French literature


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French literature,

writings in medieval French dialects and standard modern French. Writings in Provençal and Breton are considered separately, as are works in French produced abroad (as at Canadian literature, FrenchCanadian literature, French,
the body of literature of the French-speaking population of Canada.

Except for the narratives of French explorers (such as Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Esprit Radisson) and missionaries, no notable writing was produced before the British
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).

Medieval Literature

Until the 12th cent. A.D. most forms of writing in Gaul were in Latin. Old French emerged from the Latin vernacular of the south known as the langue d'oïl. Because of the French Crusades and military interests abroad (1050–1210), Old French became an international tongue, and a literature arose that reflected the attitudes and activities of the military, as in the Chanson de Roland (c.1100; see RolandRoland
, the great French hero of the medieval Charlemagne cycle of chansons de geste, immortalized in the Chanson de Roland (11th or 12th cent.). Existence of an early Roland poem is indicated by the historian Wace's statement that Taillefer sang of Roland's deeds
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). A tradition of epic poetry was developed by traveling minstrels, or jongleurs. Lengthy narratives were recited in groups of laisses, 10- to 12-syllable lines rhyming in groups of varied lengths (see chansons de gestechansons de geste
[Fr.,=songs of deeds], a group of epic poems of medieval France written from the 11th through the 13th cent. Varying in length from 1,000 to 20,000 lines, assonanced or (in the 13th cent.
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).

Another early literary strain developed in the 12th cent. from the stories of saints and heroes and the Celtic romances of Chrétien de TroyesChrétien de Troyes
or Chrestien de Troyes
, fl. 1170, French poet, author of the first great literary treatments of the Arthurian legend. His narrative romances, composed c.1170–c.
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. Later, more refined romances and allegories include the philosophical Roman de la RoseRoman de la Rose, Le
, French poem of 22,000 lines in eight-syllable couplets. It is in two parts. The first (4,058 lines) was written (c.1237) by Guillaume de Lorris and was left unfinished. It is an elaborate allegory on the psychology of love, often subtle and charming.
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 and the witty Reynard the Fox. Marie de FranceMarie de France
, fl. 1155–90, poet. Born in France, she spent her adult life in England in aristocratic circles and wrote in Anglo-Norman. She is best known for some dozen lais; several are of Celtic origin, and some are Arthurian.
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 and others created new forms, including the lai, animal fable, and fabliau (rhymed anecdotal piece). Many of these were based on themes from classical mythology. The works of Ovid and Aesop were especially popular sources, as was Arthurian legendArthurian legend,
the mass of legend, popular in medieval lore, concerning King Arthur of Britain and his knights. Medieval Sources

The battle of Mt. Badon—in which, according to the Annales Cambriae (c.
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.

French lyric poetry developed with the songs of the troubadourstroubadours
, aristocratic poet-musicians of S France (Provence) who flourished from the end of the 11th cent. through the 13th cent. Many troubadours were noblemen and crusader knights; some were kings, e.g.
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 and the trouvèrestrouvères
, medieval poet-musicians of central and N France, fl. during the later 12th and the 13th cent. The trouvères imitated the troubadours of the south.
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 and from the more personal works of professional poets. Among the best-known lyric poets of the Middle Ages are Colin Muset, RutebeufRutebeuf
, fl. between 1254 and 1285, French poet. He was the author of an early miracle play, Le Miracle de Théophile, and of fabliaux, allegories, saints' lives, and satires. Skillfully using legend, he eloquently attacked social abuses and mocked the flaws of all classes.
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, Christine de PisanPisan, Christine de
, 1364–c.1430, French poet, of Italian descent. She wrote many verse romances and works in prose, as well as the lyric poems for which she is most famous. Remarkable in character and learning, Christine sought to express the dignity of woman.
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, Alain ChartierChartier, Alain
, b. c.1385, d. c.1433, French writer, secretary to Charles VII. His most popular work was the love poem La Belle Dame sans mercy (1424), which provided Keats with a title.
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, Charles d'OrléansOrléans, Charles, duc d'
, 1391–1465, French prince and poet; nephew of King Charles VI. After the assassination of his father, Louis d'Orléans, he became (1407) titular head of the Armagnacs (see Armagnacs and Burgundians).
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, and the outstanding poet of Old French, François VillonVillon, François
, 1431–1463?, French poet, b. Paris, whose original name was François de Montcorbier or François Des Loges. One of the earliest great poets of France, Villon was largely rediscovered in the 19th cent.
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. The earliest French drama consisted of religious plays, the most familiar of which are the anonymous mystères (such as the Mystère d'Adam) of the 12th cent. The miracle playsmiracle play
or mystery play,
form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent.
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 of the 13th cent. include Jehan BodelBodel, Jehan
, b. c.1165, French trouvère of Arras. He is the author of one of the earliest dramas entirely in French, a mystery play entitled Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas (c.1200).
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's Jeu de St. Nicolas (1200). By the end of the century secular and didactic pieces, many of them comedies and fantasies, were being performed by nonclerics. French prose literature began with the writings of the chroniclers and historians, among them Geoffroi de VillehardouinVillehardouin, Geoffroi de,
c.1160–c.1212, French historian and Crusader. As marshal of Champagne, he was a leader of the Fourth Crusade (see Crusades), which resulted in the conquest (1204) of Constantinople and the creation of the Latin Empire of Constantinople.
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, Jean de JoinvilleJoinville, Jean, sire de
, 1224?–1317?, French chronicler, biographer of Louis IX of France (St. Louis). As seneschal (governor) of Champagne, Joinville was a close adviser to Louis, whom he accompanied (1248–54) on the Seventh Crusade.
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, Jean FroissartFroissart, Jean
, c.1337–1410?, French chronicler, poet, and courtier, b. Valenciennes. Although ordained as a priest, he led a worldly life. He became a protégé of Queen Philippa of England, visited the court of David II of Scotland, and accompanied (1366)
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, and Philippe de CominesComines, Philippe de
, c.1447–c.1511, French historian, courtier, and diplomat. In 1472 he left the service of Charles the Bold of Burgundy to enter that of Louis XI of France, who rewarded him richly.
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, last of the major medieval historians.

Renaissance Literature

The late 15th and early 16th cent. saw the flowering of the Renaissance in France. Three giants of world literature—François RabelaisRabelais, François
, c.1490–1553, French writer and physician, one of the great comic geniuses in world literature. His father, a lawyer, owned several estates, including "La Devinière," near Chinon, the presumed birthplace of Rabelais.
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, Pierre de RonsardRonsard, Pierre de
, 1524–1585, French poet. As page, then squire, Ronsard seemed destined for a career at court both in France and abroad. However, deafness turned him to a more secluded and studious life at the Collège de Coqueret where he became leader of the
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, and Michel Eyquem de MontaigneMontaigne, Michel Eyquem, seigneur de
, 1533–92, French essayist. Montaigne was one of the greatest masters of the essay as a literary form. Born at the Château of Montaigne in Périgord, he was the son of a rich Catholic landowner and a mother of Spanish
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—towered over a host of brilliant but lesser figures in the 16th cent. Italian influence was strong in the poetry of Clément MarotMarot, Clément
, 1496?–1544, French court poet. His graceful rondeaux, ballades and epigrams won him the patronage of Francis I and Margaret of Navarre. Marot was imprisoned for Reformationist heresy in 1526 and based his superb allegorical satire Enfer
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 and the dramas of Éstienne JodelleJodelle, Estienne
, 1532–73, French poet of the Pléiade (see under Pleiad). He was the author of Cléopatre captive (1553), the first French tragedy that departed from medieval drama.
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 and Robert GarnierGarnier, Robert
, 1534?–1590, French dramatic poet. He wrote mainly closet dramas in the classical manner of Seneca. Les Juives [the Jewish women] (1583), based on the Bible, is perhaps the best of his tragedies.
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. The poet Ronsard and the six poets known collectively as the Pléiade (see PleiadPleiad
[from Pleiades], group of seven tragic poets of Alexandria who flourished c.280 B.C. under Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Of the works of the men usually given in lists of the Pleiad only those of Lycophron survive. A group of enthusiastic French poets took c.
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) reacted against Italian influence to produce a body of French poetry to rival Italian achievement. The early 17th-century critic François de MalherbeMalherbe, François de
, 1555–1628, French poet and critic, official poet of Henry IV and Louis XIII. His own poems approach technical perfection but lack verve and fire; the best-known is Consolation à Monsieur du Périer (c.1590).
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 attacked the excesses of the Pléiade; his zeal for the correct choice of words has marked French literature ever since.

The civil and religious strife of the later 16th cent. was reflected clearly in the works of the period, particularly in the poetry of Théodore d'AubignéAubigné, Théodore Agrippa d'
, 1552–1630, French poet and Huguenot soldier. A devoted follower of Henry of Navarre (Henry IV) from 1568, he was later associated with Henri de Rohan in an abortive plot and fled France to live in Geneva (1620).
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, Guillaume de Bartas, and Jean de SpondeSponde, Jean de
, 1557–95, French poet and humanist. He held various posts in the court of Henry IV but died destitute because of his reckless nature. His Sonnets of Love and Death (1630, tr.
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. The greatest prose of the period was produced in the fiction of the ebullient Rabelais and in the magnificent essays of Montaigne. Under the stable and prosperous Bourbon monarchy Paris became the glittering cultural center of Western civilization.

Classicism: The Seventeenth Century

The 17th cent. produced the great academies and coteries of French literature. The elegant, controlled aesthetic of French classicism was the hallmark of the age: in the brilliant dramas of Pierre CorneilleCorneille, Pierre
, 1606–84, French dramatist, ranking with Racine as a master of French classical tragedy. Educated by Jesuits, he practiced law briefly in his native Rouen and moved to Paris after the favorable reception of his first play, Mélite
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, Jean RacineRacine, Jean
, 1639–99, French dramatist. Racine is the prime exemplar of French classicism. The nobility of his Alexandrine verse, the simplicity of his diction, the psychological realism of his characters, and the skill of his dramatic construction contribute to the
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, and MolièreMolière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin
, 1622–73, French playwright and actor, b. Paris; son of a merchant who was upholsterer to the king. His name was originally Jean Baptiste Poquelin.
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; in the poetry and satire of Jean de La FontaineLa Fontaine, Jean de
, 1621–95, French poet, whose celebrated fables place him among the masters of world literature. He was born at Château-Thierry to a bourgeois family. A restless dilettante as a youth, he settled at last in Paris.
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 and Nicolas Boileau-DespréauxBoileau-Despréaux, Nicolas
, 1636–1711, French literary critic and poet. He was the spokesman of classicism, drawing his principles from his contemporaries, among them his friends Racine, Molière, and La Fontaine.
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; in the prose of Blaise PascalPascal, Blaise
, 1623–62, French scientist and religious philosopher. Studying under the direction of his father, a civil servant, Pascal showed great precocity, especially in mathematics and science.
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, Marie, marquise de SévignéSévigné, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de
, 1626–96, French woman of letters. Her correspondence of more than 1,500 letters is a monument of French literature. After her husband's death (1651) she devoted herself to her two children.
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, Jacques-Bénigne BossuetBossuet, Jacques Bénigne
, 1627–1704, French prelate, one of the greatest orators in French history. At an early age he was made a canon at Metz; he became bishop of Condom and was (1670–81) tutor to the dauphin (father of Louis XV), for whom he wrote his
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, Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La FayetteLa Fayette, Marie Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de
, 1634–92, French novelist of the classical period, whose chief work, La Princesse de Clèves (1678), is the first great French novel.
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, and François, duc de La RochefoucauldLa Rochefoucauld, François, duc de
, 1613–80, French writer. As head of an ancient family (in his youth he bore the title prince de Marcillac) he opposed Richelieu and was later active in both Frondes.
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. The works of the ecclesiastic François de la Mothe FénelonFénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe
, 1651–1715, French theologian and writer, a leader of the quietism heresy, archbishop of Cambrai. As tutor to the duke of Burgundy, he wrote Télémaque
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, the social philosopher Claude Henri, comte de Saint-SimonSaint-Simon, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de
, 1760–1825, French social philosopher; grand nephew of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon. While still a young man, he served in the American Revolution as a volunteer on the side of the colonists.
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, and the satirist and classical scholar Jean de La BruyèreLa Bruyère, Jean de
, 1645–96, French writer. He lived (1684–96) as tutor in the house of the prince de Condé. His great work, Les Caractères de Théophraste, traduits du grec; avec Les Caractères ou les mœurs de ce
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 belong to this illustrious period as well as to the 18th cent.

These great writers vary enormously in their attitudes and interests but share a style that is lucid, polished, and restrained. They are, as a group, chiefly concerned with observing the subtleties of human behavior. Their works display qualities that have become permanently identified with the best French writing: wit, sophistication, imagination, and delight in debate.

From the mid-1680s French prose writers honed their critical facility as poetical and theatrical works waned in number and distinction. Ecclesiastical writing abounded and among the foremost figures in this field were Fénelon, Esprit FléchierFléchier, Esprit
, 1632–1710, French writer. He was a famous pulpit orator and became bishop of Nîmes. His principal work is an account of special assizes held at Clermont (1665) for the repression of crime, in which most of the local nobility was involved.
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, Pasquier QuesnelQuesnel, Pasquier
, 1634–1719, French Jansenist writer. He entered the Congregation of the Oratory in 1657 and was made director of the seminary at Paris in 1662. His edition of the works of Pope Leo I was placed on the Index (1676) for its Gallicanism, and Quesnel left
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, and Richard Simon. Major precursors of the EnlightenmentEnlightenment,
term applied to the mainstream of thought of 18th-century Europe and America. Background and Basic Tenets

The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th cent.
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 of the 18th cent. were the philosophers Bernard de FontenelleFontenelle, Bernard le Bovier de
, 1657–1757, French writer; nephew of Corneille. His forte was the interpretation of science. His works include Dialogues des morts (1683), observations on man; Histoire des oracles (1687), attacking superstition;
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 and Pierre BayleBayle, Pierre
, 1647–1706, French philosopher. Born a Huguenot, he converted to Roman Catholicism and then returned to Protestantism. To avoid French intolerance of Protestants, he moved in 1681 to Rotterdam, where he lived for most of the rest of his life.
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.

Rationalism: The Eighteenth Century

The great French rationalists of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason—François-Marie VoltaireVoltaire, François Marie Arouet de
, 1694–1778, French philosopher and author, whose original name was Arouet. One of the towering geniuses in literary and intellectual history, Voltaire personifies the Enlightenment.
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, Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
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, and Charles de Secondat, baron de MontesquieuMontesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de
, 1689–1755, French jurist and political philosopher. He was councillor (1714) of the parlement of Bordeaux and its president (1716–28) after the death of an uncle, whom he succeeded in both title
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—produced some of the most powerful and influential political and philosophical writing in Western history. The political and religious opinions expressed by the compilers of the Encyclopédie (completed 1765), led by Denis DiderotDiderot, Denis
, 1713–84, French encyclopedist, philosopher of materialism, and critic of art and literature, b. Langres. He was also a novelist, satirist, and dramatist. Diderot was enormously influential in shaping the rationalistic spirit of the 18th cent.
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 and the mathematician Jean d'AlembertAlembert, Jean le Rond d'
, 1717–83, French mathematician and philosopher. The illegitimate son of the chevalier Destouches, he was named for the St. Jean le Rond church, on whose steps he was found. His father had him educated.
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, had great impact on French and foreign thought.

The period was also notable for advances in drama and fiction. Successful writers of tragic drama, other than Voltaire, include Antoine Houdar de La Motte and Buyrette de Belloy; the great writers of comedy were Pierre de MarivauxMarivaux, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de
, 1688–1763, French dramatist and novelist. He enjoyed popularity for a time with his numerous comedies, including Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard (1730, tr. Love in Livery) and Le Legs (1736, tr.
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 and Pierre de BeaumarchaisBeaumarchais, Pierre Augustin Caron de
, 1732–99, French dramatist. Originally a watchmaker, he rose to wealth and position among the nobility. His two successful comedies were Le Barbier de Séville (1775), the basis of an opera by Rossini, and
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. The French novel—Diderot and Marivaux contributed to its literary form—gained popularity with the works of Alain René Le SageLe Sage, Alain René
, 1668–1747, French novelist and dramatist. His masterpiece, Gil Blas de Santillane (1715–35, tr. by Tobias Smollett, The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane,
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, Abbé Prevost, and Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and by the end of the century was among the foremost of literary genres. Another significant form of literature was the memoir; among the many writers of the period who excelled at this sort of autobiography were Mathieu Marais, Edmond Barbier, and Jean François MarmontelMarmontel, Jean François
, 1723–99, French critic, dramatist, and story writer, contributor to Diderot's Encyclopédie. Educated by the Jesuits, he taught in Jesuit schools until 1745, when, encouraged by Voltaire, he went to Paris.
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.

Romanticism, Realism, and Other Movements: The Nineteenth Century

The upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era were accompanied by new intellectual trends. Romanticismromanticism,
term loosely applied to literary and artistic movements of the late 18th and 19th cent. Characteristics of Romanticism

Resulting in part from the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movements had in common only a
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, greatly influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau, was heralded in the writings of Germaine de StaëlStaël, Germaine de
, 1766–1817, French-Swiss woman of letters, whose full name was Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël-Holstein. Born in Paris, the daughter of Jacques Necker and Suzanne Necker, she early absorbed the intellectual and political
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 and François René, vicomte de ChateaubriandChateaubriand, François René, vicomte de
, 1768–1848, French writer. Chateaubriand was a founder of romanticism in French literature. Of noble birth, he grew up in his family's isolated castle of Combourg.
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. The principal figures of the Romantic period include Victor HugoHugo, Victor Marie, Vicomte
, 1802–85, French poet, dramatist, and novelist, b. Besançon. His father was a general under Napoleon. As a child he was taken to Italy and Spain and at a very early age had published his first book of poems, resolving "to be
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, Alphonse de LamartineLamartine, Alphonse Marie Louis de
, 1790–1869, French poet, novelist, and statesman. After a trip to Italy and a brief period in the army, Lamartine began to write and achieved immediate success with his first publication, Méditations poétiques (1820).
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, Alfred, comte de VignyVigny, Alfred Victor, comte de
, 1797–1863, French poet, novelist, and dramatist. One of the foremost romantics, Vigny expressed a philosophy of stoical pessimism, stressing the lonely struggle of the individual in a hostile universe.
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, Alfred de MussetMusset, Alfred de
(Louis Charles Alfred de Musset) , 1810–57, French romantic poet, dramatist, and fiction writer. His first collection of poems, Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie (1829), exhibited a strong Byronic influence.
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, Gérard de NervalNerval, Gérard de
, 1808–55, French writer, an early romantic. His real name was Gérard Labrunie. His writings include translations of Faust (1828) and other German works; short stories, notably in Les Filles du feu (1854, partial tr.
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, Prosper MériméeMérimée, Prosper
, 1803–70, French author. He first wrote a collection of plays in imitation of Spanish drama, The Plays of Clara Gazul (1825, tr. 1825), and a collection of so-called Illyrian ballads, La Guzla (1827).
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, Alexandre DumasDumas, Alexandre
, known as Dumas père
, 1802–70, French novelist and dramatist. His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was a general in the Revolution.
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, père, and Théophile GautierGautier, Théophile
, 1811–72, French poet, novelist, and critic. He was a leading exponent of "art for art's sake"—the belief that formal, aesthetic beauty is the sole purpose of a work of art.
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.

The period that saw the transformation from romanticism to the realism of Gustave FlaubertFlaubert, Gustave
, 1821–80, French novelist, regarded as one of the supreme masters of the realistic novel. He was a scrupulous, slow writer, intent on the exact word (le mot juste) and complete objectivity.
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 was spanned by the writings of the great 19th-century novelists StendhalStendhal
, pseud. of Marie Henri Beyle
, 1783–1842, French writer, recognized as one of the great French novelists.

He grew up in Grenoble hating his father and the Jesuit, Royalist atmosphere in his home, and he went to Paris at his earliest opportunity.
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, George SandSand, George
, pseud. of Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, baronne Dudevant
, 1804–76, French novelist. Other variant forms of her maiden name include Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin.
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, and Honoré de BalzacBalzac, Honoré de
, 1799–1850, French novelist, b. Tours. Balzac ranks among the great masters of the novel. Of a bourgeois family, he himself later added the "de" to his name.
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. The romantics and realists alike wrote of the painful discovery of self-awareness and the torments of the inner life and, in differing degrees, concerned themselves with contemporary social mores. Hugo and Balzac both wrote much-imitated historical novels. Balzac's multivolume panoramic description of French society, entitled La Comédie humaine, stands as a unique literary monument to individual genius and a remarkable portrait of an era. The outstanding critic of the era was Charles Augustin Sainte-BeuveSainte-Beuve, Charles Augustin
, 1804–69, French literary historian and critic. The first major professional literary critic, he developed the art of appreciating literature through psychological and biographical insight.
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, whose literary essays were models of perceptive criticism.

In the later part of the century major writers of fiction included Alphonse DaudetDaudet, Alphonse
, 1840–97, French writer, b. Nîmes (Provence). Daudet made his mark with gentle naturalistic stories and novels portraying French life both in the provinces and in Paris.
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 and Guy de MaupassantMaupassant, Guy de
, 1850–93, French novelist and short-story writer, of an ancient Norman family. He worked in a government office at Paris and became known c.1880 as the most brilliant of the circle of Zola.
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, renowned for his short stories. The movement toward naturalismnaturalism,
in literature, an approach that proceeds from an analysis of reality in terms of natural forces, e.g., heredity, environment, physical drives. The chief literary theorist on naturalism was Émile Zola, who said in his essay Le Roman expérimental
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 had its foremost French representative in the prolific novelist Émile ZolaZola, Émile
, 1840–1902, French novelist, b. Paris. He was a professional writer, earning his living through journalism and his novels. About 1870 he became the apologist for and most significant exponent of French naturalism, a literary school that maintained that
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. The plays of Eugène LabicheLabiche, Eugène Marin
, 1815–88, French playwright. He was a prolific author, often collaborating with other writers, particularly Marc Michel, and 175 plays are attributed to him.
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, Émile AugierAugier, Émile
(Guillaume Victor Émile Augier) , 1820–89, French dramatist. His plays, early examples of realism, satirize the social foibles of his time and uphold the values of bourgeois family life. His chief work, Le Gendre de M. Poirier (1854, tr.
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, the younger Alexandre DumasDumas, Alexandre,
known as Dumas fils
, 1824–95, French dramatist and novelist, illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas (1802–70, Dumas Père). He was the chief creator of the 19th-century comedy of manners.
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, and later of Edmond RostandRostand, Edmond
, 1868–1918, French poet and dramatist. In 1890 appeared his first volume of verse, Les Musardises. His first plays were light, fanciful, and charmingly poetic, though of slight substance—Les Romanesques (1894, tr.
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 won popularity in France and abroad. Major 19th-century French writers of history include Augustin ThierryThierry, Augustin
, 1795–1856, French historian. His vivid literary style, romantic treatment of events, and use of contemporary documents helped to create interest in historical studies in the early 19th cent.
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, Jules MicheletMichelet, Jules
, 1798–1874, French writer, the greatest historian of the romantic school. Born in Paris of poor parents, he visualized himself throughout his life as a champion of the people.
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, and François GuizotGuizot, François
, 1787–1874, French statesman and historian. The son of a Protestant family of Nîmes, he was educated at Geneva. He began a legal career in Paris in 1805, but soon took up literary work and later became a professor of modern history at the
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. Hippolyte TaineTaine, Hippolyte Adolphe
, 1828–93, French critic and historian. A brilliant student, he gained recognition with the publication of his doctoral thesis, Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine (1853).
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 and Ferdinand BrunetièreBrunetière, Ferdinand
, 1849–1906, French literary critic. An opponent of naturalism, he believed that literature should reflect a moral order. His vast learning is evident in the masterly Manuel de l'histoire de la littérature française
..... Click the link for more information.
 were outstanding critics, and Anatole FranceFrance, Anatole
, pseud. of Jacques Anatole Thibault
, 1844–1924, French writer. He was probably the most prominent French man of letters of his time. Among his best-remembered works is L'Île des pingouins (1908, tr.
..... Click the link for more information.
 is considered the leading satirist of the age.

In poetry the Fleurs du mal (1857) of Charles BaudelaireBaudelaire, Charles
, 1821–67, French poet and critic. His poetry, classical in form, introduced symbolism (see symbolists) by establishing symbolic correspondences among sensory images (e.g., colors, sounds, scents).
..... Click the link for more information.
 had enormous influence, both at the time it was published and for many decades thereafter. In the later 19th cent. several circles, or schools, of literary figures became a prominent feature of Parisian letters: the ParnassiansParnassians
, group of 19th-century French poets, so called from their journal the Parnasse contemporain. Issued from 1866 to 1876, it included poems of Leconte de Lisle, Banville, Sully-Prudhomme, Verlaine, Coppée, and J. M. de Heredia.
..... Click the link for more information.
, led by Charles Marie Leconte de LisleLeconte de Lisle, Charles Marie
, 1818–94, French poet. His first two books of poetry, Poèmes antiques (1852) and Poèmes et poésies (1855), were immediately successful.
..... Click the link for more information.
; the group around the GoncourtGoncourt, Edmond Louis Antoine Huot de
, 1822–96, and Jules Alfred Huot de Goncourt , 1830–70, French authors. Brothers, they were known, for their close association in art and literature, as "les deux Goncourt.
..... Click the link for more information.
 brothers; the symbolistssymbolists,
in literature, a school originating in France toward the end of the 19th cent. in reaction to the naturalism and realism of the period. Designed to convey impressions by suggestion rather than by direct statement, symbolism found its first expression in poetry but
..... Click the link for more information.
, who were followers of Stéphane MallarméMallarmé, Stéphane
, 1842–98, French poet. Mallarmé's great importance is as the chief forebear of the symbolists; the influence of his poetry was particularly felt by Valéry.
..... Click the link for more information.
; and the decadentsdecadents,
in literature, name loosely applied to those 19th-century, fin-de-siècle European authors who sought inspiration, both in their lives and in their writings, in aestheticism and in all the more or less morbid and macabre expressions of human emotion.
..... Click the link for more information.
, who sought to glorify Baudelaire and Arthur RimbaudRimbaud, Arthur
, 1854–91, French poet who had a great influence on the symbolists and subsequent modern poets, b. Charleville. A defiant and precocious youth, Rimbaud at 16 sent some poems to Verlaine, who liked his work and invited him to Paris.
..... Click the link for more information.
. The great poets of the age, including Paul VerlaineVerlaine, Paul
, 1844–96, French poet. He gained some notice with the Parnassian poetry of Poèmes saturniens (1866) and Fêtes galantes (1869) and became a figure in the bohemian literary world of Paris.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Rimbaud, PéguyPéguy, Charles
, 1873–1914, French poet and writer. Of a poor, working family, he won scholarships and made a brilliant record as a student. He left the École normale supérieure to devote himself to the cause of socialism.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and later Paul ValéryValéry, Paul
, 1871–1945, French poet and critic. A follower of the symbolists, Valéry was one of the greatest French poets of the 20th cent. He was encouraged by Pierry Loüys and by Mallarmé to publish a few poems in several small reviews, but he
..... Click the link for more information.
, worked for the most part outside such groups.

The Twentieth Century

The Novel

In the 20th cent., as in the 19th, the novel was the chief form of literary achievement. Although the impact on fiction writing of such factors as the vast changes in political climate, the new concentration on modern culture, the great wars, the development of major publishing houses, the introduction of the paperback, and the evolution of the movies has been very great, French writing has maintained a concern for moral questions, individual liberty and character, and, above all, respect for language and form.

The novelists Paul BourgetBourget, Paul
, 1852–1935, French novelist. His early novels were naturalistic, but Le Disciple (1889, tr. 1901), a tale of the destruction of a pupil who applies his master's naturalistic literary theories to life, marked a change.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Maurice BarrèsBarrès, Maurice
, 1862–1923, French novelist and nationalist politician. As an advocate of the supremacy of the individual self, he wrote the trilogy of novels Le Culte du moi (1888–91).
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Pierre LotiLoti, Pierre
, pseud. of Julien Viaud
, 1850–1923, French novelist, an officer in the French navy. He achieved popularity with his impressionistic romances of adventure in exotic lands, such as Aziyadé (1879), set in Constantinople, Rarahu
..... Click the link for more information.
 explore the psychological explanation of human behavior. ColetteColette
(Sidonie Gabrielle Colette) , 1873–1954, French novelist. Colette achieved popularity with numerous novels, characterized by sensitive observations—particularly of women—and an intimate, semiautobiographical style.
..... Click the link for more information.
, in her novels, stories, and journals, expresses penetrating insight into human nature. Marcel ProustProust, Marcel
, 1871–1922, French novelist, b. Paris. He is one of the great literary figures of the modern age. Born to wealthy bourgeois parents, he suffered delicate health as a child and was carefully ministered to by his mother.
..... Click the link for more information.
, in his great novel cycle À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) makes subtle use of subconscious memory. Psychological examination continues in the works of André GideGide, André
, 1869–1951, French writer. He established a reputation as an unconventional novelist with The Immoralist (1902, tr. 1930), a partly autobiographical work in which he portrays a young man contravening ordinary moral standards in his search for
..... Click the link for more information.
. The cyclical novels of Jules RomainsRomains, Jules
, 1885–1972, French writer, whose original name was Louis Farigoule. A brilliant student of philosophy, he became known as the chief exponent of unanimism, a literary theory positing the collective spirit or personality, e.g., the spirit of a city.
..... Click the link for more information.
 and Roger Martin Du GardMartin du Gard, Roger
, 1881–1958, French novelist. Long associated with the Nouvelle Revue française, he first gained recognition with Jean Barois (1913), a novel of France during the Dreyfus Affair.
..... Click the link for more information.
 comment on society and morality. The surge of writing with strong Catholic inspiration include the works of François MauriacMauriac, François
, 1885–1970, French writer. Mauriac achieved success in 1922 and 1923 with Le Baiser au lépreux and Genitrix (tr. of both in The Family, 1930).
..... Click the link for more information.
 and the novels of Georges BernanosBernanos, Georges
, 1888–1948, French novelist and polemicist. Profoundly Catholic, Bernanos attacked modern materialism and advocated a moral and ethical order based on the teachings of the Church. His novels The Star of Satan (1926, tr.
..... Click the link for more information.
.

Jean GiraudouxGiraudoux, Jean
, 1882–1944, French novelist and dramatist. He was a prolific writer and combined his literary work with a long and successful diplomatic career. His early novels, which display his impressionistic, fanciful style, include Les Provinciales
..... Click the link for more information.
's dramas are distinguished for exquisite style and treatment, as are the varied works of Henri de MontherlantMontherlant, Henri de
, 1896–1972, French writer. His novels are decadent and egotistical and glorify force and masculinity. Montherlant fought in World War I and was later an athlete and a bullfighter. Among his novels are Les Bestiaires (1926, tr.
..... Click the link for more information.
. The novels of André MalrauxMalraux, André
, 1901–76, French man of letters and political figure. An intellectual with a broad knowledge of archaeology, art history, and anthropology, Malraux led a remarkably adventurous life.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Édouard Peisson, Roger Vercel, and Joseph Kessel treat humanity's commitment to action, while the extraordinary and complex works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de BeauvoirBeauvoir, Simone de
, 1908–86, French author. A leading exponent of existentialism, she is closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she had a life-long relationship.
..... Click the link for more information.
 developed a form of existentialist philosophy to express the pain of living. Existentialismexistentialism
, any of several philosophic systems, all centered on the individual and his relationship to the universe or to God. Important existentialists of varying and conflicting thought are Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Jean-Paul
..... Click the link for more information.
 was also a primary aspect of the early writing of Albert CamusCamus, Albert
, 1913–60, French writer, b. Mondovi (now Dréan). Camus was one of the most important authors and thinkers of the 20th cent. While a philosophy student at the Univ. of Algiers (grad.
..... Click the link for more information.
.

In the mid-20th cent. the standard novel form was abandoned by many writers of fiction, including Antoine de Saint-ExupérySaint-Exupéry, Antoine de
(Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupéry) , 1900–1944, French aviator and writer. He became a commercial pilot and published his first story in 1926.
..... Click the link for more information.
, VercorsVercors
, 1902–91, French writer and illustrator, whose original name was Jean Bruller. Vercors served in the French resistance movement and helped to found Les Éditions de Minuit, which began as an underground publishing firm.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Nathalie SarrauteSarraute, Nathalie
, 1900–1999, French novelist, b. Ivanovo, Russia, as Natasha Tcherniak; studied at the Sorbonne and Oxford. A lawyer, she joined (1925) a Paris firm. She began writing in the early 1930s.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Alain Robbe-GrilletRobbe-Grillet, Alain
, 1922–2008, French novelist and filmmaker, b. Brest. Robbe-Grillet is considered the originator of the French nouveau roman [new novel], in which conventional story is subordinated to structure and the significance of objects is stressed above
..... Click the link for more information.
, Marguerite DurasDuras, Marguerite
, 1914–96, French author, b. Gia Dinh, Indochina (now Vietnam). Usually grouped with the exponents of the nouveau roman [new novel] (see French literature), Duras abandoned many of the conventions of the novel form.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Michel ButorButor, Michel
, 1926–2016, French novelist and critic. As one of the chief exponents of the nouveau roman [new novel] (see French literature), Butor was less interested in the outcome of action in his novels than he was in the action itself.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Roger Vailland, and Romain GaryGary, Romain
, 1914–80, French novelist, b. Vilna, of Russian parentage. Gary's original name was Romain Kacev. In France after 1928, he fought in World War II and later entered the diplomatic service.
..... Click the link for more information.
. The post–World War II writers established a type of novel not greatly related to earlier works of fiction. The nouveau roman or new novel, sometimes called the antinovel, dispensed with previous notions of plot, character, style, theme, psychology, chronology, and message. By the latter part of the century it had created a tradition of its own and was widely considered to have diminished the stature of French fiction and to have forced a self-indulgent subjectivity onto the novel form.

Among the authors who continued working in a more traditional and still popular vein are the detective-story writer Georges SimenonSimenon, Georges
, 1903–89, Belgian novelist. One of the most prolific of modern authors, he is best known for the more than 75 stories he wrote featuring the intuitive French police detective Inspector Maigret.
..... Click the link for more information.
 and the novelists Françoise Mallet-Joris, Jean Cau, Boris VianVian, Boris
, 1920–59, French novelist. He patterned his literary style on that of terse American crime fiction. His best-known work is J'irai cracher sur vos tombes [I will spit on your graves] (1946), a novel about a fugitive black man hunted by whites.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Marguerite YourcenarYourcenar, Marguerite
, 1903–87, French writer, b. Belgium as Marguerite de Crayencour. The first woman elected (1980) to the prestigious French Academy, Yourcenar moved to the United States in 1939, became an American citizen in 1947, and spent much of her life on Mount
..... Click the link for more information.
, Gilbert Cesbron, Jean Louis Curtis, Pierre Daninos, Henri Queffelec, and Roger Peyrefitte.

Theater

At the end of the 19th cent. the Théâtre Libre was founded, the first of a number of theatrical groups that invigorated the French stage. Alfred JarryJarry, Alfred
, 1873–1907, French author. He was well known in Paris for his eccentric and dissolute behavior and for his insistence on the superiority of hallucinations over rational intelligence.
..... Click the link for more information.
 scandalized Paris with Ubu Roi (1896), a play now seen as ancestral to the theater of the mid-1900s. François de Curel, Georges de Porto-Riche, Jules RenardRenard, Jules
, 1864–1910, French writer. His Écornifleur (1892) is a novel about a young writer's selfish exploitation of a bourgeois family. Poil de carotte (1894), an autobiographical novel about an unhappy child, reflects Renard's bitter memories.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Eugène Brieux adapted the new social realism to drama.

Symbolism was fitted to the drama by Maurice MaeterlinckMaeterlinck, Maurice
, 1862–1949, Belgian author who wrote in French. After practicing law unsuccessfully for several years, he went to Paris in 1897. He had already been touched by the influence of the symbolists and the mystical thought of Novalis and Emerson; his
..... Click the link for more information.
 and later by Paul ClaudelClaudel, Paul
, 1868–1955, French dramatist, poet, and diplomat. He was ambassador to Tokyo (1921–27), Washington, D.C. (1927–33), and Brussels (1933–35).
..... Click the link for more information.
. Tristan Bernard and Henri-René LenormandLenormand, Henri René
, 1882–1951, French dramatist. His plays, Freudian in tone and theme and often heavily symbolic, include Les Ratés (1918, tr. The Failures, 1923), Time Is a Dream (1919, tr.
..... Click the link for more information.
 exploited psychoanalytical techniques. The experimental plays and films of Jean CocteauCocteau, Jean
, 1889–1963, French writer, visual artist, and filmmaker. He experimented audaciously in almost every artistic medium, becoming a leader of the French avant-garde in the 1920s.
..... Click the link for more information.
 reflect his astonishing versatility. Sartre and Camus brought to the stage a deep concern for man's predicament. The human situation is described as tragically absurd in the theater of Jean AnouilhAnouilh, Jean
, 1910–87, French dramatist. Anouilh's many popular plays range from tragedy to sophisticated comedy. His first play, L'hermine, was published in 1932.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Samuel BeckettBeckett, Samuel
, 1906–89, Anglo-French playwright and novelist, b. Dublin. Beckett studied and taught in Paris before settling there permanently in 1937. He wrote primarily in French, frequently translating his works into English himself.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Jean GenetGenet, Jean
, 1910–86, French dramatist. Deserted by his parents as an infant, Genet spent much of his early life in reformatories and prisons. Between 1940 and 1948 he wrote several autobiographical prose narratives dealing with homosexuality and crime, including
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Eugène IonescoIonesco, Eugène
, 1912–94, French playwright, b. Romania. Settling in France in 1938, he contributed to Cahiers du Sud and began writing avant-garde plays. His works stress the absurdity both of bourgeois values and of the way of life that they dictate.
..... Click the link for more information.
. The brilliant plays of Michel de GhelderodeGhelderode, Michel de
, 1898–1962, Belgian dramatist. He wrote in French and is noted for his colorful and avant-garde plays. He lived in obscurity until 1949, when he gained prominence with the production of Fastes d'enfer (1929).
..... Click the link for more information.
 were granted tardy recognition.

Poetry

The early years of the 20th cent. proved a fertile time for poetic writing. Among outstanding works are the powerful verses of Paul Claudel, the experimental poetry of Guillaume ApollinaireApollinaire, Guillaume
, 1880–1918, French poet. He was christened Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky. Apollinaire was a leader in the restless period of technical innovation and experimentation in the arts during the early 20th cent.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and the elusive imagery of Paul Valéry. In the 1920s André BretonBreton, André
, 1896–1966, French writer, founder and theorist of the surrealist movement. He studied neuropsychology and was one of the first in France to publicize the work of Freud.
..... Click the link for more information.
 issued a manifesto of surrealismsurrealism
, literary and art movement influenced by Freudianism and dedicated to the expression of imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and free of convention.
..... Click the link for more information.
, rallying around him Paul ÉluardÉluard, Paul
, 1895–1952, French poet. He was a leading exponent of surrealism. Among his volumes of verse are Mourir de ne pas mourir [to die of not dying] (1924) and L'Immaculée Conception (with André Breton, 1930).
..... Click the link for more information.
, Philippe SoupaultSoupault, Philippe
, 1897–1990, French poet, novelist, critic, and political activist. He took an active role in the dadaist movement and later founded the surrealist movement with André Breton (see Dada; surrealism).
..... Click the link for more information.
, René CharChar, René
, 1907–88, French poet. His writing reflects both his Provençal origins and his years of active participation in the French resistance. At first attracted to surrealism, Char soon went his own way, constructing a verse marked by extreme stylistic
..... Click the link for more information.
, Tristan TzaraTzara, Tristan
, 1896–1963, French writer, b. Romania. He studied at the Univ. of Zürich, where he and his friends formulated the dadaist movement initially as a pacifist statement (see Dada).
..... Click the link for more information.
, Louis AragonAragon, Louis
, 1897–1982, French writer. One of the founders of surrealism in literature, Aragon abandoned that philosophy for Marxism after a trip to the USSR in 1931.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Elsa TrioletTriolet, Elsa
(Elsa Blick) , c.1896–1970, Russian-French author, b. Moscow. In 1928 she married the French writer Louis Aragon. Her novels often combine a sweeping Russian grandeur with acute observations of French life. They include Le cheval blanc (1943; tr.
..... Click the link for more information.
.

Poets who reacted against the force of surrealism include Francis CarcoCarco, Francis
, 1886–1958, French poet and novelist, b. New Caledonia of Corsican parents. His real name was François Carcopino. The bohemian Parisian life he cherished is portrayed in several of his novels, including Jesus-la-Caille (1914).
..... Click the link for more information.
, Léon Paul Fargue, Robert DesnosDesnos, Robert
, 1900–1945, French poet. Among the best-known surrealist poets, he was one of the chief proponents of so-called automatic writing. He put himself in a trance before writing many of his works.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Pierre-Jean Jouve. The poetry of Alexis Saint-Léger Léger is distinguished for its imagery. Among the outstanding poets of the decades after World War II are Jacques PrévertPrévert, Jacques
, 1900–1977, French poet. One of the most popular of 20th-century French writers, Prévert produced poetry ranging from the humorous to the satiric to the melancholy.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Francis PongePonge, Francis
, 1899–1988, French essayist and poet. A controversial figure, he was opposed to emotional and symbolic poetic methods. His method was to observe things meticulously and describe them in rational, yet lyric terms.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Jules SupervielleSupervielle, Jules
, 1884–1960, French author, b. Uruguay. His life was divided between Montevideo, where he was born, and Paris, where he was educated. The freshness and originality of his works are often attributed to his South American background.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Raymond QueneauQueneau, Raymond
, 1903–76, French author and critic. He was an advocate of surrealism during the middle and late 1920s. Queneau is best known for his manipulations of style and language and his use of street slang in literary works.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Patrice de la Tour du Pin, Pierre Emmanuel, Jean Tardieu, Jean Follain, Georges Clencier, Andrée Chédid, and Kateb YacineYacine, Kateb
, 1929–89, Algerian author. In 1945 he moved to Paris and afterward traveled in Europe and Asia. His most famous work is the novel Nedjma (1957, tr. 1961, new tr. 1991), a symbolic story of the love of four men for one woman.
..... Click the link for more information.
.

Bibliography

See P. Harvey and J. E. Heseltine, ed., The Oxford Companion to French Literature (1959); J. Cruikshank, ed., French Literature and Its Background (6 vol., 1968–70); J. M. H. Reid, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of French Literature (1976); 17th and 18th cent.: A. A. Tilley, The Decline of the Age of Louis XIV (1968); 19th cent.: A. Thibaudet, French Literature from 1795 to Our Era (1968); I. Babbitt, The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912, repr. 1981); 20th cent.: J. O'Brien, The French Literary Horizon (1967); H. Peyre, French Novelists of Today (rev. ed. 1967).

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