Reading French literature in times of terror

Over the past 18 months, France has suffered more than its fair share of terrorist attacks among Western countries. The most recent is the Nice attack. Prior to that, synchronized attacks against the Bataclan Theater and related Parisian places, and before that – perhaps the most infamous – the The Charlie Hebdo shootings.

And every time France is attacked, a particular kind of pain comes over me. In the late 1980s, motivated by a love of French literature, I spent a year in Paris studying the language at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, paying for my tuition by giving private lessons in English to French university students.

I had a good time with the young French people I was teaching. Many of them were around my age – in their mid-twenties – and I was often invited to their homes or restaurants for a meal. They came from all walks of life – Caucasians, North Africans, Parisians or provinces – and they fascinated me. Here they are, the future guardians of French society and culture, learning English to stay competitive in the new globalized economy. For my part, I was fascinated by their language and its heritage.

These days, France occupies a prominent place in my life through my collection of books. My books in French do not take up the greatest space on my shelves: it is the combined literatures of the Anglosphere that do. But French literature and thought are without a doubt the literature that has influenced me the most as a novelist and scholar.

I cannot imagine life without writers like Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon and more recently Michel Houellebecq. What can we say to the contemporary sensibilities which can bristle in front of this somewhat canonical list? If there has ever been a literary canon worth establishing, it is French.

Marguerite Duras.
Wikimedia Commons

What attracts me again and again about this work? If I could pin it down I would say it’s because the French novel has a quality that manages to blend social criticism, personal struggle, entertainment, and aesthetics in a unique way.

At the base of all these elements hides a formidable and nuanced irony, a kind of complicit nod to human weakness, this engine room of the tragic, the force that drives all our triumphs and failures.

Let’s look at some examples. Emile Zola is best known for his individual novels such as Germinal, Nana and The Human Beast. What is less known is that these books are part of a monumental saga of 20 novels known as the Les Rougon-Macquart series, in which he traces the natural and social history of a family from the second empire of France. Standing on the shoulders of his hero Balzac and his monumental La Comédie humaine, Zola exercises a forensic gaze on the pitfalls of his time, France in the second half of the 19th century.

Emile Zola.
Nadar, via Wikimedia Commons

Narrative ironies abound in Zola: in tone, at the level of daily observation, but perhaps more importantly at the level of the story premise. Nowhere is this better illustrated in his novel Nana, where we look at Parisian society through the story of the courtesan / actress Nana, whose rise and fall provides insight into the moral and political climate of the time. But it is also the success of novels like Nana – it sold 55,000 copies on the first day of publication in 1870 – which testifies to the way in which French literature could conduct a critique of French society with style and panache. , and also be a hit with an audience. hungry for critical reviews of society told in an entertaining way.

It was the France of nearly a century and a half ago, a France that could never have dreamed of what would become of its empire, nor predicted a time when nearly a tenth of the population would be Muslim, as is the case. today.

Biting satire

Yet the spirit of criticism lives in their literature, most famous for the English-speaking public in the form of the biting satires of the novelist Michel Houellebecq on French society. In a spirit arguably less nuanced than his canonical predecessors like Balzac and Zola, Houellebecq’s critiques are idiosyncratic and sharp, testifying as much to his dysfunctional personality as to a desire to reveal powerful ironies that speak for the time.

Michel Houellebecq in 2008.
Mariusz Kubik / Wikimedia Commons

Nowhere is this sensibility clearer than in his most recent novel, Submission, where the irony of the premises is in the foreground. In France in 2022, an Islamic party seized power through the ballot box, and France finds itself on the road to Islamization. Our hero is the Parisian academic François, scholar of the great author of the decadence of the 19th century, Huysmans.

Confronted with the new status quo, and dissatisfied with the empty freedoms of Western culture, François finds himself drawn to a world which is restoring a clear moral order and which, above all, allows him to have several wives.

In an event that could only be described as a timing accident, Submission was published on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack, with the current issue of that magazine with Michel Houellebecq on the cover. The novel became a bestseller in Europe and the English-speaking world. Once again, the spirit of French criticism – this time darker, more murky – found itself in contact with a national and global audience.

Houellebecq’s satire of the near future is his commentary on today’s France. It is a France at a crossroads, caught between the historical and permanent tug of war between Europe and Islam, between the desire to remain faithful to its heritage of freedom, equality and fraternity and the need to recognize that it has become a multi – cultural society which must extend these values ​​to all.

French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
EPA / IAN LANGSDON

How can France succeed in this act of juggling? This is a question currently facing other European countries – Germany, Belgium, Great Britain – which have all become recent targets of Islamist extremists.

Whenever these attacks occur, I think of the young French people whose hospitality I enjoyed almost 30 years ago. No doubt many of them, like me, will have taken their place by contributing to their professions, have their own families, strive to make themselves useful and happy. Sadly, they have inherited a world where, for a variety of complex reasons, they find their fellow citizens either mown down by a rental truck as they watch the July 14 fireworks display or shot down in the stalls of a theater. retro at a rock concert.

In these dark days of extremist violence, the literature seems to offer few answers or consolations. But his critical mind, so brilliantly developed by the French, is certainly worth fighting for.


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