of today. As a tragic echo comes a letter from Berlin, where two of the young actors have gone to seek their fortune: Germany is after all a civilized country, where one can build a future! Irony and humor, tempered by tenderness and sadness, contrive to make Dreyfus a great Jewish play and a masterpiece of comedy. His play, L'Atelier (1979) dwells, with typical tender Yiddish humor, on the sad life of the Holocaust survivors. After achieving great success, too, with Zone libre in 1990, he recalls the daily life of a Jewish immigrant family from Poland during the 1930s in Conversations avec mon père (2002) and in Mon père, inventaire (2003).
Among the writers of this generation, Emile Ajar (a pseudonym of Romain *Gary) has gained the greatest recognition with his two novels: La vie devant soi (1975) and L'angoisse du roi Salomon (1979). The first book, which created a sensation and won the much coveted Goncourt literary prize, presents a vivid picture of the Parisian Belleville slum, where Jews, Arabs, Blacks and other minorities live in close and generally friendly contact. The author chose to have his story narrated by a 14-year-old Arab boy, Momo, who, along with other semi-abandoned children of prostitutes, was raised by a Jewish mama, Madame Rosa, herself an ex-prostitute. Although the relationship between the kind and generous Madame Rosa and her precious and affectionate son appears to be an authentic and touching love story between mother and child, above and beyond racial and cultural barriers, the book has a very unreal quality. The numerous characters, perhaps with the exception of the old Jewish neighborhood doctor, seem to have walked out of a book of fables, including Momo, a cross between an innocent small boy and a knowledgeable social critic, and Madame Rosa herself, a victim of society and persecution on the one hand and a monumental monstrous delirious figure of terrorized womanhood on the other. Madame Rosa's Jewish cellar, which symbolically portrays an underground refuge in a hostile world, serves as the last retrenchment when death and madness overtake Madame Rosa's soul and body. In spite of the repeated Jewish references the central figure, Madame Rosa, could belong to any oppressed ethnic group: as the author himself admits, everyone is entitled to a secret hiding place. And if Momo, the little Arab, can grasp this, it is because Arab or Jew, where is the difference? L'angoisse du roi Salomon is also a kind of fable, where mythical representation and social realism are constantIy intertwined. It is based on the story of an old noble-looking Jew, Mr. Salomon Rubinstein, former king of ready-to-wear fashion turned philanthropist devoted to helping lonely souls. The role of son and narrator is held by a young Paris taxi driver who, just as Momo did with Madame Rosa, finds in the old Jewish paternal figure the epitome of human compassion and kindness. King Salomon, who spent four years hidden in a cellar during the Nazi occupation, is scarred by pain and solitude. Like Madame Rosa he has sublimated the anguish by becoming a benevolent dispenser of kindness all around him. Ajar's style in both novels reproduces the language of the man in the street, savory, slangy, full of verve and irony, yet barely concealing a feeling of malaise and suffocation. In several books published under his own name, Gary tackles the memory of the Holocaust – for instance in Education européenne (1945), La danse de Gengis Cohn (1967), or Chien blanc (1970).
The post-war generation's need to find its Jewish roots has expressed itself in still other genres, spiritual or intellectual diaries, where remembrances either are mixed with religious, philosophical or political reflections or frankly give way to an essay commenting on insistent preoccupation with the Jewish condition in our age. In the category of essays one must mention the attempt by Alain Finkielkraut (1949– ) to analyze the state of mind of his generation in Le Juif imaginaire (1980). Disappointed with leftist politics, tired of resisting his parents' recurrent "Jewish leitmotiv," he rediscovered for himself the significance of the Jewish message. Although he is well-read, his statement is based solely on his own intuitive subjective feeling. The impact felt by the works of a group of young philosophers appears to be a more lasting one. André Glucksmann (1937– ) in Les Maîtres penseurs (1977) and Bernard-Henry *Lévy (1948– ) in La Barbarie à visage humain (1977) and Le Testament de Dieu (1979) opened the way to a philosophical search of a Jewish view of man and God. They denounced not only fascism and marxism, but, in a rather sweeping manner, their Western masters (maîtres penseurs), guilty of politicizing all debates on life and history, basically because they were the heirs of platonic philosophy. What emerges here is the indictment of Athens in the name of Jerusalem. Bernard Chouraqui's (1943– ) message in Le Scandale juif ou la subversion de la mort (1979) is more flamboyant and more mystical in its condemnation of Western rationalism. The latter is accused of having stifled the limitless freedom of man's spirit and more specifically the Jewish spirit. If permitted to fulfill its true vocation, Judaism can overcome death itself. The statement is often too grandiloquent to be totally convincing. Shmuel *Trigano (1948– ) in Le retour de la disparue (1977) and La nouvelle question juive (1979) adopted a more restrained tone in dealing with the problem of Jewish identity. He too challenged the European humanism and rationalism, but in so doing he also condemned "Western oriented" Ashkenazi Judaism and Zionism itself. In the name of Kabbalistic tradition and Sephardi predominance he advocated a kind of revivalist Judaism, far from the Haskalah tradition. All these young thinkers, Glucksmann, Lévy, Chouraqui, Trigano, claim allegiance to the teachings of Emmanuel *Lévinas, the great Jewish philosopher.
Most of these prolific authors were disillusioned leftists. One of the most interesting was Pierre Goldman (1944–1979), a son of Polish immigrants who, after revolutionary activities, was accused of murder. He discovered his Jewishness in jail and started to study Judaism seriously. He wrote his first and best book in prison. After his release he was murdered under mysterious circumstances. In 1975 he composed Souvenirs d'un Juif polonais né en France ("Memories of a Polish Jew Born in Poland"), a rather remarkable testimony of the discovery of his Jewish consciousness. He proclaimed himself a Jewish revolutionary, who, in anguished self-concern, expressed his identification with his people through his revolutionary convictions. His Jewish self-identification remained divorced from either religious or Zionist feelings. A second book, L'ordinaire mésaventure d'Archibald Rapoport (1977) keeps up the same strident, ironic and desperate tone and attains the limit of poetic and metaphysical exasperation. The theme is couched in the form of a legend: the hero fulfills an angelic mission, that of exterminating all officialdom, because it represents a civilization responsible for Auschwitz.
A nostalgic feeling for the 1930s and the prewar period is also felt in Cyrille Fleischman's short tales, which always take place in the Pletzl, the Jewish quarter in Paris, from Rendez-vous au métro Saint-Paul (1992) to Une rencontre près de l'Hôtel de ville (2003).
Henri Raczymow's (1948– ) Contes d'exil et d'oubli ("Tales of Exile and Oblivion," 1979) are an imaginary dialogue between a grandson in search of his Jewish self and a Polish grandfather transplanted to the Paris ghetto of Belleville. The tales contained in this short volume beautifully bring to life the charm and faith of the shtetl. Un cri sans voix (1985) tells the story of Esther who was totally obsessed with the memory of the Warsaw ghetto and committed suicide in the 1970s. Of note also is Bloom & Bloch (1993).
Raczymow also published an intriguing essay. He turned his attention, like others before him, to Swann, the half-Jewish Proustian hero. But the approach is new. The title of the book, Le cygne de Proust (1989), gives a clue of the direction chosen. Referring himself to one of the known models for Swann, namely Charles Haas, a dandy of the day (a German Jew), the essay pinpoints what links Swann to him and what separates Swann from his presumed model. The author's starting point is the translation from Haas to Swann. Haas (hare in German) was both too plebeian and too German for Proust's taste. Passing over to the English (more to the snobs' liking) he coined the new name Swann, only subtly reminiscent to the French reader of its translation (swan – and not Swann – evoking in English the noble and mythical bird: "le cygnet"). Such is the starting point for the essay. The author then answers the secret: how did the idea suggest itself? He observed in a painting representing a brilliant social circle, that Charles Haas was standing "near the door, facing the others, though on the side, as if he hesitated to mingle with them and penetrate inside the circle." Observing how Haas was "part of the circle, but remained on the periphery," the author told himself: "Haas was Jewish, had no title of nobility, no prestigious heredity, no tremendous fortune." From then on, that noble "cygne" (Swann) became less distant, almost a familiar, intimate person. One can see in this study a literary illustration of social marranism. Raczymow continued his study of Marcel Proust in Le Paris retrouvé de Marcel Proust (2005). On the other hand, he looks into his own boyhood in Avant le déluge: Belleville années 50 (2005) and in Reliques (2005); in 2003, with Le plus tard possible, he evaluates his life, and "[his] experience of absolute loneliness."
Myriam Anissimov, born in 1943 in a refugee camp, wrote a Kafkaesque novel, Rue de Nuit (1977), the bizarre story of a couple accused of some unknown crime. In La soie et les cendres (Silk and ashes, 1989), Hannah, obsessed with the weight of her people's tragic past, deceives herself into believing that she has found the truth about herself and her link with the Holocaust. She has found an original "profession" for herself: she sells shmattes (old clothes) at the flea market. In so doing, she fantasizes that she is one with the pitiful remains (the "silk") of the victims at Auschwitz (the "ashes"). The book tells the sad and perverse nightmare of a Jewish girl, who eventually faces up to the essential duty of living creatively. She will find salvation through music, doubtless a finer memorial to the victims. Anissimov, who also published two successful biographies (on Primo Levi, 1998, and Romain Gary, 2004), wrote in Dans la plus stricte intimité (1992) about her childhood in a broken Jewish family after the war, from Lyon to Metz; and she also published a kind of autobiography, Sa Majesté la Mort (1999).
The difficult dialogue between a mother and her daughter is the original subject L'immense fatigue des pierres (1996) by of Régine Robin (1939– ), but according to the author, the trauma of the Holocaust is at the root of linguistic hybridism and the plurality of identities. Robin had already devoted Le deuil de l'origine (1993) to the influence of their Jewish roots and the loss of their language (Yiddish or Ladino) on the works of several writers, such as Kafka, Celan, Freud, Canetti, and Perec. In her critical essay La mémoire saturée (2003) she questioned the function of the recent and widespread uses of commemoration of the past.
The memory of the Holocaust remains at the heart of some young writers' books. The first novel of Norbert Czarny deals with the problem of memory, or rather the ability to keep alive and convey the reality of the past. In Les valises (1989) the narrator's parents and grandparents, unlike the father in Wiesel's book, have been feeding the child endless stories of their past. But the child, threatened with suffocation, by the burden of those recollections, transforms, almost magically, a hard and somber tale into a legend full of poetic charm. Stephanie Janicot wrote her first novel, Les Matriochkas (1996), about the relationship between a young German and the Jewish family he lives with in Paris in the 1980s. Gila Lustiger (1963– ), who grew up in Germany, published L'inventaire (1998) and Noussommes (2005), telling the story of her family. In Un amoursans résistance ( 2004), Gilles Rozier (1963– ) tells the story of a Gestapo translator in Paris who saves a young Jew, and more recently, in 2005, he published La Promesse d'Oslo centering on the will to life of an Orthodox Jerusalem woman whose son is murdered by a terrorist; after several months, she decides to have another child through artificial insemination, with her rabbi's consent. Cécile Wajsbrot (1954– ) is increasingly obsessed with the Holocaust and its traumatic effects on succeeding generations, as evidenced by Beaune-la-Rolande (2004), La trahison (2005), and Mémorial (2005).
Although of Sephardi origin, Patrick *Modiano (1947– ) is quite obsessed by the memory of the Holocaust. He is the author of successful novels – La place de l'Étoile (1968), La ronde de nuit (1969), Les boulevards de ceinture (1972), Villa triste (1975) and Rue des boutiques obscures (1978) – as well as an autobiography, Livret de famille (1977). The German occupation, which the author never experienced, is the recurrent and obsessive theme. A search for his true identity and for the meaning of his Jewish condition runs through the first novel, where the hero lives in fantasy through a thousand lives and identities. As a Jew, he sees himself sometimes as a king, sometimes a martyr. The same quest continues in the other books, down to the haunting search for the father in the last novel. The father is a pathetic, repulsive, ghost-like figure, victim and partner of a shady gang who lives it up under Nazi occupation. The ultimate question remains: is one ever free to choose or are we nothing but puppets in the hands of blind fate? The notion of Jewish identity has lost all moral or historic meaning. It has been reduced to an almost organic search for roots. The strained narratives are put forth in deliberately flat style, conveying tragic situations in a painfully grotesque manner. Modiano was awarded the Goncourt Prize in 1978. In the 1980s, Modiano deliberately turned to writing children's books. They included Catherine Certitude (1988), the charming story of a little girl who lives with her "papa" in a northern Parisian neighborhood close to Montmartre, part of a cosmopolitan world of little people who struggle as best they can, slightly out of the "real" French world. They find refuge in a world of dreams. Catherine will later realize that even the French sometimes have to escape a glittering, but cruel, reality. In fact, the "not quite French" depicted here are, in an implicit but clear fashion, Jewish immigrants, who always remain "out of it," even when they take on a new French name. The irony of Catherine's French surname resides in the fact that Catherine's father has been renamed by an employee of the city registrar, unable to read or spell the immigrant's foreign sounding name. "Certitude" had seemed to him clear and perfectly suitable! Catherine and her father eventually leave for New York, where Catherine's American mother now lives. Later Catherine, herself a mother, will realize that something in her parents' persistent estrangement from themselves and the world is part of their essential humanity. In this new vein of writing, Modiano, though still dealing with the hero's search to elucidate the darker of his parents' past, has found a lighter touch, devoid of bitterness and sarcasm. The mood is whimsical, sometimes ironic, but never cynical or nightmarish. The "happy ending" is suited to a delightful and moving children's book.
In Dora Bruder (1997) Modiano attempts to pick up the trail of a teenager who was deported from Paris in 1942, but "I will never know what she was doing all day long, where she was hiding, who she was with during Winter, then Spring …. It's her secret. Her poor and precious secret that torturers, camps, History could never rob her of…." In Un pedigree (2005) he gave the reader the biographical keys to his work.
the sephardi identity
Albert *Cohen (1895–1981) was still vigorously creative at 85, and after completing the saga of the Solals with a fourth novel, Les Valeureux (1969), a companion piece to Mangeclous, wrote what might be called his testament, a little book, which borrows its title from Villon's famous ballad: O vous frères humains ("O Ye, Human Brothers," 1972). Though the themes in Cohen's work – meditation on death, the universality and absurdity of human destiny, the tragic nobility of the Jewish condition – are not new, they reach to the heart of the Jewish writer's experience. A Jewish child encounters the implacable, stupid, cruel hatred of antisemitism and this banal and terrifying incident, prototype of all genocide, makes of him a Jew, an adult, and a poet. The bearer of this unified triple identity will have but one mission: to state the place of the Jew among the nations and send a cry of alarm to a mad world bent on hating, when love alone can save. In a poignant volume of diaries, Carnets (1978), the elderly writer returned to his timeless meditation. His style lost none of his brilliance, variety, sharpness, and opulence.
A group of writers, mostly Sephardi, has gradually emerged, characterized by books situated midway between the novel and the autobiography. Albert *Memmi's own search for identity takes on a radically different coloring. Cast in a sunny and intriguing decor, his two novels, Le Scorpion (1969) and Le Désert (1977), are full of old world wisdom and fancy, elegant pieces of French prose, a mixed genre between story-telling, autobiography and historical inquiry. Whereas, Le Scorpion is a sort of imaginary confession, depicting picturesque North African Jewish folk towards the end of the French protectorate, Le Désert presents a kind of Oriental tale, partly set in feudal Arab society, partly in desert Berber country (like many old Jewish Tunisian families. Memmi claims to have some Berber ancestry). Both books, no matter how remote from plain realism, have a remarkable, convincing ring of truth. In La Statue de sel (1953) Memmi confronted the question of his own Jewish identity.
To the same group belongs Jacques Zibi, who in Ma (1971) pays tribute to his mother. He tenderly and deftly evokes the mother's simple gestures, the intimacy of the Arab Jewish dialect of her native Tunisia, the purity and peace of the Jewish home. In a more humorous vein, Elie-Georges Berreby in Le singe du Prophète ("The Prophet's Monkey," 1972) takes up the Jonah theme. The modern reluctant prophet is forcibly pulled out of a quiet existence to denounce the sinful town, i.e., the nuclear city. Lucien Elia offers a painful experience of a real talent, presenting a degrading picture of his people.
In Les ratés de la Diaspora, where he depicts the ghettoes of Syria and Lebanon, the simple Oriental Jews are treated with caustic humor and contempt, though the villains are ostensibly the Arabs. In a second novel, Fer blanc (1973), he presents a downright anti semitic caricature of Israel. Jacques Sabbath, in Le Bruit des autres (1974), appears as a talented short-story writer.
Naim Kattan (born in Iraq in 1928) and Albert Bensoussan (born in Algeria in 1935) similarly revive with great talent the land of their past. The first tells us of his youth in Baghdad, the second recalls Jewish life in Algiers. Kattan's Adieu Babylone (1975) portrays the life of a young Baghdad Jew in the modern age. Still part of an ancient Jewish tradition, he is exposed to Western modes when the arrival of British troops during the Second World War breaks into the unchanged quiet of the Oriental community. The hero is then caught between several alternatives: remaining within the bounds of traditional Jewish living, becoming an enlightened Westerner, identifying with the Arab nationalist struggle (in the guise of progressive politics) or with the Zionist pioneering ideal. Kattan is also the author of La mémoire et la promesse (1979) and Le rivage (1981). Bensoussan's two novels: Frimaldjezar (1976) and Au nadir (1978) do not deal so much with ideological choices as with the nostalgic feeling of a happy and sunny past, when an Algerian Jewish child could live in the cheerful fervent, popular milieu of a settled community. French colonial power then appeared as a permanent shield against all possible abuse on the part of the Arabs. The style, both lyrical and highly colorful, conveys the love of native surroundings where historical change was never to intrude. Around the turn of the century Bensoussan published several books, both prose and poetry, about the warm relationships between Jews, Arabs, and Christians in colonial Algeria, filling his books with colorful characters: L'Oeil de la sultane (1996), Pour une poignée de dattes (2001), and L'Échelle algérienne. Voix juives (2001).
In describing Jewish circles in Tunisia before independence or Jewish immigrants to Paris, Nine Moati (1937– ) often focuses on women. In Deux femmes à Paris (1998), she describes the daily life of two neighbors in Paris, one is a young immigrant from Tunisia and the other a coquette whose lover is an extreme right-wing militant. In Villa Week-end (2003) she analyzes the evolutionary relationship between a young Jewish girl and her French friend in Tunisia in the 1930s, then under German occupation; and L'Orientale (2005) tells the story of Hannah, Duke Nessim's daughter from Leghorn, who becomes a "queen" in fashionable Paris before falling in love with an antisemitic French aristocrat.
The need to portray the life of now extinct Sephardi and Oriental communities also inspires a group of much younger writers, several of them women, who attempt to give a specific literary coloring to their childhood recollections. In the Mémoire illettrée d'une fillette d'Afrique du nord à l'époque coloniale (1979), Katia Rubinstein portrayed the life of a Tunis quarter where traditional Jews lived side by side with various other ethnic groups. The author chose an illiterate little girl as a narrator, gifting her with a colorful and truculent language, where French is interspersed with Jewish Arab, Jewish Italian and Jewish Spanish dialects.
Paula Jacques (born in Egypt in 1949) also focuses on women in her novels about Egyptian Jewry: Lumière de l'œil (1980) and L'Héritage de tante Carlotta (1987). Les Femmes avec leur amour (1997) describes the deep friendship between a young Jewish girl and her Muslim maid in Egypt, a few months before the Suez War in 1956; expelled by Nasser in 1957, like most of the Egyptian Jews, the heroine of Gilda Stambouli souffre et se plaint (Gilda 2001) sets up house in Paris, full of vigor, excesses, and insincerity, while at the same time her daughter tries to leave her kibbutz on the Syrian border.
In Les herbes amères (The Bitter Herbs, 1989), Chochana Boukhobza (1954– ) has the heroine, Jane, who has made a clean break with her past, meditates on distant events and their true meaning. Marc, her beloved, is dead. Her mother, whom Jane always hated, committed suicide. Though she was a camp survivor, Jane never granted her even "a few minutes of loving grace." As for Marc, Jane knows that illness alone did not bring on his untimely end. Death has come into her world because a dark and tragic past could neither be spoken of nor allusively approached. Jane's inner self had created a deep gap with that past, which belonged to those closest to her. Memories must now be reconquered, if life is to go on. Still interested in women's approach, Boukhobza describes in Un été à Jérusalem (1999) the conflicting relationship of a young woman with Jewish tradition and with her father's rigorous authority.
The younger Karine Tuil (1967– ) is not only interested in Jewish themes, but in her third novel, Du sexe féminin (2002), she describes tragi-comically the powerful influence of Jewish mothers on their children.
poems in prose and verse
Emmanuel Lévinas himself, though a philosopher in the strict traditional sense, has also written some interesting literary studies and poetic meditations. Noms propres. Sur M. Blanchot ("Surnames," 1976) is a series of short essays on writers as far apart as Agnon, Buber, Jabès, Proust and others. Difficile liberté ("Difficult Freedom," 1977) is a collection of fragments (meditations, exegesis, prose poems) dealing with Jewish existence, ethics and religion. The author rejects both mysticism and pathos, and always displays a sense of the profound nature of Jewish spiritual being.
Vigée's Le soleil sous la mer (The Sun under the Sea, 1972) consists of a collection of all his previous poetry, but it is preceded by an account of childhood recollections in Alsace – "the emergence… of a luminous beginning… the opening of life" – and followed by the poetic work, L'acte du bélier (The Act of the Ram). In his Délivrance du souffle (1977) the reader penetrates into the authentic realm of poetry, narration and reflection. Vigée deliberately mingles the three levels of writing, for he views poetic language as a fitting expression of his Jewish existential meditation and the narration of historic and personal experience as an indispensable adjunct to his reflection of life and Jewish destiny. The first part of this work is composed of poems which are not only inspired by Jewish themes and biblical subjects, but whose very poetic material (imagery, coloring, rhythms and sound) springs forth directly from an intimate knowledge and experience of the Hebrew language. Vigée has succeeded in creating his own poetic style, not by transposing biblical verse into typically French meter; but by speaking or rather breathing in accord with biblical poetry. In his "Diaspora Choral," the poet deplores the fact that the French language in its "subtle flavor" and sophisticated refinement inhibits the authentic "naked word" which in Hebrew "springs forth like fire between the teeth on the living tongue." The second part of Délivrance du souffle contains a moving diary of the Yom Kippur War. In sober and restrained tone in the midst of the peril threatening the nation, Vigée reflects on the meaning of Jewish destiny and of its presence in the Land. The third part of the book, "Motifs et variations," celebrates the beauty of Eretz Israel, an eerie beauty so penetrated with history and spiritual tradition as to wash it clean of all pagan seduction. Vigée's clear literary commitment to his Jewish heritage does not inhibit his rich contribution to Western culture, as his volume of critical essays, L'Art et le Demonique (1979), testifies.
The latest books of Arnold *Mandel and Claude Vigée should be noted, all representing a sum of their creation. Mandel's works display a decided leaning towards Kabbalah and ḥasidism. They deal, now as before, with the theme of Jewish vocation, destiny and character, whether it be in narrative form (Le périple ("The Journey"), 1972; La Vierge au bandeau ("The Virgin with a Blindfold"), 1974; Tikoun, 1980), in descriptive form (La vie quotidienne des Juifs hassidiques ("The Ḥasidims' Daily Life," 1977) or in essay form (Nous autres juifs, 1978). Le périple, a semi-autobiographical novel, shows a narrator through a long meandering journey, a sort of symbol of the Wandering Jew, who ends up in Israel. The end is a beginning. Israel is indeed the place of new beginnings, the only one where the Jew feels the West his very existence is questioned; for the Jews and non-Jews alike perceive that Jewishness is no contingent attribute, but an essential necessity of being. La Vierge au bandeau is a sequel in parable form to Mandel's earlier autobiographical novel Le périple. The author imagines the blindfolded figure of the Synagogue (the well-known gothic statue of the Strasbourg cathedral) having left her assigned place and becoming a modern Jewish girl named Myriam, who sets out to follow her lover Jacques Landau, hero of Le Périple, on his journey to Israel. But whereas Jacques will remain permanently in Jerusalem, Myriam will return to her traditional place in the Diaspora, where she still has a role to play. But is it a petrified one? Nous autres Juifs is a collection of essays dealing with the ambiguities of Jewish existence, its delights and trials. It is also an indictment of a sort of neutral Judaism, cut off from its religious and cultural tradition, or, worse still, the Jewish identification with revolutionary mythologies, in particular bolshevism. The chief title to fame of contemporary Jewry is, in the author's opinion, the rebirth of the Hebrew language and the creation of an original Hebrew culture in Israel. With Tikoun, an impressive novel bearing a Hebrew title, Mandel returns to his old favorite theme, i.e., the long circuitous journey of an exiled Jew in search of his true destination. But the setting has become broader, the tone one of gravity. The novel includes a large variety of imaginary characters, as well as historical figures, as far apart as Chaplin and Maimonides. This vast array of people and social situations is treated sometimes with biting satire, sometimes with kind humor. Postwar existentialism and the May 1968 abortive revolution are dealt with in the most ironic fashion. The story starts at the time of the Nazi occupation and culminates some 30 years later in Jerusalem, where the hero Ary Safran, a Hebrew teacher and writer, son of an angelic rabbi, finds comfort for his relative failures in life. The kabbalistic idea of tikkun is here applied to the hope that all quest for unity can some day somewhere be fulfilled.
Claude *Vigée, on the other hand, has persevered in the way he chose in recent years, namely the use of Judeo-Alsatian dialect to convey the true meaning of human existence. In Le feu d'une nuit d'hiver ("The Fire of a Winter Night," 1989), he went further. This poetic work is divided in two parts, the first of which is based on a volume written in dialect form in 1984. Composed in Jerusalem, it is a meditation on the somber past of our generation, which now faces new unknown perils. These perils are portrayed in an Alsatian epic, tender and ironic, burlesque and sinister, which unfolds in the guise of a country fair in the fall. The dual levels of expression in this dramatic tale bring forth our dual fate, revealing our earthly world which stands under the bright clarity of the eternal upper world. The poet says: "We have a good place elsewhere a trust well kept: in a welcoming 'elsewhere' the green vesperal light dies and flourishes anew in a muted spring."
This folk epic constitutes the prelude of the book, which in fact is more than half of the work: thirteen poems in all. Only a few bear titles, at once melancholy and whimsical: La complainte du Tsigane Sékula, La foire d'arrière saison, Le chant d'après-minuit. The last one, L'amandier de Jérusalem, marks a turning-point in locale, tone and spirit, serving as the transition for the "Jerusalem poems" of the second part. The very symbolic almond tree prepares the reader for the theme of renewed hope and youth. The poet addresses the beloved city: "Yes, though he threatens you, the Angel of Death, against him you stand in spite of all, in spite of all, you remain for me the summer bride my ever young, ever beautiful ever new Jerusalem."
Hebrew quotes from the liturgy abound in both parts of this volume.
The "10 Jerusalem poems," which constitute the second part, were composed between 1984 and 1988, with the exception of the first poem, "Chanson funèbre" (1982) where the poet echoes the "voice of the young soldiers" who died in the Lebanon War. The titles, as well as the content, bear the mark of the serious, sometimes solemn, but confident mood of the mature Jewish artist. Examples are "L'intime langue étrangère," "L'an futur," "Les trois portes de Jérusalem," "Passage du vivant," "La Bal des pénitents au Mont des Oliviers," and "La surface des choses." The title of the last poem, a final tribute to Jerusalem, is its first verse. "La demeure est le secret dont l'exil fut la quête." ("The dwelling is the secret. Exile was its quest," 1988).
In the mid-1990s and the early 21st century, Vigée described his family life in Alsace in his autobiography Unpanier de houblon: La Verte enfance du monde (1994 and L'Arrachement (1995) and his refuge in the center of France during the 1940s in La Lune d'hiver (2002).
The poet Henny Kleiner, whose works had been little noticed, deserves mention. Born in Vienna, she lived in Israel during the war years, then settled in Paris in 1952 and thereafter wrote in French. Her most striking volumes of poems are Mes cendres encore chair en terre ("My ashes are still flesh down under the earth," 1979), followed by Syllabaire de la gazelle, and Des ailleurs de toutes les couleurs ("Elsewhere in many ways and colors," 1984). The recurrent themes of nature, tenderness, childhood, motherhood, mourning, beauty are characteristic of universal nostalgic lyricism. But the poet's gift for pictorial evocations and the musical quality of the verse make the poems special. The Jewish element is especially evident in Mescendres encore chair en terre, and even more in its extension, Syllabaire de la gazelle. The poet often enters a biblical universe ("Moïse au Mont Nebo," "Jericho") or is in close contact with the Land of Israel ("Sel du désert," "Tiferet"). The poet also brings reminiscences of a grandmother on Sabbath Eve and moving allusions to the Holocaust.
One should also note an important translation into French of Paul Celan's Pavot et mémoire (1987). The great Jewish poet, born in 1920 in Bukovina, whose family was massacred by the Nazis, lived in Paris, but remained condemned to write in German, his only language. He lamented: how can I write in the language of my mother's murderers? Haunted by the tragic feeling of being a Jew without a people, without a country, without a home, he committed suicide in Paris in 1970. His poetry dwelt on many themes, but this particular volume is, in a way, a Jewish testament. In lyrical incantation Celan evokes the death of the Jews in the gas chambers, compelling the reader to the most serious meditation on the unspeakable evil of all evils. His poem "Fugue de mort" ("Todesfuge") is especially noteworthy.
There is a recurrent dispute about whether one can speak about a literary school of French-speaking Jewish writers, beyond their common language and – unequal – recognition by the Jewish community. Although it remains quite impossible to give an indisputable answer to this question, as can be seen above there are common themes that have concerned Jewish writers throughout the 20th century
J. Trénel, L'Ancien Testament et la langue française du moyen âge (1904); M. Debré, Der Jude in der franzoesischen Literatur … (1909; Eng.: The Image of the Jew in French Literature from 1800–1908 (reprint, 1970)); A. Spire, Souvenirs à bâtons rompus (1962), 276–305; M. Lifschitz-Golden, Les juifs dans la littérature française du moyen âge (Thesis, Columbia University, 1935); E.S. Randall, The Jewish Character in the French Novel, 1870–1914 (1941); R. Feigelson, Ecrivains juifs de langue française (1960), includes bibliography; F. Lehner, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, 2 (19603), 1472–86, includes bibliography; E.J. Finbert (ed.), Aspects du génie d'Israël (1950); C. Lehrmann, L'élément juif dans la littérature française, 2 vols. (1960–61), includes bibliography; idem, L'élément juif dans la pensée européene (1947), 177–202; P. Aubery, Milieux juifs de la France contemporaine (19622), includes bibliography; D. Goitein, "Jewish Themes in Selected French Works" (Thesis, Columbia University, 1967); L. Berman, Histoire des juifs de France (1937), 323–37, 460–9; n.j.E. Rothschild, Le Mistère du Viel Testament, 6 vols. (1878–91), includes bibliographies. add. bibliography: M. Séguier, Le Juif de l'écriture (1985); G. Dugas, La littérature judéo-maghrébine d'expression française (1990); Littérature et judéité dans les langues européennes, special issue of Pardès (1995); M. Pariente, Deux mille titres à thème juif parus en français entre 1989 et 1995 (1996); C. Lévy, Ecritures de l'identité. Les écrivains juifs après la Shoah (1998); C. Dana, Fictions pour mémoire. Camus, Perec et l'écriture de la Shoah (1998); E. Abecassis, Le Livre des passeurs: de la Bible à Philip Roth, trois mille ans de littérature juive (2006).
[Denise R. Goitein /
Anne Grynberg (2nd ed.)]
"French Literature." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 1, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/french-literature
"French Literature." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved November 01, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/french-literature