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Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma

University of Oklahoma

Que peut la littérature? by Simone de Beauvoir; Yves Berger; Jean-Pierre Faye; Jean Ricardou;
Jean-Paul Sartre; Jorge Semprun
Review by: Keith O. Gore
Books Abroad, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Spring, 1966), p. 165
Published by: Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma
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Accessed: 20/06/2014 21:14

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Books in French

** Simone de Beauvoir, Yves Berger, Jean- sisting that a work of art should be "gratui-
Pierre Faye, Jean Ricardou, Jean-Paul tous." But gratuitous art is probably as difficult
Sartre, Jorge Semprun. Que peut la littera- to achieve as the gratuitous act associated with
ture? Paris. U Herne. 1965. 128 pages. Gide. And if (to paraphrase Gide on another
Que peut la litterature? is the transcript of a issue) the road to bad literature is paved with
debate organized by Clarte, a French Com- good intentions, it is not true that a lack of
munist students' review. When this left-wing good intentions leads necessarily to good art.
inspiration is borne in mind, it seems clear that In other words, the question of commitment
the question asked in the title would tend to in literature is not really a matter of artistic
orient the participants toward the supposi- principle: there can be good committed litera-
tion that literature can in fact exercise an in- ture, just as there can be bad "gratuitous" art.
fluence in the world, and therefore toward the Sartre himself insists that the work of art
notion that their task should be one of trying need not, and indeed should not, be a discus-
to discover the means by which literature can sion of contemporary preoccupations (p. 124);
help to bring about some desirable result- for what matters for him is that it should be of its
example, of a political or social kind. Conse- time, that it should reveal to other men the
quently, the debate turns very largely upon the world in which they live. This, presumably, is
notion of committed literature, and the dis- an idea that most people could agree with, even
cussion is inhibited by two factors: first, here, if they have never heard the word "politics"or
as very often elsewhere, different people have the name Marx. Commitment in literature is a
different views of what committed literature is; valid subject for discussion provided it is not
second, they feel obliged to take up absolute seen as an absolute, and provided one does not
positions which are not always easy to defend. feel bound to choose for or against some kind
The most obvious example is that of Jean of "positive" (i.e., militant) commitment.
Ricardou, who insists that the writer is not Keith O. Gore
concerned with communicating something so University of London
much as with working a "material"- language.
This is bound up with the notion that art is ^ Pierre de Boisdeffre. Giono, Paris. Galli-
the source of man's humanity: "Part, (...) mard. 1965. 285 pages + 15 plates. 12.70 F.
c'est la qualite differentielle par laquelle un This single volume on Giono is a welcome
certain mammifere superieur devient homme" addition to the already important and valued
(p. 59). All would not agree; nevertheless, the series, La Bibliotheque Ideale. Pierre de Bois-
idea is more acceptable than what follows, deffre, who has written such incisive works as
since I understand Ricardou to suggest that Une histoire vivante de la litteratured'aujourd'-
animals are slaughtered in abattoirs because hui, has compiled in a highly succinct and
they are "radicalement hors de la litterature" readable fashion the most salient material con-
(p. 60). An opposing point of view is put by cerning the life and work of Giono.
Jorge Semprun, for whom commitment in Understanding that the primary purpose of
literature comes to mean the equivalent for the the book is that of giving to the reader the
intellectual of the workers' militant political opportunity of gaining an insight into Giono's
activity; in other words, it would seem that thinking, Boisdeffre divides his text into several
literature has some political or social use, logical categories: a brief chronology, a fairly
despite Semprun's quoting Marx to the effect extended analysis of Giono's production, a
that a writer's works are not means, but ends chronological summary of major works, ex-
in themselves (p. 32). cerpts from individual books, and finally a
Underneath such differences of opinion lies textual and critical bibliography.
the persistent temptation to use the expression At the outset of the book, Boisdeffre con-
"committed literature"while talking as though fesses that there is no mot-clef which can be
a roman engage, for example, were the same applied to Giono's work as one can be applied
thing as a roman a these. Those who (probably to that of Proust (temps), Gide (disponibilite) ,
rightly) think that a novel, written with a view or Claudel (catholicisme cosmique). Having
to defending a given thesis, runs the risk of established this fact, Boisdeffre proceeds to
being a bad novel, sometimes therefore suc- evaluate Giono as a man who "preche la vie
cumb to the opposite temptation: that of in- naturelle, la bonte active, les plaisirs simples et

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