France Literature – in the Second Half of the 20th Century

According to INTERNETSAILORS, the literature of the first decades was affected by the great political events (from the problems of reconstruction to the birth of the Fifth Republic, from the student revolution of 1968 to the end of the international equilibrium that emerged from the Second World War) and above all by an enormous wealth of different notions, knowledge and experiences. Starting from the last decades of the twentieth century, marked by the dissolution of the notion of avant-garde and the end of utopias and revolutionary hopes, against the backdrop of M. Blanchot’s negative modernity (L’écriture du désastre, 1980; Les intellectuels en question, 1996) and, more generally, of postmodernism, literature regains its own form of autonomy that does not exclude the return to tradition.

The poem

Poetry does not see the birth of real schools, the ways and means of poetic discourse are the most varied and the most fruitful, the theoretical debate is intense on the numerous magazines dedicated to the genre (Cahiers du SudConfluences et positionsPoésie etc.). A prominent position belongs to Y. Bonnefoy, singer of the ‘desert’ of the human condition, and also the author of important essays on poetry. In such a varied panorama we must at least mention A. Bousquet, J. Grosjean, P. de la Tour du Pin, P. Emmanuel, J.-C. Renard, M. Alyn, C.-M. Cluny, J. Réda, J.-M. Franck, which all reveal a continuity with the previous poetry, with an absolute prevalence of lyricism. The crisis of language, which found an acute and dramatic expression with the nouveau roman, creates a sort of rupture in one part of the poem, in the wake of France Ponge’s experience: especially J. Roubaud, mathematician poet, disciple of OULIPO (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), who applies the combinatorial principle to poetry, and the group of Tel quel. Even the popular song acquires the dignity of literary language with famous chansonniers such as C. Trenet and G. Brassens. In the 1970s, in reaction to the risk of derealization of poetic language, poets orient themselves towards a problematization of meaning and language: in this context, the philosopher-poets, who return to poetry its eminently metaphysical function (M. Déguy, J. Garelli). Since the 1980s, poetry has been characterized by the rediscovery of the concrete and the figurative and by a renewed lyricism: we note the work of E. Jabès, whose meditation on the poetic act is inseparable from that on the Jewish condition, while it continues to occupy a central place Y. Bonnefoy. In the very rich panorama the names of A. Du Bouchet and J. Dupin, disciples of R. Char stand out; A. Chedid ; J.-C. Renard and P. Oster, of Christian inspiration; C. Dobzynski, author of an anthology of Yiddish poetry; M. Deguy, translator of France Hölderlin, M. Heidegger, P. Celan and of the American poets, as well as the author of a poem interwoven with philosophical interests, rich in neologisms; C. Esteban; J. Sacré, influenced by the discoveries of structuralism; C. Prigent, animator of the magazine TXT (1969-93), which pursues Rabelaisian polilingualism and violence against language. M. Houellebecq emerges, who later became known above all as a novelist. The trend towards a ‘European’ opening, which manifests itself in an intense translation activity, unites poets belonging to the generation of the 1950s: Y. Bichet, France Boddaert, M. Orcel, translator of the Italian classics.

The novel

The novel is however the most prolific literary genre. In addition to the group of collaborators of the OULIPO, a real literary laboratory in which the synthesis of various experiences is attempted, surrealist, playful and hyperrealist (G. Perec, who at the end of the century will experience an extraordinary posthumous success) and the group of Tel quel, the most important trend is undoubtedly autobiography, which in the production of M. Leiris, the undisputed master of the genre, assumes the characteristics of an endless self-analysis, and counts numerous scholars (including R. Aron, QC Roy, R. Sabatier, FJ Green, H. Bazin ; J. Cayrol, H. Thomas, H. Lucot). Above all, M. Yourcenar, in whose work remembrance and memory are the subject of novels, essays, short stories and real autobiography. Literature regains its own form of autonomy which does not exclude the return to tradition.

Among the symptoms of a change in the direction of a return to tradition, P. Sollers’ passage from experimentalism to the linear novel, to the novel-essay; the extraordinary success of M. Duras starting with L’amant (1984); but also the prolongation of the marvelous surrealist (A. Pieyre de Mandiargues), the neoclassicism of the so-called hussards (J. Laurent, M. Déon, A. Blondin, France Nourissier), characterized by the refusal of engagement, by the admiration for Stendhal and from the rehabilitation of L.-F. Céline, P. Morand, P. Drieu La Rochelle ; and finally the traditionalism of J. d’Ormesson. The assignment of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1985) to C. Simon attests, moreover, the permanent vitality of the nouveau roman, renewed, despite the distancing of N. Sarraute and A. Robbe-Grillet, from R. Pinget, C. Ollier, P. Michon and J.-R. Camus. A prominent place holds the production of J.-M.-G. Le Clézio, aimed at the search for ‘unconditional’, primitive cultural conditions, and of M. Tournier, tireless remaker of myths, as well as the complex work of P. Modiano, focused on the theme of the search for an identity suspended between oblivion and memory.

The specificity of female writing is reaffirmed, as well as by J. Kristeva and M. Cardinal, by a large number of writers: L. Irigaray, who moves on the level of a radical critique of the reception of the feminine in Western culture; H. Cixous, engaged in feminist struggles; D. Sallenave and A. Ernaux, who take the issue of diversity on the side of women to the extreme. Themes of a diversity pushed to the extreme, from homosexuality to fatal disease, are found in T. Duvert, in the aforementioned Camus and above all in H. Guibert. In addition to variously characterized writers such as the Proustian France-O. Rousseau and the baroque P. Cixous, is to be mentioned, for the commercial success, above all D. Pennac.

The detective novel was affected by the impressive work of G. Simenon ; of great popularity enjoy France Dard and J. Vautrin (pseudonym of Jean Herman); the master of noir is J. Echenoz, who experiments with narrative languages ​​and structures with subtly parody effects; science fiction has found quality interpreters in S. Brussolo and A. Volodine.

Among the most innovative and refined writers, M. Chaillou, France Delay, author with J. Roubaud of a transposition of the legend of the Grail and sophisticated novels, P. Quignard, aimed at overcoming the frontiers of genres in works full of reflection philosophical.


The genre is fragmented into a multitude of experiences which, in the absolute search for the new, can be defined as ‘experimental’: after Genet, France Arrabal stages a theater of pure violence with a dramaturgy of scandal. However, a more poetic vein survives in the work of J. Tardieu, G. Schehadé, J. Vauthier, R. de Obaldia, R. Dubillard, H. Pichette, R. Weingarten, France Billetdoux. The experiences of directors such as A. Vitez, R. Planchon (disciple of J. Vilar and B. Brecht), P. Chéreau (marked by anthropology) and A. Mnouchkine (Théâtre du soleil) contribute to the renewal of the theater. To the production of authors such as Duras, Sarraute, Dubillard, A. Gatti, Billetdoux, joins the work of M. Vinaver, aimed at the search for new means of expression through the multiplication of characters and the simultaneity of the dialogues, and E. Arrabal, whose panic theater reveals the influence of Artaud . Among the other more successful playwrights: L. Bellon, of intimist tendencies; L. Calaferte; J.-C. Grumberg and the aforementioned Cixous, in which attention to social reality prevails; J.-C. Bristille; the Argentine Copi; B.-M. Koltès, very represented also in Italy; V. Novarina, passed from a classical dramaturgy to a daring linguistic experimentalism.

France Literature - in the Second Half of the 20th Century

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