6 FEBRUARY 1948, Page 18


Courrier Francais

Literary Prizes

(In the fifth of his surveys of current French literature M. Henri Martineau discusses the books which have won the winter's literary awards in France) I DO not suppose there is a country in the world more infected than France with the virus of literary prizes. Both in Paris and the provinces there must be few days of the year when somebody is not awarding a prize—various academies, the town of Paris itself, societies of all kinds, publishing houses, newspapers, cafes and a number of individuals anxious for advertisement, ceremony or amusement. M. Raymond Las Vergnas, one of the most popular French lecturers in Great Britain, has recently spoken to large audiences of this demo- cratic folly which has affected us to the marrow. I will not, therefore, insist on the general aspect of the question or on its humours.

When Edmond de Goncourt, founding his academy, instituted a prize for novelists, he made a bold new gesture. Encouragement of this kind could be useful to a writer of merit ; could stimulate the sales of the prize-winning book. Today, after forty years, literary pr,izes are so fashionable that they are accepted with indifference by a blasé public. Very little attention was paid to them in 1947. Two prizes, however, were distributed with judgement by the Academie Frangaise—its great literary prize and its prize for the novel. The first was given to a distinguished Hellenist—Mario Meunier—for his work generally. Meunier has not only established Greek texts, Plato, Sophocles, Pythagoras, with an elegance and sureness of touch but has also published enchanting mythological sketches and fables. The prix du roman has gone back to Philippe Heriat, the author of Famille Boussardel. This is a long history of a bourgeois family during the nineteenth century. The framework is Paris, and changes in the town are as scrupulously noted as the Boussardels' rise in the social scale. It is an ample book, with odd adventures and theatrical incidents and a parade of cynicism, with four generations occupying the stage one after the other. In its minuteness of detail and power the book recalls the best Balzac tradition.

It is round about Christmas time that literary competitions are most numerous, and their announcements occupy a large space in the Press. The greatest attraction is still the Prix Goncourt, which, as its founder directed, must go to a young experimental novelist of unquestioned talent. Jean-Louis Curtis has won it this time with his Les Forets de la Nuit. His subject is moving—a French village's resistance to the German occupation. Certain scenes are dramatic ; but on the whole the book is long and melancholy. It is made heavier by interminable conversations ; and the writing is flat and inelegant. In short, this was an unfortunate choice. Curtis has no strong talent. He is not an original novelist, but a facile journalist.

The committee of literary ladies who at the same time award the Prix Femina have also failed to hit on a novel of great merit, but in Gabrielle Roy, author of Bonheur d'Occasion, they have discovered

a sober, honest and sensitive writer. Madame Roy is a Canadian, and her book faithfully reflects the life of poor French Canadians in Montreal. Discreetly and simply she has told a story of the people ; and it must be added that this book—whose style is excellent in the French version—is winning a well-deserved popularity in its Ameri- can edition. The Goncourt and the Fenthia prizes each have a satellite—prizes founded mainly for amusement by idle journalists. But the Theophraste Renaudot prize and the prize of the Cercle Interallio have little by little won a serious reputation for themselves. Now the Interallie prize has gone to the Carnets du Bon Dieu by Pierre Daninos, which has not much to offer beyond laborious humour. On the other hand the Renaudot prize, awarded for two books by Jean Cayrol—the first of a series under the general title of Je Vivrai PAmour des Autres—are of high quality both in style and thought: harsh strong work, with hardly any plot, painting a world off its axis—a joyless world of human suffering. One must go back to it when the whole is published.

There is, too, the " false " Prix Goncourt awarded by two dissident members of that stormy body. It has been given to a novel by Kleber Haedens, Salut au Kentucky—a rich, sophisticated, alert book. No character lives a real life ; but the story has the move- ment, caprice and good humour of a marionette show. There is little soul, little sensitiveness ; but Haedens has the gift for story-telling and a constant irony.

Then one comes to the less official prizes—those emanating from publishers like the Prix Stendhal and the prix des lecteurs. The Prix Stendhal has been awarded to a quite young man, Michel Bataille, for his novel, Patrick—which is gauche and uncertain but full of freshness. It is the story of an adolescent who dies in the war but first serves his apprenticeship to life in the company of attractive jeunes fines. The prix des lecteurs has been given to two writers of talent—Frangoise d'Eaubonne and Gilbert Cesbron. Frangoise d'Eaubonne's Comme un Vol de Gerfauts is a highly coloured tumultuous historic novel. Gilbert Cesbron, in his La Tradition Fontquernie, has not been afraid of a melodramatic subject, but he has made a subtle study of the minds of his characters—some a little fossilised, some astonishingly modern.

Les Deux Magots, one of the chief literary cafés of Paris, has pre- sented a prize to Yves Malartic for his Au Pays du Bon Dieu. The hero and narrator of this book is a negro from the States. His stories are obviously true and somewhat disconcerting ; they are humorous and brutal and have for background the underworld of Marseilles. Then there is the town of Paris itself, which in 5947 honoured a philosopher—certainly one of the greatest and noblest writers in France. This is Andre Snares, who is more than eighty years old and has all his life kept away from coteries and small groups—a life of exemplary dignity entirely devoted to letters. He has written more than thirty brilliant books ; sketched dazzling countrysides, described voyages to the beautiful places of the world, magnified the names of great thinkers and written a great deal about music. This is a splendid writer, more concerned with the presentation of ideas and the magic of style than with exactness of detail. He is more than a historian, a biographer, a philosopher ' • he is a fine essayist, a learned poet in prose. No distinction could have been better merited.

L. P. N. D. S.