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Are the old Goncourt winners still readable?

[On Monday, 10 November, the latest Prix Goncourt was awarded to the greatest French luminary of letters of that moment. Atiq Rahimi is of Afghan origin, and his book Syngue Sabour, or Stone of Patience is of extraordinary quality, in the words of one jury member. Four days earlier, Le Figaro had published a little article about older winners of the prize. How well have their books fared in the century or so since the Academie Goncourt began celebrating the best in French literature? I offer below a very loose paraphrased translation of that piece.]

edmond-goncourtSince its inception in 1903, the Academie Goncourt has rewarded several books that have experienced great renown: In the Shadow of Young Girls by Marcel Proust, The Human Condition, by André Malraux, or closer to our times, The Alder-King, by Michel Tournier, and The Street of Obscure Shops, by Patrick Modiano.

Other winners, though, are now completely forgotten. Who remembers Marius Ary-Leblond? Henri Malherbe? Or Yves Navarre? Are the works to be consigned to the graveyard of memory? Or are they a treasure trove of forgotten wonders? Our critics give their opinions on some of the earliest titles: do they still touch the public at the beginning of the 21st century?

To our surprise, most of them pass the test of time. Not only do they provide good fare, but are also of great modernity in the subjects they address.

1904: «La Maternelle» (The Kindergarten), Léon Frapié

The Kindergarten is a bit off-the-all in its original version of 1900. But four years later, Léon Frapié (1863-1949) attracted the jury of the Goncourt with his semi-autobiographical novel. He used his wife’s memories to paint a realistic portrait of a nursery school in an impoverished district of Paris, set in an environment that would not have been unfamiliar to Emile Zola, then dead only two years. The narrator is a young girl from a good family who is forced to find work in the brutal aftermath of her father’s death. Despite being well-educated, a rarity in those years, she is not permitted to work as a teacher. With her diploma, she is hired at 80 francs a month as an assistant at a kindergarten, where she has to serve two hundred children, a director and two matrons, two chambermaids, all of whom are dedicated to maintaining the school and the scouring of the poor.

Over the period of a year, the young woman comforts and kisses and changes and spoils and reduces the pain of her charges, most of whom have only known a world where they have no claim on sweetness. The book protests that terrible reality in a tone not devoid of humour. The author carefully avoids pathos and casts a critical eye at the state of education of the time: the school was supposed to cure people of their worst conditions, but ends up merely perpetuating a social determinism that advocated obedience and forced respect to the elite. A century later the vision of the author continues to ring true.

(Francoise Dargent)

1906: «Dingley, l’illustre écrivain» (Dingley, the Famous Writer), Jean and Jérôme Tharaud

Authored by two friends of Charles Péguy (he it was that gave them their pseudonyms, after the patron saints of writing), this book first appeared in 1902 in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine. It received the Goncourt four years later, after one of those neat sleights-of-hand for which juries are well-known.

Dingley is a great British writer, feted widely for his works. Despite the acclamation, he feels that his life is only a shadow. One day, he encounters an entrapment of an underfed Cockney by sergeants recruiting for the Boer War, and imagines to himself the possibilities of a novel about such a person, who will be morally transformed by martial discipline and war. To add verisimilitude to his narrative, Dingley embarks on a trip to South Africa, and jumps right into the story, and discovers that war is all fighting and suffering and terrible death. At this point, he poses the question: What is the glory of the writer, even if a champion of the Empire, when compared to the men who really defend it?

The novel is considered a satirical view of the life of Rudyard Kipling, and is written in a precise style, not without irony even its title. Formally, it is impeccable. Yet it cannot avoid a certain coldness in its narrative, which costs it considerable charm.

(Étienne de Montety)

[Aside: A longer and more heartfelt review of the book is by Julian Barnes in the Guardian. Check it out.]

1908: «Écrit sur de l’eau» (Written on Water), Francis de Miomandre

Although he was born in Tours in 1880, François-Félicien Durand spent his youth in Marseille. He was friends with Edmond Jaloux et Gilbert de Voisins, and took on the name of his mother, Miomandre, when he began to publish charming little verses and prose pieces in various papers; and became the secretary of Camille Mauclair in 1900. In 1908, Written on Water, which had scarcely sold five hundred copies till then, won, to general bewilderment, the Prix Goncourt. Few people had read the book, and its critics wrote up some peculiar things about it; the newspaper Le Temps, for instance, claimed it was a study of mores on large cruise ships!

The book is simply a story of a young Marseillais during the Belle Epoque, a delicate fantasy married to a keen sense of observation, written as only Francis de Miomandre knew how.

Jacques de Meillan was a young man and a young man who rose late … He rose late because the morning contained only thankless hours, difficult to deal with intelligence. He rose late because he was infinitely better lying down than standing.

But why has posterity allowed this author to be forgotten, this auteur of delicacy, the acute translator of Cervantes and Unanumo, this writer of over fifty books?

(Sophie Humann)

1910: «De Goupil à Margot», Louis Pergaud

His name doesn’t ring great bells today. Still, Louis Pergaud (1882-1915) won the Goncourt in 1910 with a collection of animal stories. Competing for the prize at the time were Guillaume Apollinaire’s L’Hérésiarque and Colette’s La Vagabonde. All praise to the auteur!

Forests, gardens. We come across a fox, a dog, a hare, a squirrel, a frog. Their names? Miraut, Fuseline, Guerriot, Rana… Some are happy. Most of them are hungry, cold and scared. That is the life of dreams of animals.

In these texts that have lost none of their freshness or flavour, the animals are the protagonists of little dramas. Their stories are told from their points of view. Pergaud is at ease in this exercise of anthropomorphic literature. The writing is fluid, of clarity and simplicity. Of all the adventures related, it is not easy to forget the fox, Goupil, whose fur was not considered good enough by the poacher who traps him. Spitefully, the man releases the animal into the forest, a bell tied around his neck, the poor beast condemned to tinkle it with every step it took. The fox is reduced in every ensuing hunt, such an essential aspect of a vulpine life, to a state of inferiority. Not to mention the sheer handicap occasioned by the bell during the mating season, whenever he attempted to accost a desirable female…On another note, we welcome the soberly titled Underground Rape. It deals with the exciting pursuit of a genteel taupe by a lecherous male (with a sex barbed, like a rapier of fire). Pergaud lacked neither imagination nor humour. It is high time he is rediscovered.

(Dominique Guiou)

1911: «Monsieur des Lourdines», Alphonse de Châteaubriant

Timothy of the Lourdines is a country gentleman, as the subtitle of the novel suggests, a type of man not oft seen today, but one the author (1877-1951), met off and on in his youth in Brittany. This solitary squire has no time for lesser folk and is wild for his peers. To those who reproached him for never having shown himself in the city, Oh, yes! Oh, yes! he said, I shall die without having understood the true face of men! The old man has two passions: the violin, which he plays at night in the disused parts of his castle, and his woods, whose slightest change he immediately knows. He hardly ever leaves them alone. When he returns home in the evening, anxiety that a new crisis has befallen his wife seizes him: prostrated by an attack upon learning of the debts of their only son, Anthim, she has been in her room since, enormous and infirm. Her husband will do everything to spare her the discovery of their ruin… Dedicated to Romain Rolland, this tale, and the later one of La Briere, one of the bestsellers of the period between the world wars, demonstrates with ardent sensibility the burning pain of parental love, that only nature, described in a precise and powerful language, can calm.

After the Great War, it is to Romain Rolland that Châteaubriant writes of his fears that Europe will not survive without enduring peace betwen Germany and France. In search of this goal, this mystic loses his way: he founds the journal La Gerbe in occupied Paris; this results in his condemnation in absentia as a collaborator in 1945. His literary work is quickly buried and forgotten. He dies in 1951 in an Austrian monastery where he has taken refuge.

(Sophie Humann)

1916: «L’Appel du sol» (The Call of the Soil), Adrien Bertrand

When receiving the Goncourt grant for poetry, did Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Réda, Philippe Jacottet and others spare a thought about Adrien Betrand, a soldier who died of his injuries during the Great War in 1917? It was indeed he who bequeathed funds to the Academie Goncourt with which to recompense a poet for all his work. Before making this fine gesture, Adrien Bertrand (1888-1917) had been a journalist. When the first World War broke out, his pacifist joined a battalion without hesitation, and was noted for his courage. In October 1914, his lungs were irreparably damaged by German shrapnel. Surviving under medication, he spent the next three years in bed, writing. His first novel, The Call of the Soil, was crowned by Goncourt in 1914. Not awarded because of the draft that year, he had to wait till 1916, the year that Henri Barbusse accepted it for Fire, another novel set during the Great War.

To read the book today is to plunge anew into the nightmarish existence of soldiers in an Alpine corps. You will find everything in it: the marches, the long waits, the ennui and the anxiety that precedes combat, the clashes, the deaths, the happiness of survival. Bertrand has an acute ear for dialogue. This admirer of Voltaire loves verbal jousts. Even if it does not always avoid grandiloquence and prolix diatribes, for the most part, the novel is constructed in short sentences, encouraging the attention of the reader. The scene where the hunters penetrate a graveyard and discover the torn bodies of five hundred German soldiers, destroyed by artillery, melded into one in a macabre dance of death, is one that will remain indelibly in our minds forever.

(Bruno Corty)

1921: «Batouala», René Maran

Born in Fort-de-France, the author of Batouala holds a singular place in the world of literature in the 1920s. He was one of the rare black writers of the epoch. René Maran was 34 years old when he won the Prix Goncourt. Among the jury were Léon Daudet, Lucien Descaves and the Rosnys, father and son. The manner of Maran’s victory demonstrates marvellously the eternal battles within the Academie Goncourt. The author of Batouala defeated – excuse the expression – both the hussar Jacques Chardonne (37 years old) and Pierre Mac-Orlan (about 40 years old), then at the summit of his art (this writer never does win the Goncourt prize, although he does eventually become a member of its jury in place of Descaves). The fight had been bitter: five voices for him against five for Chardonne, and it was only a second vote that allowed Maran to enter the prestigious honours list.

It was not so much the novel as its preface that triggered the controversy. The preface was frankly political. Maran appealed to his brothers in spirit, writers of France against colonialism. Raise your voices! he thundered, against the establishment of colonial rule in Africa. His novel was set in Oubangui-Chari, one of four colonies reeling under the rule of the French in Equatorial Africa.

The book was well received at the time. With a novel in the same vein, In France, the brothers Marius-Ary Leblond had won the Goncourt in 1909.

Léopold Sédar Senghor has rendered tribute to Maran as one of the most fervent activists of the French-speaking world. But history is cruel. It has retained Senghor but has forgotten the first “black Goncourt”.

(Mohammed Aïssaoui)

1922 : «Le martyre de l’obèse» (The Martyrdom of the Obese), Henri Béraud

In 1922, when the Goncourt prize crowned his novel The Martyrdom of the Obese, Henri Béraud, the son of Lyonnais baker, was a fearful polemicist. He criticised the modern literary elite, those he called the Gallimards, and defended the well-tempered bourgeoisie of the 19th century, the French provincials who looked smiling upon the flowing river of life. The book receives the Goncourt, but curiously enough, has to share the award with the author’s previous novel, The Vitriol of the Moon. It was as though at a time when slimness was already exalted, a novel about the obese, no matter how delicately wrought, was not considered serious enough to merit a distinguished prize. And yet what grace and style in this novel! Written by another, it would have been a pedestrian comedy. In reality, far from it.

Béraud’s anti-hero recounts his misadventures to his companions at a bistro, in between beers, in a cheerful yet melancholy tone, courteously not dwelling too much on his fate – the fat do not have the right to be unhappy, you see, and they have to apologise constantly for being obese by showing themselves in a light mood.

The setbacks faced by this man prefigure the tortures experienced by the extra-extra-large today. Aficionados of good cheer and fine flesh will applaud when the novelist regrets that in all things, of greed and of love, one ended up crediting the view that the lavish is entirely opposite to the refined. Béraud, himself described as having a body like a contrabass and a puce-coloured face affixed on a double-chin, very like an inflated tyre, proves otherwise with his incisive mind, that acute observer of the mores of the human animal.

(Astrid de Vergnette)

1932 : «Les Loups» (The Wolves), Guy Mazeline

It begins like this: In the early afternoon in April, 1892, Maximilian Jobourg sat at the games table that had been promptly cleared by his maid, and leafed through the worn-out collection of tragedies by Racine that he had never abandoned since college. His long, ringed fingers crossed over the book, his forehead inclined, his lip sulky.

The rest, over 600 pages long, is correspondingly high-brow. The Wolves by Guy Mazeline, won the Goncourt in 1932. Blistered by the abuse of epithets and adverbs, it is bloated in a tangled skein of a skewed plot. The author embroiders and retouches and qualifies at every turn, drowning his intent and diluting the atmosphere. Accumulating dust since its release from the presses, The Wolves narrates the saga and the Balzacian decline of a rich industrial family of Normandy at the turn of the 19th century. One scarcely comprehends why the Goncourt crowned this stodgy corpulence. Unless their decision had not been guided entirely by literary considerations… Céline’s Travels at the End of the Night had been broadly favoured by the jury, and, supported notably by Léon Daudet, had amply merited the award. A last minute turnaround tilted the scales in favour of Mazeline, and Céline had to remain content with the Renaudot. Dr Destouches had this pithy comment a few days later: It is an affair of the editors. In this case, Céline’s editor, Denoël was faced against Gallimard, with whom Mazeline had already published three works. No comment there. The outsider took the prize six votes to three; a scandal surfaced. And the name of Mazeline was inextricably linked to that of Céline. As the writer, Georges Bernanos, wrote in an elegiac article in favour of Travels in Le Figaro: Mr Céline has missed the Prix Goncourt. So much the better for Mr Céline.

(Thierry Clermont)

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