In 1994 Jorge Semprun published L’Ecriture ou la vie in which he described his liberation from the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, forty-nine years previously. Like so many other survivors of the Holocaust, Semprun spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms, not just with his experiences as a prisoner, but with the fact that he survived. This text stands as his testimony to the trauma of the camp, and to the arduous half-century he spent trying to find a way to write about it. There is one particularly significant memory in this text that Semprun takes his time recounting. It is May 1945, Buchenwald has been liberated by the Americans, and Semprun finds himself in a hotel in Eisenach that is being used as a centre for repatriation. Spending a sleepless night with other ex-prisoners waiting for their transportation back home, he falls into a discussion. How, they wonder, will they ever manage to explain what has happened to them once they are in their own lands? To ‘tell it like it was’ is not so simple. How to describe experiences that are horrific beyond belief and unimaginable to the average person? The mountains of dead bodies, the monstrous incinerators, the mindless battle for survival, the bleak absence of hope. How to describe it in such a way that the listener does not flee in terror, or stare in blank incomprehension? And what is it about the camp experience that most needs to be understood? What is it most necessary to explain?
The young Semprun himself thinks he has the answer: ‘On n’y parviendra pas sans un peu d’artifice. Suffisament d’artifice pour que ça devienne de l’art!’ (You’ll never manage it without a degree of artifice. Just enough artifice for it to become art!). Initially his companions disagree. What has art to do with the experiences they have just lived through? The idea of using fiction to portray the camps seems to betray the intense reality of their suffering. But Semprun has an eloquent ally who takes his side, a man he recognises as a French academic. This man points out that there will be many witness accounts of life in the camps, and eventually documentation will be uncovered that will also stand as evidence of the atrocities that have been committed. But a historical reconstruction of the concentration camps will not in itself bring alive the harrowing truth of the Holocaust: ‘la vérité essentielle de l’expérience, n’est pas transmissible… Ou plutôt, elle ne l’est que par l’écriture littéraire’ (the essential truth of experience cannot be communicated… Or rather, it can only be communicated through literary writing).
From 1945 and the time of living one of the worst experiences of the twentieth century, to 1994 in the heart of the media age, Semprun believed that only literature held the key to articulating the truth of his experience. Telling stories may seem old-fashioned, particularly nowadays in an era dominated by diverse visual media, but there is something unique about stories and their ability to provoke multiple, far-reaching effects. It would take Semprun a while to find the literary voice that would do justice to his account. As its title suggests, L’Ecriture ou la vie is partially the story of his struggle to tell the ‘essential truth’ of the camps, and in a way that would not destroy his fragile and hard-won equilibrium as a survivor. But what Semprun comes to realise, and what would constitute one of the great artistic revelations of the twentieth-century, is that the division between writing and life is just an illusion. Writing and living may seem like separate occupations, but they are wholly and fundamentally enmeshed in one another.
To make sense of life, we have to write about it. We have to tell stories, in the sense that we organise experience and then give it a meaning. And what modern narrative would come increasingly to realise was that the way we write about experience determines the sense we make of it. Semprun’s text, like so many others in the century, is experimental. Its structure and format are unusual; it is fragmentary and digressive and does not have a final conclusion. Whilst he does describe the traumatic conditions in the camps, much of the text passes in memories of books he has read that had a profound impact on him, too. Semprun’s voice is not one long, dark tale of suffering and degradation. Instead he changes his perspective, understanding the feeling of imprisonment better through the eyes of the young Semprun who was so recently liberated, unable to explore what he calls the horror of evil except through the poetry and philosophy that he loved with a passion. Semprun’s story requires a unique format because his experience is so beyond the normal frames of reference. He can only make sense of his experience by comparing it to the everyday face of the world, by measuring the distance he has moved away from the realms of nightmare.
Now, the Holocaust and its literature constitute only a tiny part of the vast twentieth century, but I mention it here because the extremity of the writing situation highlights very clearly some of the fundamental motivations in modern literary creation. There is a belief that is growing more prevalent in schools that literature is somehow irrelevant to the modern world, and that it can at best be used to illustrate social or historical conflicts. There could not be a greater misunderstanding of the point of literature. Semprun’s text brings together some of the dominant themes of modern French literature in his quest to represent authentically the truth of an experience that defies expression. It is autobiographical, dealing with a limit experience (that is to say an experience at the very limit of what we can represent and understand), and as such it shows a man struggling to find words to express his experience. Semprun continually questions how he might achieve this, not out of some quaint academic interest in narrative, but because it really matters. There is an ethical imperative for everyone to know what happened in concentration camps so that such atrocities should never happen again. But it also matters personally for Semprun. Putting words to his experience, explaining how it happened, and what effect it had on him, he is rebuilding his identity with every sentence he writes. At a basic level, when something goes wrong our first response is usually to talk about it, and the way we recount the event firms up our initially confused feelings. For a concentration camp survivor, this simple mechanism is pushed to an extreme. Expressing ‘la vérité essentielle’ of the experience can mean the difference between sanity and insanity, life and suicide. Extreme experience brings with it the recognition that we are creatures of language, that language constitutes our very being and self-expression provides our means of mental survival.
Exploring the link between identity and narrative is essential to understanding modern French literature, where we repeatedly find intimate, first-person narratives, concerned with detailing life through one particular, quirky, perspective. Often, as is the case with Semprun, these narratives represent individuals thrown into extreme situations, and the modern fascination with excess means that these texts explore murder and anarchy, rather than simple violence, eroticism rather than love, and madness rather than confusion. Yet it is often the case as well, that these events occur in the life of a protagonist who would otherwise be deemed ‘ordinary’, for modern texts seek to acknowledge how extraordinary, chaotic and unpredictable life has become. Modern literature pits its protagonists against the harshest historical circumstances, or against extremes of emotion. Texts focus on moments of great suffering, bewilderment, or dangerous fantasy, in order to explore the human psyche when it breaks down and fails. This is not as sadistic as it sounds. When cars break down we are forced to confront what lies under the bonnet, and human identity is just the same; its failure forces us to consider its very process of construction. Through examining individuals in crisis, literature takes a magnifying glass to the experience of existence. The twentieth century is obsessed with the question of what it is to be. How we perceive, what we desire, how we respond to the objects and people who surround us provides one of the distinct preoccupations of the century, and in modern French literature, from Proust to the Existentialists to contemporary interest in autobiography, writers have sought to dissect experience and to uncover the farthest reaches of human consciousness.
The obsession with explaining how we survive the trials of existence reflects a growing fear that such survival may be in doubt. Throughout the twentieth century the speed of social and political change and the violence of historical events have conspired to render individuals increasingly vulnerable to experience. Literature suggests that, paradoxically, the more information that the century has supplied us with, in terms of our bodies, our awareness of world events, our understanding of the environment we inhabit, the more fearful and vulnerable we have become. Although developments in medicine, physics and engineering have opened up vast new areas of knowledge, it is still not the kind of knowledge that could protect us from fear and alienation in the modern world. Modern French literature thus seeks a complementary relation to the other sciences, which may tackle the question of what it is to be human, but never the question of what it means. The link between identity and narrative, emphasised in these texts through their exploration of extreme experience, demonstrates how one essential area of what it means to be human, and one ideally suited to the work of literature, is our relationship to language, to its possibilities, challenges and frustrations. Whilst it has always been the case that literature seeks to express liminal states, to defamiliarise the quotidian, and to find new voices for new realities, the excessive and demanding twentieth century has explored the nature and structure of language as arguably never before.
The results have been diverse, with experimental texts that are at once playful and eccentric yet also anxious lest the limitations of language become unsurmountable. Semprun himself, who has more reason than most to seek vital new forms of self-expression defines the job of writing as: ‘L’écriture, si elle prétend être davantage qu’un jeu, ou un enjeu, n’est qu’un long, interminable travail d’ascèse, une façon de se déprendre de soi en prenant sur soi’ (Writing, if it claims to be more than a game, or a game with high stakes, is nothing more than a long, endless process of self-denial, a way of being liberated from one’s self while calling it to account). This is a complicated concept, and it requires sustained thought to prise out Semprun’s meaning, but he intends to slow down our reading and alert us to the subtleties of the language, which have a role to play in the message. Essentially, Semprun marries two thoughts here; the first that writing is a serious game, something that appears playful but is actually risky, and fraught with danger. The second is that what is put on the line, or rather what is put into the lines, is the self. The two unusual forms of the normally ordinary verb ‘prendre’ used here – ‘déprendre de’ meaning to lose one’s fondness for something, and ‘prendre sur’ or to give up time or money – show how Semprun is making language work very hard to exceed its given boundaries and express a subtle idea. It is, as he suggests, hard labour to appraise oneself without sentimentality and then invest that self in the written word. But if writing can achieve this, then it ceases to be a simple experiment and becomes, instead, a result. If the intricate manipulation of language has such far-reaching consequences, it is no surprise that modern texts expend so much effort in exploring and experimenting with the words that make up their substance.
So, what modern French texts especially highlight is the very act of putting words to experience. As it has sought to push back the boundaries of expression, literature has become increasingly caught up in exploring its own creative practices, and in many texts other than the Semprun we find authors considering the process of writing as they engage with it. This self-reflexivity, as it is often termed, seeks to acknowledge the power language has not just to represent what we experience, but to determine the experience itself. Our relationship not just to our selves, but also to the world around us is by no means innocent and immediate; rather it is mediated through language. For the French, who have a natural taste for abstract theorising over the intricacies of language, and a fiercely held belief that language organises our personal and political situation, this recognition has quite naturally led to an understanding of literature as potentially revolutionary – that is to say, able to change the way we think and the way we live. By the 1950s and ’60s in France we see the nouveaux romanciers and the dramatists of the théâtre de l’absurde casting aside the innocence of their relation to language and dismantling the structures of their work in order to explore the insidious power of stories. For if we accept that we use stories to make sense of our lives, then we must also acknowledge that those stories are part of the foundations of our culture, the very justification for the value judgements we make and the rules by which we live. In this way, every member of a culture has a vested interest, not just in telling their own story, but in listening carefully for what is hidden or elided in the stories of others.
France has a strong literary tradition of which it is immensely proud, through which it has continually criticised and challenged its dominant culture. The disciplines of literature, philosophy and the visual arts are deeply enmeshed in French life, and what we might consider quite abstract concerns with language and psychoanalysis are very much part of the way France appraises its national identity. Allied to this academic interest, and considered its natural counterpart, is a profound engagement with politics. As a nation the French have never heard of political apathy, and at heart their literature seeks to consider and analyse social situations as they affect the individual. In the twentieth century politics and literature have had a particularly close, reciprocal relationship. A number of literary movements have arisen with the aim of linking art and politics more closely, for example the Surrealists in the 1920s and the Existentialists in the 1940s, and the student uprising of May 1968 was a literary revolution that demanded social change based on abstract, theoretical notions of how power was organised. Distinct and different as all these movements are, however, they have all been troubled by internal conflict and the fear that in the modern world collective action is far from certain of success.
If a dominant trend of modern life has been the failure of communities and collectives, it is difficult to know whether its consequence or its cause has been the sense that man is ever more isolated and alienated in society, abandoned to his fate in a time of instability and change. The modern Frenchman (and in the early half of the century it is a man) is as bound up in the march of history as his predecessors ever were, but history seems to have become such a sweeping, impersonal force that he is ever more disempowered within the circumstances that surround him. Modern French texts repeatedly anchor history to one individual’s perspective, partly because history is better understood when we see its consequences on the individual, partly because it is the common experience to have history act upon us, rather than the other way round. But here the point of the intimate narrative perspective is not just to criticise history for its thoughtless treatment of individuals (although this is undeniably part of its aim), but also to tell stories that would otherwise be silenced. Writing by women, and from countries colonised by France, often tells well known stories from very different viewpoints. Those who are marginalised or oppressed are given a voice by literature, and it is easy to see, here, how telling a story is instantly a political act. Furthermore, writing by both women and postcolonial writers not only charts the battle with dominant culture, but also its often bewildering aftermath. Neither modern history, nor modern narrative, retains any faith in the notion of a conclusion that is a happy ever after.
In this way, as in so many others, literature is a critical, conflictual engagement with History. It challenges and questions and rebels. It undermines our casual assumptions and shatters our comforting conventions. It demands, not just that we care about its issues, but that we make the effort to understand the contradictions and paradoxes that lie at the heart of them. This can make reading literature difficult and demanding. But if literature across the ages is concerned with pushing back boundaries and opening up new perspectives on the world we live in, it is also concerned to seduce, entertain and affect its readers. On the very last page of L’Ecriture ou la vie, Semprun recalls a moment when, crossing the camp alone late at night, he is overwhelmed by a sudden and senseless happiness, closely followed by the recognition that he would remember this moment for the rest of his life. It would be a heartless reader indeed who remained unmoved by this point. So, literature may be challenging, but it is also immensely rewarding.
However experimental and abstract modern literature may be, it never stops seeking to express ‘la vérité essentielle de l’expérience’ so necessary to Semprun. In fact, experimentation in the modern age lies at the heart of creating texts that aspire to new levels of authenticity. Writing, as the texts I will discuss so ably demonstrate, is never an alternative to living, never an escapist or frivolous pursuit. Instead literary writing is a courageous and determined confrontation with the risky business of life in the twentieth century. My approach in this book is by no means a complete classification of the vast, diverse literature of the century. Instead I have explored precisely this interrelation of identity, narrative and history in its varying manifestations, either in influential literary movements, or as shaping factors across different genres: novels, poetry and plays. In all cases I have concentrated on texts where the writing is notably challenging and experimental. As a result these texts are not always comfortable to read, and they are often complex and resistant to easy mastery. The textual analyses I undertake in this book are simply intended to offer reading strategies to help students overcome their initial difficulties. They are by no means comprehensive or definitive. As will become apparent over the course of this book, one of the challenges made by modern French literature is to the very practice of reading itself. Modern texts in their complex ambiguity and their sophisticated playfulness demand wholehearted readerly engagement, but refuse to satisfy their readers with easy answers or neat conclusions.
Reading in the twentieth century is understood as a practice with assumptions and expectations, and in order to startle readers out of their complacency those expectations are regularly undermined. If we are creatures of language then every day we are called upon to read far more than just works of literature. We read one another, we read the world around us, and we read the situations we find ourselves in. Modern French literature asks readers to examine and be aware of the processes of interpretation that we use as second nature. For in the processes of reading and interpreting, in the way that we use stories and story-telling techniques to organise and understand experience, we make of our lives a sprawling and dynamic work of art. A lengthy family saga interspersed with periods of comedy, tragedy and farce. The essential revelation of modern literature is that art is not separate from our lives; it is in fact the process by which we engage with and possess our lives, the means by which we raise our existence above the level of mindless, comatose being. Semprun came to realise that his equation ‘writing or life’ was a false one. There is only writing and life, in a mutually informative, but endlessly complex interaction.
Jennifer Birkett and James Kearns, A Guide to French Literature. From early modern to postmodern (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997) This excellent, comprehensive guide offers readings of a huge range of texts and has a particularly strong section on the twentieth century.
Christopher Robinson, French Literature in the twentieth century (New Jersey: Barnes & Noble and Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1980) Organised by way of its major themes, this guide to the twentieth century takes an intelligent, sophisticated approach.
Germaine Brée, Twentieth-century French Literature, trans. Louise Guiney (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983). This overview only goes as far as the 1970s but again its thematic organisation is helpful and it has a useful, if dated, glossary of authors.
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory. An Introduction (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1983) Critical theory is often an enlightening counterpart to the study of modern literature, and this introductory guide remains one of the very best.
Your piece is enlightening. I would appreciate suggestions of contemporary French novelists. I’ve read Dominique Fabre, Laurence Cosse, Anna Gavalda, and Muriel Barbery. Could you recommend others who are equally provocative? Thank you very much. Judith R-G
Sorry to be slow, Judith. But it has given me some time to think! Suggestions of contemporary French authors that come to mind are: Marie Nimier, Camille Laurens, Patrick Modiano, Fred Vargas, Pierre Michon, Laurent Gaude, Louise Lambrichs (possibly my personal favourite), Chantal Thomas, Eric Faye. I love all of those writers. I could go on… but let me know if that’s enough!
Thank you very much. I really do enjoy your blog. I’ve read Mr. Modiano for years, but I definitely will try some of these others. Judith