RECOMMENDED FOR READING
| A Guide to Contemporary French Literature: From Valery to Sartre -- Book by Wallace Fowlie; Meridian Books, 1957
INTRODUCTION: The French Literary Mind
In the literary tradition of France, eloquence, both oral and written, is a ceremony. It is true that in every literary tradition, eloquence, by its very nature, must become to some degree the stylization of language, but in France the instinct to make of language a highly formalized expression is deeper and more permanent than in other traditions. Each of the great masterpieces in French literature seems extraordinarily aware of the public to which it is addressing itself, of the presence of a public, of a public mind which must be subjugated and enchanted according to well-established rules of subjugation and enchantment.
And that is why the first trait of the French literary mind always seems to be its sociability or even what we might call its worldliness. The French writer is always addressing some one, even when he is speaking on that subject which has become a favorite since the days of the Renaissance when Montaigne wrote his Essays: the subject of solitude. Because of this attitude of the French writer, which is more an instinct than an attitude, born of a need to communicate and to establish a relationship between his thought and the minds of other men, his works are characterized by a tone of bareness, of separateness. They often give the effect of arias sung in the midst of great silence, sung at some distance from the world, even if they are directed toward the world. This is sometimes described as the classical spirit in French art, and works composed in this spirit have the inflections of a pleader and a lawyer whose skill is used to combat and convince and seduce.
Such works, and they have occurred in all periods of French history, illustrate the solitude of literary speech. But such speech-solitude, because of its ceremonial aspect, is floodlighted. Its contrived effect, so carefully planned to provoke, hold, subjugate and enchant, may often appear a pure theatricality. The writer in the French tradition resembles a performing artist. In French schools the primary literary exercise is that of textual explication, by which a single page of a writer is made to serve as a revelation of his particular art and thought, and even the art and thought of his period. Only a very highly selfconscious and even histrionic art permits such examination and such treatment, whereby a novelist is studied not in his novel, but in a single paragraph from his novel, and a poet is studied in a single sonnet. This habit of study has helped to convert French literature into a series of celebrated set-pieces. Renan is known for his prayer on the Acropolis and Proust for the passage on the madeleine cake dipped in a cup of linden tea.
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| A single page can be separated from its book and exist autonomously in its own brilliance, in much the same way as a speech in a French conversation may be taken out of its context and seen to be a distinct and singular creation. At French dinner parties the general effect may be that of conversation, or at times of hubbub, but when listened to more attentively, the conversation of each dinner guest will be seen to be a monologue, recited both simultaneously and independently. French eloquence, whether written or spoken under the stimulus of a physically present public, is expression ritualistically conceived.
The reason for this solitariness of the French literary voice, what we might name the primary secret of the French literary mind, is the fervent identification it establishes with the past. If the finished product of French writing often gives us the impression of an aria sung in the center of a vast space, of a form stripped of nonessentials and bare in an almost heroic vulnerability, we know that its strength comes from its alliance with an allegiance to the tradition of its past. The dependence of a French writer on other writers who preceded him is acknowledged and emphasized. French art is knowingly the renewal of tradition and not the discovery of the new. The writer in France learns his particular role and vocation in terms of those past writers with whom he is in sympathy as well as those with whom he is in disagreement. Many French masterpieces have been born from a quarrel. The loneliness of the French writer, which now might be termed his uniqueness, comes from this will to determine himself by his affiliations and disagreements. The French writer knows that originality is an unimportant and even an illusory goal in art. The seeming new really draws upon the old.
I have taken courses in French literature both in America and Paris where the professor actually never got to the author announced as the subject of the course, where all the time was spent in discussing the forerunners of the author. We learned all about the writers whom the author had read during his lifetime and to what degree he had been influenced by them, but by then we had reached the final lecture, and although we had learned much of what lay behind the literary work in question, we had no time to consider the work itself.
Such an approach, which treats literature as a renovation of the past, as a prolongation, rather than as an original creation, explains to some degree the attitude of the French people toward their writers. The pride which the French feel in their writers and their awareness of them even if they do not always read them, are singularly French traits. The recent death in Paris of Paul Valry July 1945, became an event of national significance. I refer to the example of Valry in this connection because he is as far removed as it is possible to be from the type of popular writer. As a poet, he is one of the most difficult France has ever produced, and one who will rank among the greatest; and as a prose writer, he is even more difficult. The stylistic and philosophical difficulty of Valry's art would seem to relegate him to a very small circle of initiates, but it is a fact that, even long before his death, he was a universal figure in Paris, a symbol and justification of French pride in literary tradition.