Meaning of FRENCH LITERATURE in English


the body of written works produced in the French language, one of the five major Romance languages to develop from Vulgar Latin as a result of the Roman occupation of western Europe. Since the Middle Ages, France has enjoyed an exceptional position in European intellectual life. Though its literary culture has no single figure to compare with Dante in Italy or Shakespeare in England, successive periods have seen its writers and their language exercise an influence far beyond its borders. In medieval times, because of the political link with Britain, the universality of Latin, and the similarities of the languages derived from Latin, there was a continual process of exchange, in form and content, among the literatures of western Europe. The evolution of the nation-states and the rise in prestige of the vernaculars gradually eroded this relationship, however, and France developed a cultural tradition based on the imitation of Classical models. The French tradition prized reason, formal perfection, and purity of language and was admired for its thinkers as much as for its writers. By the end of the ancien rgime the logic of Descartes, the restraint of Racine, and the wit of Voltaire were seen as the hallmarks of French culture and were emulated throughout the Continent. The political and intellectual revolutions at the end of the 18th century led to a reevaluation. From the 1820s Romanticism openly challenged the Classical ideal and asserted the claims of the imagination against reason and the individual against the social norm. The 12-syllable alexandrine remained the standard line in verse but the form was relaxed, and the domain of poetry was extended successively by Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud. All poetic forms were redefined as a result of the Modernist revolutions of the 20th century. In the novel, the dominant literary form from the 19th century, French writers explored and, in some cases, pioneered the possibilities of the genre, from the novel cycle of Honor de Balzac to the social realism of mile Zola. But in the work of writers as different as Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, and Marcel Proust an analytical approach to questions of style and the motives for human behaviour seemed both to characterize the French mind and to form a link with the French Classical tradition. During the first half of the 20th century Paris remained preeminent as the hub of European intellectual and artistic life. Its position was challenged after World War II, and the international status of the French language declined steadily. French was still, however, the medium of expression for many in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, and countries in Africa and Asia, and the Francophone (French-speaking) author's contribution to French culture became increasingly significant. In France itself proponents of the nouveau roman, or New Novel, mounted a radical attack on the conventions of the genre, and from the 1960s onward French writers began stimulating new approaches to almost every field of rational inquiry. This, too, was consistent with a cultural tradition notable for its intellectual rigour as well as its appreciation of literary style. Robin Caron Buss This article surveys French literature from the 9th century (to which the earliest surviving fragmentary texts belong) to the present day. See also the section on literature in French in the article Belgian literature, and, for the medieval period, English literature: The Early Middle English period. Literary works written in French by Canadian authors are discussed in Canadian literature: Canadian literature in French. the body of written works produced in the French language, in France and in French-speaking lands beyond its borders. French was one of the five major Romance languages to develop from Vulgar Latin as a result of the Roman occupation of western Europe. For the French-language literatures of countries other than France, see African arts; Belgian literature; Canadian literature. The earliest evidence of literature in recognizable Old French is the Romance version of the Oath of Strasbourg (842). A few other texts, all religious in content, survive from before about 1100. The origins of French literature are thus obscure. After the 12th century there is more written evidence, particularly in the form of historical chronicles. More than 80 chansons de geste (songs of deeds) have survived. The earliest is the Chanson de Roland, known only from a manuscript copied in England in about 1100. Until the 13th century it seems that the major French literary activities following the Norman Conquest had been in England, but during the 13th and 14th centuries French literature developed again in its homeland. A progression from local epics before the 13th century to the adaptation of the major epics of antiquity and of the themes of the Arthurian cycle is clear. The vehicle for the expression of these epics, oral poetry, continued through the Middle Ages, as did allegory, a popular form exemplified in the Roman de la rose. The earliest French dramas are the liturgical plays, the mystres, which are based on biblical stories, and the miracles, which involve the miraculous intervention of a saint. By the 14th century the mystres and miracles gave way to moralits, didactic in intention, which were satirical farces without political or moral intent. The 14th century brought an extension in scope and popularity of the existing literary genres in France. One example is the wide range of fabliaux (comic verse tales) written in this period. Fables, especially animal tales, also grew in popularity. The copying of manuscripts reached a peak with illuminated manuscripts, and a new start was made in historical chronicles with the Grandes Chroniques de Saint-Denis. Jean Froissart was the great chronicler of European history during the 14th century, Eustache Deschamps published the first work on French versification, and Guillaume de Machaut was the greatest poet and musician of the age. It was Franois Villon, however, who was the precursor of French Classicism. The 16th century is one of the richest and most varied French literary periods: it saw the passing of the Middle Ages and the growth and maturity of the Renaissance, producing such unique figures as the humorist Franois Rabelais, the poet Pierre de Ronsard, and the essayist Michel de Montaigne. Until the middle of the 16th century plays like those of the medieval period were still being produced, but with the Renaissance came an entirely new class of subjects and modes of treatment that swept away all except the farce. The change came from Italy, inspired by new translations of ancient Greek and Roman classics. In poetry there was an enormous wealth and variety at this time. Ronsard formed La Pliade with six other French Renaissance poets and set out to create a literature to rival Italy's. Prose writers on political, theological, and scientific subjects were numerous. Franois de Malherbe, the first important poet of the next period, called for refinement of the language. In the first half of the 17th century the polish and elegance of French prose reflected a desire for stability in a world of change. The philosophers Ren Descartes and Blaise Pascal were known for their prose styles as well as for their philosophies. In the theatre Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, the masters of French classical tragedy, were enormously successful, and Molire wrote a brilliant succession of comedies that writers of the next period found difficult to match. Nicolas Boileau and Jean de la Fontaine made important strides in 17th-century poetry, and Marie de La Fayette wrote the first novel proper, La Princesse de Clvesbut these works were written within strict Classical conventions, against which the 18th century was to see a vigorous reaction. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes of 1685, which granted increased religious liberty to French Protestants, marked a new era in French literature. Classicism was not yet extinct, but there was an abundance of ecclesiastical literature, some of which prefigured the Enlightenment. Important changes were about to happen: 18th-century tragedy became identified with Voltaire, and comedy with the socially aware farces of Pierre Beaumarchais. The poetic output of the 18th century was enormous, and the novel grew in stature; but the century is most famous for the development, in literature, of its rational thought, exemplified in Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques and in the work of the encylopaedist Denis Diderot. The philosophic basis of the French Revolution was laid by writers who did not live to witness itVoltaire, Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseauand the demands of the struggle were such that there was little scope for literature. Nor did the Consulate and Empire provide better conditions, and writers worked in secret, among them Franois-Ren de Chateaubriand. The way was thus open for the literary revolution that arose from the change in political climate. More freedom came with the restoration of the monarchy, resulting in the literary achievements of the French Romantics: in poetry the great names were Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, and Alfred de Musset. The Romantic movement revived the theatre and gave new prestige to the novel. Honor de Balzac portrayed contemporary life in his great collection of novels, La Comdie humaine; like those of Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle), his novels are social and political documents. Historical and critical studies, exemplified by the criticism of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, also became accepted genres in French literature. The social upheavals of 1848 checked Romanticism, and the Parnassian movement took over. The two movements were bridged by Hugo and by the poet Charles Baudelaire, whose melancholia and idealism attached him to Romanticism but whose rigour of technique purged it of its faults. The Parnassian poetsheralded by Thophile de Gautier, who expounded the doctrine of art for art's sakeaimed to rescue French verse from the verbal and emotional imprecision of the Romantics. Apparently unaffected by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Emile Zola took realism a step farther by creating the Naturalist school, in which the novel was to serve the same ends as a scientific thesis. The short-story writer Guy de Maupassant belonged to this school, whereas his rival Anatole France reacted against it. In poetry, Baudelaire opened the way to Symbolism, and Arthur Rimbaud became the explorer who blazed the trail for modern poetry. Symbolism treated the senses as a reflection of the spiritual universe, and Stphane Mallarm became a central figure in the movement. Only a few important 20th-century novels appeared before 1919, none touching the beauty and complexity of Marcel Proust's la recherche du temps perdu (191427). Proust and then Andr Gide dominated French fiction until 1940. In his Les Faux-Monnayeurs Gide expounded the theme of the amoral adolescent. Little survived of World War I literature, and there followed a realist-revolutionary crisis. Observation and fantasy combine in the regional novelists, the greatest of whom is Jean Giono. Such writers as Franois Mauriac, Julien Green, and Georges Bernanos preferred to use the novel as a vehicle for the exploration of the psyche. In the novel of adventure Joseph Kessel is outstanding, while Andr Malraux gave his novels philosophical significance. The real explosion in the novel did not happen until after 1940, with the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who were primarily concerned with the novel as a vehicle for political or philosophical ideas. Samuel Beckett attacked story, plot, character, form, style, meaning, chronology, and analysis of thought, bringing certain modernist tendencies to their logical conclusion. At the turn of the century the theatre had been torn between neosymbolism and social realism and only broke free after 30 years: between 1920 and 1940 the stage play was less experimental than circumstances allowed, with no successful innovations. The most original post-1940 dramatist was Jean Genet, with his complex antinaturalistic and antisocial theatre, but the turning point came in 1950 with Eugene Ionesco and his pure theatre, stripped of convention, abstract, crudely poetic, and imaginative. Until Guillaume Apollinaire the only real poetic achievement of the century was the stabilizing of free verse. Apollinaire synthesized contemporary forms and pointed them in new directionshe reconciled classical intellectuality and form with Romantic enthusiasm, intuition, and experimentation. After him, French poets seem to have shown little of the adventurousness displayed in the theatre and the novel. Additional reading Middle Ages (History of the language): Glanville Price, The French Language: Present and Past (1971). (General literary history): John Fox, The Middle Ages (1974), vol. 1 in the series A Literary History of France, ed. by P.E. Charvet; and M. Dominica Legge, Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background (1963, reprinted 1978). (General anthologies): C.W. Aspland (ed.), A Medieval French Reader (1979); and Brian Woledge (ed.), The Penguin Book of French Verse, vol. 1 (1961). (The epic): Jessie Crosland, The Old French Epic (1951, reprinted 1971); Pierre Le Gentil, The Chanson de Roland (1969; originally published in French, 1955); and Joseph J. Duggan, A Guide to Studies on the Chanson de Roland (1976). (The romance): Roger Sherman Loomis (ed.), Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (1959); L.T. Topsfield, Chrtien de Troyes: A Study of the Arthurian Romances (1981); Douglas Kelly, Chrtien de Troyes: An Analytic Bibliography (1976); and David J. Shirt, The Old French Tristan Poems (1980). (The lyric): L.T. Topsfield, Troubadours and Love (1975, reprinted 1978); and Frederick Goldin (comp.), Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvres (1973, reprinted 1983). (Allegory): Guillaume De Lorris and Jean De Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. by Charles Dahlberg (1971, reissued 1983). (Prose literature): Janet M. Ferrier, French Prose Writers of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1966). (Drama): Grace Frank, The Medieval French Drama (1954, reprinted 1967); Richard Axton and John Stevens (trans.), Medieval French Plays (1971). D.D.R. Owen The 16th century The best work on the literature of the period is La Renaissance, 3 vol. (197274). For a briefer overview, see Daniel Mnager, Introduction la vie littraire du XVIe sicle (1968, reprinted 1982). Paul Zumthor, Le Masque et la lumire (1978), studies the poetry of the grands rhtoriqueurs. Among studies of La Pliade are Henri Weber, La Cration potique au XVIe sicle en France de Maurice Scve Agrippa d'Aubign (1956, reprinted 1981); and Grahame Castor, Pliade Poetics: A Study in Sixteenth-Century Thought and Terminology (1964). See also Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (1979), and Devotional Poetry in France, c. 15701613 (1969). Jean Card, La Nature et les prodiges: L'insolite au 16e sicle en France (1977), studies the philosophy and cosmology of Ronsard and his contemporaries, as does Guy Demerson, La Mythologie classique dans l'oeuvre lyrique de la Pliade (1972). Madeleine Lazard, Le Thtre en France au XVIe sicle (1980), explores the decline of the medieval styles and the return of Classical tragedy and comedy. Daniel Mnager The 17th century P.J. Yarrow, A Literary History of France, vol. 2: The Seventeenth Century (1967); John Cruickshank (ed.), French Literature and Its Background, vol. 2: The Seventeenth Century (1969); John Lough, An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century France (1954, reissued 1969); W.D. Howarth, The Seventeenth Century (1965), vol. 1 in Life and Letters of France; A.J. Krailsheimer (ed.), Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyre (1962); and E.B.O. Borgerhoff, The Freedom of French Classicism (1950). See also Martin Turnell, The Classical Moment: Studies of Corneille, Molire, and Racine (1948, reissued 1975); Will G. Moore, The Classical Drama of France (1971); Robert J. Nelson, Corneille, His Heroes and Their Worlds (1963); Gordon Pocock, Corneille and Racine: Problems of Tragic Form (1973); H.T. Barnwell, The Tragic Drama of Corneille and Racine (1982); Odette De Mourges, Racine; or The Triumph of Relevance (1967); and W.D. Howarth, Molire: A Playwright and His Audience (1982). William Driver Howarth The 18th century from Louis XIV to the Revolution Standard works on the period are provided by Robert Niklaus, A Literary History of France, vol. 3: The Eighteenth Century, 17151789 (1970); and Le XVIIIe Sicle, vol. 1: 17201750, by Jean Ehrard; vol. 2: 17501778, by Robert Mauzi and S. Menant; vol. 3: 17781820, by Batrice Didier (197477). Studies on individual authors are Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu (1961); Ren Pomeau, La Religion de Voltaire, new ed. (1969, reprinted 1974); Haydn Mason, Voltaire (1975, reissued 1981); Jacques Chouillet, Diderot (1977); Arthur M. Wilson, Diderot (1972); and Ronald Grimsley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 2nd ed. (1969). Vivienne Mylne, The Eighteenth-Century French Novel, 2nd ed. (1981), remains the best general account of this subject.(H.T.M.) The 19th century: Revolution to 1850 Robert Mauzi, Michel Delon, and Sylvain Menant, De l'Encyclopdie aux Mditations, 17501820 (1984), and M. Milner, Le Romantisme, vol. 1: 18201843 (1973), both from the multivolume series Littrature franaise; D.G. Charlton (ed.), The French Romantics, 2 vol. (1984); and W.D. Howarth, Sublime and Grotesque: A Study of French Romantic Drama (1975). Colin Smethurst The 19th century: 18501900 Christopher Robinson, French Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1978); F.W.J. Hemmings, Culture and Society in France, 18481898 (1971); F.W.J. Hemmings (ed.), The Age of Realism (1974, reissued 1978); A.G. Lehmann, The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 18851895, 2nd ed. (1968, reprinted 1977); Pierre Martino, Parnasse et symbolisme, 18501900 (1925, reissued 1970); Anna Balakian, The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal (1967, reissued 1977); Marvin Carlson, The French Stage in the Nineteenth Century (1972); and Richard Griffiths, The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature, 18701914 (1966). Christopher Robinson The 20th century An excellent history of the period can be found in the series Littrature franais in Pierre-Olivier Walzer, Le XXe sicle, vol. 1: 18961920 (1975), and Germaine Bre, vol. 2: 19201970 (1978). The second volume has been translated into English: Germaine Bre, Twentieth-Century French Literature (1983). See also Gatan Picon, Panorama de la nouvelle littrature franaise, new rev. ed. (1976); Auguste Angls, Andr Gide et le premier groupe de la Nouvelle Revue Franaise (1978); Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (1970; originally published in French, 1933); Maurice Nadeau, Histoire du surralisme, 2 vol. (194548); Michel Raimond, La Crise du roman (1966), a good history of the novel from Zola to Proust; Henri Peyre, The Contemporary French Novel (1955); Paul Surer, Cinquante ans de thtre (1969), on playwrights, actors, and staging; Jacques Guicharnaud, Modern French Theatre, rev. ed. (1967). Particular aspects of literature since 1940 are dealt with in Mark Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser (1975, reprinted 1977); John Sturrock, The French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1969); Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, 3rd ed., rev. and enlarged (1980); and Maurice Nadeau, The French Novel Since the War (1967, reissued 1969; originally published in French, 1963). Jacques Bersani et al., La Littrature en France de 1945 1968, rev. ed. (1982), and Bruno Vercier, Jacques Lecarme, and Jacques Bersani, La Littrature en France depuis 1968 (1982), are works that provide good overviews of modern French literature; both also include bibliographies of general works and studies of individual writers. Patrick McCarthy Robin Caron Buss

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