Gargoyle 17/18
cover sculpture (Crow Woman) by Virginia Hubbard
publication date 12/21/1981

A Short History of Modern French Literature

Joseph M. Queenan

Modern French literature begins with Emile Zo1a, author of L’Oeuvre, L’Oeuvre II, and L’Hors d’Oeuvre, as well as Shah Nana, a sizzling expose of depravity and corruption in the households of various deposed Middle Eastern Potentates. Though prolific and multi-talented (he also won an Oscar for his role in the film, The Life of Paul Muni), Zola is probably best remembered for coining the term "Jacuzzi," the name of a whirlpool bath his brother-in-law invented.

The next great French writer is Anatole France (a.k.a. Antonio Italia, Andruska Russia, Aurelio Mexico, and Al Poland). In his visionary novel, Penguins-Islanders, he correctly prophesied the triumph of the New York hockey team in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, though he did get the scores wrong. His most celebrated work, The Gods Are Athirst, is the concluding volume in the trilogy Deprived Extraterrestrial Creatures, which also includes The Demigods Are A Hungry and The Angels Are Atired.

The next generation of great French writers is headed by Jean Cockatoo, author of The Terrible Parents, The Despicable Children, and The Pretty Awful Third Cousins, and his friend Andre Gide, whose works include The Past Oral Symphony (the life of Mahler’s dentist, told in flashback) and The Immoral List, a satirical mail-order catalogue of French S&M equipment. Also of note is Marcel Proust, whose Remembrance of Things Passed is still required reading for Parisian medical students interested in a kidney or gall-bladder oriented career.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Academie Francaise decided to call off French literature until the Liberation, and only a few writers continued to work. Of these the most important names are Albert Camus, who actually copyrighted his theory that life is absurd; and Jean-Paul Sartre, three-time winner of the "Nihilist Of The Year" award. Camus, whose works include The Pest, Down The Chute, The Stranger They Come, The Harder They Fall, and The Mitt Of Sisyphus (a novel about a cynical, error-prone Greco-American catcher cut by the Detroit Tigers) accidentally died in a car accident while trying to die in a motorcycle accident. Much more influential, and a far better driver, Sartre’s fame derives primarily from Nausea, Vomit, Stomach Cramps, The Mur The Merrier, The Age of Raisins, Bridge Over Troubled Sleep, The Sequestering Of Al’s Tuna, and Beans And Nothing Less, the story of the Pythagorean Cowboys. He also edited No Exit, an anthology of provocative graffiti found scrawled on various cul-de-sac signs.

Among the best authors in recent years are Eugene Ionesco, noted for three outstanding plays (The Chairs, The Sofa-Beds, and The Handy Workbenches), and one detective novel, The Soprano Bawled; Jean Genet, whose Screening The Black Maids On The Balcony has become a standard guidebook for equal opportunity employers; and Samuel Beckett. Beckett, who had to pay a dollar to buy his way into the French race (where traditionally there have been more openings for Irish writers) is best known for Endgame, a chess manual for post-nuclear-holocaust beginners; Waiting For The Left Hand of Godot; and Happy Days, a television docudrama about doomed but spunky Fifties high school kids.

Great French literature will probably continue to flourish, as there is no law against it. Moreover, francophiles thrive even in our own country, despite the generalissimo’s death. In short, in the words of the philosopher, "There will always be an England." Same goes for France.