Have been home sick with some kind of sinus thing, missing the Salon du Livre this weekend– so instead of giving you the kind of
hardheadedhard-nosed reporting you’ve come to expect from us here at Maîtresse, I’ve translated an interesting piece that ran in Le Monde this week in connection with the book fair: “Pour une littérature en langues françaises.”
This is a subject I find myself thinking about more and more, and clearly the problem is more than just semantic. It has to do, I think, with a basic human need to classify, which seems to have become a prerequisite for understanding– as if we can’t understand a writer’s work until we have contextualized him somehow. But in the (dare I say post-) post-colonial context the literary and political milieu of French and Francophone literature has become more complicated. We need a new way of classifying writers who weren’t born and raised in the Hexagone but who persist in writing in French anyway– and the best way to reclassify them may be to declassify them, as Christine Rousseau argues here.
“Pour une littérature en langues françaises” [For French literatures*], by Christine Rousseau (Le Monde, March 25 2010)
Hardly had the ripples caused by the Salon du livre francophone begun to still, in March 2007, when a brick was hurled into the pond, in the form of a manifesto entitled Pour une littérature-monde en français (“For a world literature in French”), written by Jean Rouaud and Michel Le Bris, the founders of the Etonnants voyageurs festival [which takes place in St-Malo every day]. Signed by 44 writers, including JMG Le Clézio, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Edouard Glissant, Amin Maalouf, Maryse Condé, Lyonel Trouillot and Nimrod, the manifesto announced the birth of a world literature in the French language, and, consequently, the death of francophonie [Francophone literature].
At first glance, the change of moniker was laudatory, as the term “francophone literature” was a bit dubious. As Alain Rey revealed in 2006, in the book section of Le Monde, on the occasion of the Salon du livre consecrated specifically to Francophone literature, the term “Francophonie” “is a sort of hot potato that countries, powers, and artists pass around with conflicting intentions.”
It is true that it covers over greatly differing realities. Initially a geolinguistic distinction– the term was created in 1880 by the geographer Onésime Reclus, in a specifically colonial context– the term was politicized after the independences of 1965, and then of course [became] literary and artistic. But now it must be said that the word, with all its connotations, seems too narrow when faced with a sphere [of influence] that extends beyond the auspices of the Organisation international de la francophonie (OIF) [International Francophone Organization]. For we find writers outside the habitual francophone zones (African, Caribbean, North American, Middle Eastern, and Asian), such as Boualem Sansal, Gary Victor, Nelly Arcan, Charif Majdalani or François Cheng, others like Milan Kundera, Hector Biancotti, Anne Weber or Jonathan Littell, who have each chosen French as their language of expression. Their French is a language that they have often forged whilst very much in contact with another language, in very different historical, political, social and economic contexts.
The literature we call francophone isn’t singular but plural. Playing with its boundaries– where else to classify Dany Laferrière, a Canadian originally from Haiti, or Yasmina Traboulsi, who is a Brazilian-Lebanese?– it brings us another vision of the world often obscured if not totally negated by French literature. But it also undoes the ancient organizations of genre. It’s enough to make booksellers– and indirectly, readers– dizzy, so much are they used to classifying authors by their geographic origins, in the Francophone aisle as in that of French literature. Their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, on the other hand, classify all works written in the English language by alphabetical order.
One foot in, one foot out. Such would seem to be the fate of francophone writers. Despite the efforts of Abbé Grégoire, who in De la littérature des negres (1808), composed a lively plea to recognize a foreign literature in the French language. Two hundred years have passed and the problem has remained more or less the same.
Of course, the most optimistic would argue that many editorial efforts have been made to made this literature better known, by publishing them, n the best cases, in the general collections, and in the worse, in reductive (even ghettoizing) collections like “Continents noirs” at Gallimard. At the same time, we’ve noticed a significant rise, over the last few years, in francophone authors being awarded the major national prizes– especially in 2006, which saw Jonathan Littell receive the Goncourt and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, Alain Mabanckou won the Renaudot, Nancy Huston the Femina and Léonora Miano the Goncourt des lycéens.
Was it the direct effect of the celebration of francophone culture that made its mark on 2006? It is true that, encouraged by this crop of winners, Jean Rouaud and Michel Le Bris, a year later, wrote Pour une littérature-monde.** Somewhat over the top, slightly naive and certainly partisan in its vision of literary history (amongst those attacked indirectly are Claude Simon and Georges Perec, “inventor of a literature without an object”), this combative text took as its aim the “Center,” that is Paris, its consecrating authority, its hardened literary milieu and its narcissistic writers, in order to better exalt the victorious return (after decades of “gulag poetics”) of writers from the periphery. Unfortunately, as Camille de Toledo remarked with regret in his pertinent essay “Visiter le Flurkistan” (PUF, 2008) as seductive as this manifesto may be politically, its effects are limited because of its war-like posturing, opposing two literatures and aesthetics which have only ever nourished each other in dialogue. An opportunity has been wasted to think about these literatures together. We ought not to pit them against each other, especially not when the only valid label we can use for either of them is doubtless that of Literatures in French.
*My translation hasn’t retained the structure of the original French, which refers to the structure of Le Bris and Rouaud’s essay. Other translation suggestions welcome.
**The original manifesto appeared in Le Monde on March 15, 2007. It was later expanded into a book-length essay and published by Gallimard that same year. To read an excerpt (in English) by the acclaimed Francophone writer Alain Mabanckou, click here (PDF).