Scenes de La Vie Province Honore de Balzac

“Only France has a literary culture that elects the writer a spokesman and invests literature with such powers.”

What was the first work of literature that got you hooked? Who was the writer that opened your mind to the wide world outside and caused you to think, question, look at the past in a way that changed your perspective on the present?

There were two writers for me:  Honoré de Balzac (see link) and Victor Hugo. Both are nineteenth century French writers who had the ability to paint a portrait with their words of the aspects of French society and culture in a fiction format by imbuing history, fashion, romance, politics, humor and sentiment. I am currently translating Hugo’s works that were written to his grandchildren, George and Jean, as they took walks in the Jardin des Plantes. These sweet stories will melt your heart. (see link)

Not only was Balzac an incredible writer, he was, as many 19th century French writers, a statesmen for France. Priscilla Clark describes this world of literature which shaped the image of France for years to come in her book Literary France. I loved reading this book. It is a fascinating look into these French writers as they were revered in their country and now, the world. French writers, literature and readers are the focus of Pricilla Clark’s Literary France. In her book, she analyzes the sense of French literary culture from the 17th century to the present, from Voltaire to Sartre, a culture that”gives direction to the whole configuration of writers, readers and literary institutions” (5).

Sitting at the highest point of the Latin Quarter in Paris, France is the Pantheon, the symbol of continuity between the past and present.  Buried in the crypt of this iconic edifice are four of France’s literary giants: Voltaire (see link), Hugo, Zola, and Rousseau.  “Victor Hugo is our religion” cried a 19th century student, giving an example of the sentiment of this era (4).

2016 Jan Group Pantheon (1)
Pantheon, Paris: Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau 2016

Clark begins by showing the distinctions in reading habits and prestige in the literary cultures of the United States and France in the nineteenth century.   Even though both countries published the same number of books, the French writer had more privileges, according to Gertrude Stein, and “is immortalized on currency and has streets named after him or her” (26).  Clark continues that in addition to “heralding their literary community” through academic positions in the lycées and the universities, the French were also superior in city centers, and awarding literary prizes through the Prix Goncourt (29).  During this period, there was a separation of literature and politics in the United States. Conversely in France, Clark explains, many writers, such as Victor Hugo, became politicians and explored this world in their works.

According to Clark, for literature to exist, “cultural, economic and political elements must interact” (7).  In the pre-revolutionary French literary culture, writers were dependent upon patrons to support them and their work.  Novels were written for the Ancien regime of the aristocracy such as Louis XIV, who was a great supporter of the arts. However, after the Revolution, many of these patrons lost their estates and funds; therefore, writers became dependent on institutions such as publishers who marketed their works and schools which chose literature to educate their students.   Consequently, the institution of the government began to bail out writers and offer them posts to supplement their income.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s Library, Fontainebleau, France, 2016

In addition, Clark examines the literary groups of the romantics (Balzac, Hugo, Dumas and Sand), the Parnassians (de Lisle, Sully-Prudhomme), and the naturalists (Zola and Maupassant). These writers came from middle to upper class families and frequently met together in their homes to discuss their ideologies (89).  While each group was influential in  French culture, the Parnassians were the only group to dominate the L’Académie francaise and the first to win a Nobel Prize in literature.  The naturalists became best-sellers and financially independent but were never accepted by  L’Académie.  Clark uses these examples to show how French writers were not seen as individuals as in the United States, but rather as part of a literary tradition.

Clark adds to her thesis that “the public writers translated the private affairs of literature into the public arena of culture and society” (126). She gives three examples of writers and their works from different eras who record the changes in the times:  Voltaire, the philosophe; Hugo, the prophet; and Sartre, the intellectual hero. While Voltaire and Hugo became actively involved in politics and their society to make positive changes, Sartre chose to take a philosophical approach.  He wrote against the bourgeois and the bourgeois reader (173).  After returning from self-imposed exile, Hugo returns a national hero.  Like Hugo, Voltaire a century before is honored with a street name and an internment in the Pantheon.

Rodin’s bust of Hugo, one of his favorite writers as well!

Clark continues her well written work with three questions by Sartre that should be addressed by any literary culture:  What is writing?  Why write? And For whom?  She also asks an important question of “what makes writers and literature recognizably French?” with the response of “logic of thought and clarity“(98).  She also explores the importance of a standard form of correct usage of language established by  L’Académie francaise and the “universal” French as established by Pompidou in 1967 (196). Victor Hugo claimed his ambition of “revolutionizing literature by revolutionizing language” (114).

In conclusion, as an avid bibliophile of the writings of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Balzac, I was fascinated by Clark’s descriptive details of these author’s works, their influence on French society and the different audiences that they appealed to from Voltaire’s pre-Revolution era to Hugo and Balzac’s post Revolution era.  Through Literary France, Clark provides a new understanding of the way literature has affected and should affect the French culture.

Honore de Balzac, Musee Rodin
Balzac, Musee Rodin, Jan 2016

Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (

Work Cited
Clark, Priscilla P.  Literary France: The Making of a Culture. University of California Press, 1987.

Further Reading
Balzac. La Comédie humainePierre Citron, ed. Preface by Pierre-Georges Castex. Paris: Seuil, 1965. 7 vols.

Hugo, Victor, Les Misérables (Preface by A. Rosa), Laffont, 1985, ISBN 2-221-04689-7, p. IV.

Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet de. Candide. The Norton Anthology of Word Masterpieces. The Western Tradition.  Ed. Hugo, et al. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 315-378.