Category Archives: French literature

Graphic Novels: Comix or Lit?

Its fans number in the millions, and both the publishing industry and Hollywood have fallen in love with it. Despite seeming to be on the forefront of popular culture, however, there are grounds to dispute its very existence–or, if it does exist, exactly when it was born. This omnipresent but elusive creature is the graphic novel, and some people think it is 30 years old this month.

The puzzle ostensibly began in October, 1978, when Baronet, a small publishing house in New York, brought out a book entitled A Contract with God. Although the volume had the general feel of a comic book, it featured no superheroes or monsters. Instead, there were four fictional accounts of ordinary people coping with the burdens of life. More interesting yet was the cover of the book, which proclaimed it to be “a graphic novel by Will Eisner.”

Although Eisner had been more or less out of the comics business for years as of 1978, he still would have been revered had he never returned. His finest achievement had been the 1940-52 run of The Spirit. That series, depicting the adventures of a non-super-powered crimefighter, was famous for its superb composition. Bizarre angles, heavy use of shadows and a playful way with the opening titles were its hallmarks.

Despite the great success of The Spirit, Eisner drifted into other areas of commercial art during the 1950s and 1960s. When he returned to comics in the 1970s, he was no longer interested in straightforward tales of heroes and villains — he wasn’t even comfortable with the term “comic book.”

While searching for a publisher willing to accept A Contract With God, he portrayed the project as a “graphic novel.” (He later joked, “It didn’t work. I sent it to them, and they said, ‘It’s a comic book.'”) Eventually, he found Baronet, and history was made.

Or not.

Today, the concept that Eisner reputedly invented back in 1978 seems to be a resounding success. Often packaged as trade paperbacks featuring contents that integrate words and pictures for an audience not necessarily interested in Batman or Superman, graphic novels have won considerable recognition. Art Spiegelman, the elder statesman of the field since Eisner’s death in 2005, won a Pulitzer prize in 1992 for his Maus books, which dealt with the Holocaust. Serialized during the first half of the 1980s, and printed as an initial volume in 1986, the various editions of Maus had sold 1.8 million copies by mid-2004. Movie studios have been receptive to the graphic-novel phenomenon, and recent acclaimed films based on graphic novels include Road to Perdition, American Splendor, Ghost World and Sin City.

Yet there is a worm in this apple — if there is even any apple at all. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born, French-based creator of the widely praised Persepolis books, snootily (and inaccurately) told The Wall Street Journal last year, “I don’t like ‘graphic novel.’ It’s a word that publishers created for the bourgeois to read comics.”

More surprising, Art Spiegelman has discounted Eisner’s impact on his own books. In a Nov. 14, 2003, column, Andrew D. Arnold of Time.com quoted Spiegelman saying the following about A Contract With God: “I liked one of the stories very much, but it didn’t register with me as having anything to do with what I had climbed on my isolated tower to try to make, which was a long comic book that would need a bookmark.” Eisner himself had doubts about terminology in his last years and was advocating several alternatives to “graphic novel,” including “graphic literature,” “graphic narrative” and the clunky “sequential art.” The British comics writer Alan Moore has offered a scornful suggestion: “big, expensive comic books.”

Even if one discounts all of the above and insists that the graphic novel emerged immaculately in the 1970s, alternate versions of its birth still abound. In 1971,Gil Kane brought out Blackmark, a 130-page fantasy tale in pocketbook form that billed itself as “the next step forward in pictorial fiction.” In 1975, a group of French writers and artists founded Metal Hurlant, which soon spawned a U. S. version, Heavy Metal. These two magazines highlighted numerous creators, including Guido Crepax.

In 1976, Jim Steranko and Byron Preiss collaborated on Chandler, a private-eye story printed as a trade paperback and touted as a “visual novel.” In the same year, writer Harvey Pekar started his autobiographical American Splendor series. In 1977, Canada’s Dave Sim started what would turn out to be an eccentric, 300-issue epic about a talking aardvark named Cerebus. In October, 1978 — the same month as A Contract with God was released — Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy brought out the adventure book Sabre, which the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide has called “the first direct-sale graphic novel.”

According to comics historian Denis Gifford, the San Francisco comix scene of the 1960s and ’70s was heavily indebted — through inspiration or outright mentorship — to none other than Harvey Kurtzman, who founded Mad magazine in 1952. Spiegelman has confirmed that he was one of the many kids avidly devouring pocketbook reprints of Mad in the 1950s. In addition to the curious involvement of Mad, there is an argument that graphic novels already existed in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, U. S. publisher Albert L. Kanter defied the trend of superhero comics and created a line of graphic adaptations of famous novels aimed at young readers. This line soon became known as “Classics Illustrated,” and it ran new material right up to 1969, just nine years before the release of A Contract With God. European contributions to the children’s market are just as extensive. Belgium’s Georges Remi (alias “Herge”) brought out the first of his celebrated Tintin books in 1930, and these visual escapades — about 60 pages each, some of the narratives continued from volume to volume — appeared until 1976.

Let’s get over it, and just accept that there are a multitude of genres and approaches within the comic literary form.

Full story at National Post

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The Impossibility of Translating Poetry

notebook of roses and civilizationWhen work took Erin Moure to Montreal for the first time in 1984, she admits that she could “barely cope” with the language.

Early last year, with poet/novelist/playwright Robert Majzels, she embarked on a French-to-English translation of Cahier de roses et de civilisation, a 2003 book by Nicole Brossard, one of Quebec’s most important poets. It took her and Majzels almost three months to complete the project, published last fall by Toronto’s Coach House Books as Notebook of Roses and Civilization.

The 88-page volume has gone on to be short-listed for the 2007 Governor-General’s Award for translation. And in April, it was one of three texts nominated for the Canadian side of the Griffin Prize.

Moure is hardly a stranger to Brossard’s work. Notebook of Roses and Civilization is the third Brossard translation she and Majzels have completed. Nor is Moure a stranger to writing poetry. She has been nominated for seemingly every Canadian poetry prize, including two nods, in 2002 and 2006, for the Griffin, and five for the Governor-General’s award, in a writing career spanning more than 30 years.

Translation is a fraught exercise, of course. As Moure notes, “Languages aren’t equivalent. The register even of the word ‘I’ and ‘je’ is so different. You think of these things as equivalent on a practical basis, from day to day … but day-to-day language is not as precise as the use of language in poetry.”

And in the case of Brossard’s work, there are “challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain.” Plus, Brossard does things in French that are “syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”

While Notebook of Roses and Civilization “is necessarily different from the book in French,” Moure stressed that she and her collaborator tried “to stick very, very closely to providing the same experience to a reader in English as a reader in French – inasmuch as that is possible because readers bring to texts their culture.”

Brossard, 65 this year, has won at least two Governor-General’s awards in French-language poetry. Yet her fierce rejection of conventions of grammar, punctuation, narrative and logic, of what’s been called “the natural speech lyric,” have made her a sort of “poet’s poet.”

For Moure, the fact that today’s so-called common reader often doesn’t “understand a lot of contemporary poetry at the get-go” is a quibble. “We don’t demand this of life itself. Find me someone who understands life. I’m 53, and I don’t understand it. I understand certain things; I have certain reference points. I get through the day and I love it – but something always happens to throw me for a loop.

Excerpted from James Adams, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2008

Passage des Panoramas

Alice LiddellShe adored the Passage des Panoramas.

It was a passion surviving from her youth, a passion for the gaudiness of fancy goods, fake jewels, gilt zinc and cardboard with the appearance of leather. When she passed that way she could not tear herself from the window-displays.

She felt the same now as during the period when she was a down-at-heel street urchin and used to forget herself in front of the confectionery in a chocolate-maker’s, while listening to a barrel-organ playing in a neighboring shop.

Passage des Panoramas

She was taken especially by the pressing attraction of cheap knick-knacks, requisites in walnut-shells, necessaries in small containers, rag-picker’s baskets for tooth-picks, Vendome columns and obelisks containing thermometers.

Emile Zola,
Nana: A Realistic Novel, 1880

Image: Charles Dodgson,
Alice Liddell as The Beggar Maid,
Late 1850s

Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret

The lighting is bordello red, but the librarians insist that their X-rated exhibition is serious.

Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret, which opened at the National Library in Paris last month, offers a peek at its secret archive of erotic art, putting on display more than 350 sexually explicit literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, photographs, film clips, even calling cards and cardboard pop-ups.

Croix Rouge metro station

Visitors to the library can listen to a modern-day recording of an 18th-century “dialogue” during sex and watch a six-minute excerpt from a grainy black-and-white silent pornography film made in 1921.

The handwritten manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Les Infortunes de la Vertu (The Misfortunes of Virtue) is under glass here, as are 17th-century French engravings of “erotic postures”; English “flagellation novels” exported to France in the late 19th century; Japanese prints; Man Ray photographs; and a police report from 1900 that compiles the addresses of Paris’s houses of prostitution and what they charged.

To avoid complaints that a publicly supported institution is corrupting the country’s youth, no one under 16 is admitted.

“In an era where sexual images are a product for popular consumption, the library has decided to lift the veil on this world of imagination and fantasy,” Bruno Racine, the library director, said in an interview. “The library is a very serious institution, and the project was done with gravity. But we also perhaps are different from what you think — and there is humor here too.”

The items, on display through March 22, are drawn from a permanent collection created in the 1830s when the library isolated works considered “contrary to good morals.” They were put in a locked section with its own card catalog and given the name L’Enfer — hell. Many pieces have been consigned there over the years by the police for safeguarding, perhaps, and posterity.

The exhibition (and its 464-page catalog) comes at a time when France is struggling with a variety of societal issues: the limits of privacy for its public figures, censorship and the definition of good taste. A one-day scholarly conference at the library about the exhibition included a debate on the meaning of modern-day censorship. Library curators acknowledge that public morality is shifting.

President Nicolas Sarkozy himself is blurring the lines of public permissibility. His decision to revel in, rather than hide, his love affair with Carla Bruni, a model-turned-pop-singer, is, he said at a news conference last week, a break with the past and a sign that “France is moving forward.”

However, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist defeated by Mr. Sarkozy in last May’s presidential election, is calling for more decorum and discretion in public life. “Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen to turn private events in his life into public events, like Louis XIV: You have the king’s breakfast, the king’s lunch, the king’s bedtime, the king’s mistresses,” she said in a radio interview on Monday.

Even Simone de Beauvoir’s backside is not off limits from exposure and analysis these days. The decision by the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur two weeks ago to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of that feminist literary figure with a nude photo of her (taken from the back in 1952) has been sharply criticized and just as sharply defended.

Florence Montreynaud, a historian and feminist author who runs an anti-sexism organization, protested the photo by offering the magazine’s director, Jean Daniel, a choice: apologize or bare his own bottom. She also said the magazine should publish the bare buttocks of Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir’s long-time partner.

The fact that the cellulite on Beauvoir’s thighs and buttocks was airbrushed away added to the indignity. The media columnist for the newspaper Libération, Daniel Schneidermann, wrote: “The photo has even been retouched — the buttocks of Beauvoir — with makeup, to make them lose some kilos, some rolls of fat and to take off 10 years.”

The Paris metro system constructed a teaser for the show on its No. 10 line. Commuters passing by the closed Croix Rouge station get the most fleeting of glimpses of erotic engravings lighted up in shocking pink and partly hidden behind fluttering black curtain strips.

The newspaper Le Monde has run ads for the show (with a shocking-pink X) on its front page. The literary review Le Magazine Littéraire devoted its December cover to the subject, with scholarly essays on sex and aging, the last taboo of pedophilia and whether excessive public display of sex has made it boring.

Still, with France’s tough laws against pornography and one of the most aggressive law-enforcement campaigns against child pornography in Europe, the library has taken care to avoid falling afoul of the law. . . .

New York Times, January 16, 2008

L’enfer c’est les Autres

huis closWhen French playwright Jean-Paul Sartre’s contemporary existential masterpiece for stage, Huis Clos (No Exit) was first produced, theatre audiences and critics alike were disturbed by its unsympathetic characters and unrelentingly bleak thesis—succinctly stated by Garcin, the journalist-coward trapped in a room with two other craven individuals, all fated to act as each other’s torturers for eternity—”Hell is other people.”

The three damned souls – Garcin the army deserter and philanderer, Inez the lesbian who turned a wife against her husband, and Estelle the gold-digger and cheat – are ushered into a Second Empire style drawing room. They realize that they are in hell, and they fully expect to meet with the wrath of Satan and his minions.

Instead, they are politely shepherded into the single room together, one by one, after which the door is locked behind them. Quickly, they realize the hideous truth of their collective situation – each individual is to act as the torturer of the other two.

Resisting this fate, they decide they must fully understand and forgive each others’ sins in order to find salvation. As each character’s personal web of deceit unravels, they are all forced to face their own true nature.


ESTELLE: Ah yes, in your mind. But everything that goes on in one’s head is so vague, isn’t it? It makes one want to sleep. I’ve six big mirrors in my bedroom. There they are. I can see them. But they don’t see me. They’re reflecting the carpet, the settee, the window– but how empty it is, a glass in which I’m absent! When I talked to people I always made sure there was one near by in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as the others saw me…Oh dear! My lipstick! I’m sure I’ve put it on all crooked. No, I can’t do without a looking-glass for ever and ever. I simply can’t.

INEZ:Suppose I try to be your glass? Come and pay me a visit, dear. Here’s a place for you on my sofa.


The barriers come down, the denials fade, all attempts to self-justify are shot down, and the ugly truth of each sinner is revealed.

huis clos


GARCIN: Will night never come?

INEZ: Never.

GARCIN: You will always see me?

INEZ: Always.

GARCIN: This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!

ESTELLE: My darling! Please-

GARCIN: No, let me be. She is between us. I cannot love you when she’s watching.

ESTELLE: Right! In that case, I’ll stop her watching. (She picks up the PAPER knife and stabs Inez several times.)

INEZ: But, you crazy creature, what do you think you’re doing? You know quite well I’m dead.

ESTELLE: Dead?

INEZ: Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes–useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. SO here we are, forever.

ESTELLE: Forever. My God, how funny! Forever.

GARCIN: For ever, and ever, and ever.

(A long silence.)

GARCIN: Well, well, let’s get on with it…


First produced in Paris, 1944, Jean Paul Sartre’s famous one-act play Huis Clos is his clearest dramatic metaphor for his philosophy: We all hold the power of choice, and with that power comes the responsibility of consequence. It is in the judgement of our peers that the truth lies about who we really are.