07 Sep

What is politically and artistically unique about France’s stellar writers?

Posted By Politybooks

Alison Finch, author of French Literature, posts on the relationship between writing and power.

I’ve always been keenly interested in both politics and literature. But when I was an undergraduate studying French literature at Cambridge, these two passions were in separate parts of my life. I was active in student politics, but as far as my studies went, it was rather frowned on to depart from the text in front of you.

The Cambridge English Faculty’s stress on ‘practical criticism’ was also important in the Modern Languages Faculty, where you were encouraged to see the text as a ‘well-wrought urn’. You had to know what was called ‘the background’, but if you started to strip down literature for its ideas, you were reminded that any political pamphlet had ideas; what was unique to good literature was that it expressed things beautifully.

The notion that you might study a ‘second-rate’ novel by a woman just because it was by a woman was anathema. Gradually, that changed. Critics began to emphasise that the form of even great art couldn’t be divorced from the conditions of its production, and that literature could change readers’ political consciousness.

It could reinforce stereotypes, or it could powerfully suggest socially radical scenarios. And it could do so through a range of tones and techniques: tragic, comic, quietly ironic, metaphorical.

I found these developments exciting – without them I could not have written my last book, Women’s Writing in Nineteenth-Century France. At last, a way to bring together my political and literary interests! So when Polity asked me to contribute French Literature to itsCultural History of Literature series, I jumped at the offer.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about writing the book has been the chance to show that even exquisite and apparently highly individual style has roots in politics of the time. That is particularly the case in France, which of all European countries has most valued fine wit, virtuoso literary patterning and the role of the intellectual.

Indeed, there are three French words that demonstrate this. Esprit can’t be properly translated into English: it means spirit, wit and mind all at once. Nor can moraliste: not ‘moralizer’, but he or she who comments on social and psychological behaviour non-judgmentally, wryly, compassionately: see how droll and paradoxical we humans are! And finally, philosophe does not mean ‘philosopher’ in the Anglo-American usage. It means ‘thinker’,  one who participates in political debate and who may also – this brings me back to my main theme – compose drama, fiction, even verse.

The philosophes, at least, saw no contradiction between the writing of literature and the wish to intervene in politics. And while this has not always made ruling elites happy, those elites have, at almost all stages of French history, understood and promoted the international prestige of great writing as part of French ‘exceptionalism’.

So French literature is a particularly rewarding subject for a ‘cultural history’ – and I’m glad that, among many other attractions, writing the book enabled me to say what I think is politically and artistically unique about France’s stellar writers.