French Writers Who Changed Literature As We Know It

Through the 12th century until the 70s

By Clarissa Posiřilová
August 6, 2020

This month is the very first one for this magazine and I am very happy to introuduce you to the current theme, “France”.  This is an area that I know and happens to be my life time hobby, literature. What comes to your mind when you think about  French literature? I can think of many authors and book titles, but which of them are the ones that changed the world of writing? I can imagine  many people have different opinions about this  topic, but here is a list of names that I have found to be rather  significant and influential to the history of French literature. 

Song of Roland

Song of Roland is perhaps the oldest  existing book connected to France. It is part of the Carolingian cycle and its chansons de geste (Songs of heroic deeds), epic poems which appear in French medieval literature. It most likely originated in 1100 and written in the 12th century. It was common people shared stories orally and were written down much later. The story takes place in the 8th century in Pyrenees, where Charlemagne (Charles the Great), along with his army are fighting against Saracens, a Muslim population in Spain.  The main character, as we can assume from the title, is a man by the name of Roland, who belongs to  Charlemagne’s army. Roland indeed lived in the past and participated in this battle, but he fought against Charles the Great. This story makes him a heroic character as while being assaulted by Saracens,  he stubbornly tries to fight by himself, without calling for any help. Until he is defeated. Then, he finally calls for help with his horn Oliphant, costing him his last bit of strength , resulting in his death. The blow of the Oliphant causes the victory of the Christians.

Christine de Pizan (or Pisan)

Christine de Pizan was a medieval writer. She was born in Italy, but married a French man, an act that initiated her  attachment  to France. 
Her popularity grew within the court as a result of her love ballads and  her skills awarded her the title of being the  first professional woman writer in Europe. She published a total of 41 known pieces, mostly dedicated to the Royal family and the French King. She wrote both prose and verse. During the Civil  War, she published Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry) for which she received monetary compensation from the royal treasury.
She was interested in politics, defending women and was a known moralist. Her work and activism was proven to have interested modern feminists, such as Simone de Beauvoir.

Chrétien de Troyes

Chrétien de Troyes was a  French poet and troubadour. He lived probably between 1131 and 1191 and  is primarily known for his work themed around  the Knights of the Round Table and Avalon. 
His most famous work is the Breton cycle, which he created a new genre of novels. This series includes one of most known tragic love stories, Tristan and Iseult. In his work, Yvain, Chretien used writing that is approaching to modern novel genre.
William Shakespeare used one of his works titled Cligès as inspiration for Romeo and Juliet, due to how in the work of Chretien, a man kidnaps his lover and poisons her to death.He is also credited for  creating the character, Lancelot,  and putting him  into Arthurian legends and stories. These legends have been preserved by his writing, allowing us to read about them  through his work.

George Sand

George Sand, whose  real name was Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin de Francueil, used a pseudonym for her first book While she came up with the idea, the book was actually written by Jules Sandeau. From his name has been invented her pseudonym, Jules Sand.  Upon writing her second book, not wanting people to think that Jules Sandeau had been involved, she decided to   change the first name to George.
 Beyond her expectations, she became very popular in Germany  as a result of  her choice of pseudonym.
She was interested in the question of woman’s  position in society and she became fighter   in defending their rights. Additionally, she focused her work on villages and why they were the ideal place to live. 
Her work has inspired lot of other writets (including Czech writers such as Božena Němcová and Karolína Světlá, who were writing about the same topics), but all of her amorous novels were subdued to an Index of Banned Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum).

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s name and work  is not just famous in France, but he is one of the most well known romantic writers – across time and places. His work ranged from poetry to plays,  essays, and most notably his prose. He lived during a time period  when lots  of political upheavals occurred. When he was a child, Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed emperor , but soon after the country became a bourboun monarchy once again.  With his father being a commissioned officer, Hugo and his family had to move frequently, and as a result Victor has learned many things.
His father was a Republican and admired Napoleon, viewing him as a hero. Victor Hugo’s mother , on the other hand, was Catholic Royalist. Both parents’ beliefs    greatly affected Hugo’s writing on religious and political matters.   His writing was very different from others as for , he wasn’t afraid to break the rules of time and go against the norms. For example, his characters, though depicted as hideous on the outside, proved to have  and embodied  kindness.  He put comedy into tragedy, and ridiculousness into magnificence.
His two most  well-known novels, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables, were also included in the Index of Banned Books, but thankfully today we can still read them.

Honoré de Balzac

Honore de Balzac  was a French writer focusing on romanticism and realism. We know about quick readers, but he was a quick writer. He wrote nearly 100 books, but his goal was 150. Every book he wrote belongs to cycle called The Human Comedy (La Comédie Humaine). The cycle is parted into three studies –  the Studies of Manners, Philosophical Studies and Analytical Studies, with the Study of Manners being the longest. The cycle was focused on France,  from the Napoleonic  Wars to half of the 19th century. 
His admiration belonged to higher society, of which he wanted to be part of (he eventually did,as a result of his marriage) . This admiration inspired him to writing as well. Most of his main characters are people who have the same desire to belong to a society of wealth and success. I heard he died solitary and indebted, but I’ve also read he married his wife shortly before he died and that Victor Hugo visited him on his last day.

Charles Baudelaire

This writer is taken as the first one to be The cursed poet (“poète maudit”). This group of poets had very different points of view to literature and art. They were very criticized, but they had revolutionary ideas. From Charles‘ works came  out modern poetry. 
The  Cursed Poets were focused on decadence and symbolism, which means they found beauty in hideous things, wrote with motives of hatred, eroticism, hopelessness, women and love and used things to express feelings.
Charle’s most famous work is Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du Mal). Poems still have rhymes, regular schemes, but the content is not standard. The collection of poems strongly expresses disbelief in the world, skepticism, and the emphasis on the incomprehensibility of one’s own life. On the other hand, one of his more modern pieces of work doesn’t follow rules of schemes and rhymes. Poems are composed as prose and have strong points. 
His life was quite bohemian and he liked to experiment with drugs. Most likely, he wrote so he could live. He also liked Orient very much and he found it more pleasant.

Jules Verne

Jules Verne is a writer I bet you surely know. He is considered as a founder of the science fiction genre.
He always had a tendency to write and the world of literature has introduced to him Alexandr Dumas. At the beggining he wrote some plays and was interested in drama. Originally he wanted to write books about science for adults, but ended up with adventure sci-fi stories for youth. When he was traveling, he often used his experiences as an inspiration for his writing. In his work, he often predicted future machinery and scientific discoveries, which also provoked many conspiracies among people, questioning where he took these ideas from. After he signed a contract, he became  financially secure and devoted himself only to writing. 
His death was very unexpected and unintentional as a relative  accidentally shot him while cleaning his weapon.

Jean- Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre was a novelist, playwright and essayist, but most importantly a philosopher. He was one of the most important philosophers of existentialism and marxism. Sartre’s work influenced not only philosophy, but also sociology, literary criticism and postcolonial studies.
While studying in Paris,  he met Simone de Beauvoir. They became partners, for their whole lives, but their relationship was very open and began to be highly criticized by other people. 
After he finished studying he became professor of philosophy and started a magazine with his friends. It was focused on existentialism, but they wrote about political and societal life as well. 

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir  was a philosopher, writer and feminist. Her mother wanted her to study at a catholic school, but she turned away from religion and became an atheist. 
After her studies she started teaching, but then she stoped and devoted herself to a writing career. 
Her literary work was influenced by existentialism, the study of the position of women in society and her own experiences. Her work is on the border between fiction and philosophy. Her most well-known book is titled The Second Sex, where she writes about position of women and attempts to find alternatives for their treatment by men
In the 70’s, people started to call her the “Mother  of Feminism” as her ideas became more popular among society.