French Literature From World War I to 1945 Part I

The experience of the First World War, the collapse of traditional Western values, led to a decisive turning point in political and social positions as well as in literary directions. R. Rolland was committed to pacifism and international understanding, and from neutral Switzerland he published the treatise “Au-dessus de la mêlée” (1914; German “Over the battle turmoil”), for which he was in France, where most of the writers are and intellectuals who joined the patriotic “union sacrée” (the “holy covenant”) was heavily criticized. Immediate experience of the horrors of war is reflected in particular in the harrowing novels “Le feu” (1916; German “Das Feuer”) by H. Barbusse and “Les croix de bois” (1919; German “The wooden crosses”) by R. Dorgelès; both authors make their indictment without any heroic tendency. The First World War also left significant traces in poetry and theater (P. Raynal, “Le tombeau sous l’Arc de Triomphe”, 1924; German “The grave of the unknown soldier”).


Hardly any other literary movement expresses this break with cultural and social traditions in French literature and art in a more vivid way than the surrealism that followed T. Tzara’s Dadaism, which with the radical change in poetic language as a rejection of established systems of order, also the transformation traditional social structures intended. Poetry should articulate itself in the Écriture automatique as a spontaneous, not rationally controlled expression of the unconscious. The theory of surrealism developed by A. Breton (“Manifeste du surréalisme”, 1924) is based on the idea of ​​the inseparability of aesthetics and practical life, which follows from the convergence of necessity and chance (the “hasard objectif”).

A forerunner of Surrealism was G. Apollinaire (“Alcools”, 1913, German “Alcohol”; “Calligrammes”, published 1918), he reinterpreted reality by removing all logical connections, associative connection of the uneven and free handling of grammatical and syntactic structures. In doing so, he decisively shaped the later surrealist poetry of P. Éluards and L. Aragon. A. Jarry provided important impulses for the surrealist dramastarted out, whose »Ubu roi« (1896; German »King Ubu«) combined elements of the fantastic and the grotesque as well as anti-illusionistic forms of play with a deliberate shock effect in the sense of an attack on traditional (bourgeois) norms. His dramatic techniques were continued by Apollinaire and R. Vitrac. In the spirit of surrealism and turning away from psychological drama, A. Artaud later developed his theory of the theater (“Le théâtre et son double”, 1938; German “Das Theater und seine Double”), which he traced back to its ritual origins by including all artistic means of representation. In prose, the surrealist experiences of P. Soupault, Aragon (“Le paysan de Paris”, 1926; German “Pariser Landleben”) and Breton (“Nadja”, 1928; German) were poetically translated; the latter work stages the encounters between the narrator and the mysterious female figure in accordance with the surrealist principle of “hasard objectif” (“objective coincidence”) with an intermedia combination of text and images. At the end of the 1920s, the surrealist movement disintegrated, but its creative impulses continued to be effective.

Literary developments between the world wars

The period between the wars was marked by a multitude of other literary tendencies. In addition to Proust’s work, which opened up new aesthetic dimensions, the traditional social novel (in the successor to Balzac and Zola partly also in a cyclical form, “roman fleuve”) was continued as the story of a family or a social group against the background of contemporary developments and problems (see above in “La chronique des Pasquier”, 1933–41, by G. Duhamel; in “Les Thibault”, 1922–40, in German “Die Thibaults”, by R. Martin du Gard; and in “Les hommes de bonne volonté”, 1932 –46, German »The good will are«, by J. Romains). An idealistic community ideology characterized the literary direction of the “unanimisme”, which among other things. Romains and Duhamel belonged, but also influenced Éluard; she tried to trace the various aspects of reality through the representation of collective consciousness on different levels of group formation, whereby she also made use of the simultaneous technique. Check to see more about France and other countries in the world.

The traditional genre of the psychological novel took hold, inter alia. A. Maurois and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (»Chéri«, 1920; German). The psychological analysis is also characteristic of the novels that continue the Renouveau catholique, especially by G. Bernanos, J. Green and F. Mauriac, which reflect the antagonism of sin and grace in different ways. Unlike Claudel and earlier representatives of this movement – in addition to religious unrest – also expresses fear, loneliness and being trapped in rigid bonds. The regionalist novel took on a Christian-pantheistic or mythical-mystical color in its turn to nature and landscape (J. Giono, H. Bosco, A. Chamson). The stories (and dramas) of M. Pagnol also show a connection with the native landscape of southern France. Regionalistic aspects also show the literary tendency of the “populisme”, which realistically described the milieu of the common people. Contrary to this naturalistic tendency, the novel also expresses emphatically individualistic and form-experimental attitudes, as in Gide (»Les faux-monnayeurs«, 1925; German »Die Falschmünzer«), who brought up the concept of »mise en abyme« (ie, the reflection of the macrostructure of a literary work in its microstructure). H. de Montherlant’s narrative and (later) dramatic work (“La reine morte”, 1942; German “Die tote Königin”) is permeated with individualistic morality and intellectual aristocracy. On the other hand, A. de Saint-Exupéry thematized self-realization through a heroic act of commitment to the community as a humanistic ideal (»Courrier sud«, 1928, German »Südkurier«; »Terre des hommes«, 1939, German »Wind, Sand and Stars«)). In the novels of A. Malraux the self-discovery was presented in connection with a revolutionary action against the background of metaphysical problems (“La condition humaine”, 1933; German “Conditio humana”). Outside of any literary direction, the work of L.-F. Célines, through his intellectual protest attitude and his anarchic traits as well as his nonconformist language, expression of a (spiritual) crisis situation (“Voyage au bout de la nuit”, 1932; German “Journey to the end of the night”). In 1938, Elsa Triolet, who originally wrote in Russian and originally from Moscow – Aragon’s companion – published her first novel in French, “Bonsoir, Thérèse”; even after the war she wrote important narratives, mostly of socially critical and feminist tendencies.

French Literature From World War I 1