Tag Archives: France

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de MontaigneEssayist
(1533 – 1592)

Born in Bordeaux in southern France, Michel de Montaigne’s father oversaw his early education by hiring tutors to teach the child Latin at an early age. Allowed only to speak this language until the age of six, Montaigne then entered the Collège de Guyenne, a secondary school in Bordeaux and a center of the humanist movement in France. He stayed there until he was 16, at which point he moved on to attend the University of Toulouse, another center of French humanism and a place of fervent religious debate at the time.

Religious wars

Like other humanisticallyeducated sons of prosperous fathers, Montaigne soon made a political career. In 1554 he took a legal post at Perigeaux and a few years later he became a member of the parlement (a local court of appeals) at Bordeaux. While a member of the parlement Montaigne traveled to Paris and took part in several important missions for the king. On one of these to Rouen he witnessed the consequences of the Wars of Religion, the great civil war that afflicted France at the time. In Rouen he also saw Brazilian natives recently brought to Europe, a subject that he later exploited in his famous essay Of Cannibals. In 1565 he married a wealthy heiress, and the large fortune that she brought to their marriage made Montaigne a rich man. He had six children with his wife, but only one survived infancy. In his writings he only rarely mentions his family.

His closest personal attachments seem to have been with other leading humanists and scholars. Among these, his closest friend was Étienne de la Boétie, a French humanist with whom Montaigne worked in the parlement at Bourdeaux. Boétie’s premature death in 1563 had a lasting impact on Montaigne, and in later life, he composed his famous essay “Of Friendship” in memory of him. Another of Montaigne’s friends was the female scholar Marie de Gournay, whom Montaigne considered like an adopted daughter. Gournay edited one version of the Essays. By 1570, Montaigne had grown increasingly disillusioned with public life and he resigned his duties. A year later he took up residence at a country estate where he shut himself off for a great part of each day in a tower of the chateau to devote himself to reading, study, writing, and contemplation. Except for only brief interruptions, Montaigne remained there for the rest of his life, producing the Essays for which he became justifiably famous. Read the rest of this entry

Honore de Balzac

Honore de Balzac

Novelist, Playwright
(1861 – 1941)

Honore de BalzacHonore´ de Balzac, whose realist novels and plays focused on French society after the fall of Napole´on Bonaparte in 1815, was one of the most popular and influential European writers of the nineteenth century. His masterpiece La Come´die humaine (1842–1850), a multivolume work involving about one hundred interwoven novels and stories, has influenced writers as disparate as Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, and Henry James, and continues to be regarded by critics as one of the most important and effective character studies to emerge from that century.

Early Estrangement and Ill-Fated Love The years before and after Balzac’s birth saw great political upheaval in France. The French Revolution of 1789 brought a bloody end to the country’s long-standing rule by monarchy, with many nobles publicly executed by beheading. Just a few years later, however, Napole´on Bonaparte led a coup that resulted in the establishment of his own monarchy of sorts, declaring himself emperor and appointing family members as rulers of regions he conquered. When Bonaparte was removed from power in 1815, the traditional French monarchy was reinstated, though the following decades would see still more upheaval; in 1848, another revolution once again unseated the monarchy, and another Bonaparte Napole´on III seized control of France and declared himself emperor.

These uncertain times had a profound effect on the fiction Balzac would create. Balzac, born in 1799 in Tours, France, had a solitary childhood and received little attention from his parents. He lived with a wet nurse until the age of three, and at eight was sent to board at the Oratorian College at Vendome. Later, his family moved from Tours to Paris, where Balzac completed his studies. He received his law degree in 1819; however, to his parents’ disappointment, he announced that he intended to become a writer. From 1819 to 1825 Balzac experimented with several different literary forms and later wrote sensational novels and stories under various pseudonyms. He considered these works to be stylistic exercises; they were conscious efforts to learn his craft. They were also his only means of financial support, because he had been estranged from his family. At one point in his career he abandoned writing to become involved in a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Later, he returned to writing, but despite eventual renown, money problems continued to haunt him throughout his life. Read the rest of this entry

Pierre de Ronsard

Pierre de Ronsard

Writer, Poet
(1524 – 1585)

Pierre de RonsardPierre de Ronsard is considered by many scholars to be the greatest poet of the French Renaissance. He founded and led a small group of like-minded writers known first as the Brigade and later as the Ple´iade who sought to create a French literature. Ronsard’s body of literary works shaped French poetry long after his death, giving direction to the idealistic voices of the nineteenth-century romantics.

Pierre de Ronsard was born at La Poissonnie`re on September 11, 1524, the youngest of the four surviving children of Jeanne Chaudrier and Louis de Ronsard. Jeanne was the daughter of a Poitevin family with ties to several prominent bloodlines of sixteenth-century France; Louis was a country gentleman whose distinction as a knight in the Italian campaigns of Charles VIII and Louis XII earned him the position of royal diplomat and maıˆtre d’hotel. As Louis was frequently absent, Ronsard was strongly influenced by his relation with his cleric uncle, Jean de Ronsard. Thought to have played an important role in his nephew’s earliest education,

Jean de Ronsard was a writer of verses, and he possessed a substantial library to which Ronsard became heir upon his uncle’s death. In 1533 Ronsard left his home to receive formal instruction in Paris at the academically and religiously conservative Colle`ge de Navarre. In spring 1534, after only one semester of study, the boy was peremptorily withdrawn from the school and returned to the paternal manor. This departure has been ascribed both to the young Ronsard’s homesickness and to his father’s fear that his son might become associated with the position taken by the college against the reformist leanings of the king’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre.

Cruel Fortune and the Inevitability of Death

Louis took advantage of his office in the royal household to secure his son a position as page to the dauphin Francis. A mere six days after joining Francis in the Rhoˆne Valley, the dauphin died, and Ronsard, not yet twelve years old, found himself attending the prince’s autopsy—an event he recalled, some thirty-nine years later, among the verses of his Le Tombeau de tres-illustre Princesse Marguerite de France, Duchesse de Savoye (1575; Tomb for the Most Illustrious Princess, Marguerite de France, Duchess of Savoie). This shocking experience was followed by others. While in Lyon on October 7, 1536, Ronsard was witness, on orders from a vengeful Charles V, to the quartering of the dauphin’s foreign-born squire, who was wrongly convicted of poisoning his master.

On July 2, 1537, barely a month and a half after arriving in Scotland as a page in the service of Madeleine de France, Ronsard watched as the ravaging effects of tuberculosis, a highly contagious and often deadly disease, extinguished the lady’s life before she reached her seventeenth birthday. Biographers and literary critics have speculated that these encounters with human mortality at an early age account for the themes of cruel fortune and the inevitability of death throughout Ronsard’s poetry. Read the rest of this entry

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir

(1908 – 1986)

simone de beauvoirSimone de Beauvoir is one of the best-known French writers and thinkers of the twentieth century, and among the best-known female writers of all time. Her study of the oppression of women throughout history, The Second Sex (1949), is a founding text of modern feminism. De Beauvoir was prominent in the circle of left-wing Parisian intellectuals associated with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Interest in her long-term relationship with Sartre and controversies around The Second Sex have often eclipsed recognition of de Beauvoir’s fiction. Yet she was an acclaimed and popular novelist; The Mandarins (1954) received the prestigious Prix Goncourt. De Beauvoir was a perceptive witness to the twentieth century whose works span from her childhood days before World War I to the world of the 1980s.

A Young Diarist

Simone de Beauvoir was born in the fourteenth arrondissement, or district, of Paris in 1908, and lived there most of her life. Her mother was a devout Catholic; her father, a lawyer, was agnostic. Despite a comfortable childhood, she rebelled against her parents’ values at an early age, declaring that she would never become a housewife or mother. She also began to write when young, penning her first story at age eight and keeping a diary that would evolve into four published volumes of memoirs, starting with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958).

In 1925, she began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. Four years later she met Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning an intimate personal and intellectual relationship that would continue until his death in 1980. They studied together and passed the agre´gation de philosophie in 1929, placing first and second on the exam that provided their teaching credentials. At twenty-one, de Beauvoir was the youngest student ever to receive this prestigious degree. From 1931 to 1943, she taught philosophy at secondary schools in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris. Sartre and de Beauvoir were lovers and developed an unwavering partnership, but they never lived together. They rejected the institution of marriage, and neither wanted children. Furthermore, they did not exclude what they called ‘‘contingent’’ affairs, some of which became important in their lives. In 1933, the pair attempted a me´nage a` trois with one of Sartre’s students, Olga Kosakiewicz.

She Came to StayThis experiment, and the anguish it caused, became the basis for de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay (1943). The novel captures the hothouse atmosphere generated by the trio as the indolent intruder Xavie`re slowly destroys everything that surrounds her. In the 1930s, de Beauvoir’s life was essentially that of a provincial professor with intellectual leanings, a wide circle of friends, and a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. Sartre was drafted to fight in the French army during World War II, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. When he returned in 1941, he and de Beauvoir determined to become more involved in public life during the German occupation of France. Both abandoned their teaching to devote themselves to writing and often to political activism. De Beauvoir provides one of the most vivid accounts of life in France during the war in her memoir The Prime of Life (1960).

The Second Sex and The Mandarins

When de Beauvoir set out to begin her autobiography, she realized that she first needed to understand the extent to which being born female had influenced her life. She spent hours in the library seeking documentation for each section of the book that was to become the foundation of her international reputation. The Second Sex examines the historical, biological, and sociological origins of the oppression of women. The opening statement of the section on childhood, ‘‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one,’’ has become familiar throughout the world. The book advises women to pursue meaningful careers and to avoid the status of ‘‘relative beings’’ implicit, in de Beauvoir’s view, in marriage and motherhood. Read the rest of this entry

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

Writer, Novelists
(1821 – 1880) 

The most influential French novelist of the nineteenth century, Flaubert is remembered primarily for the stylistic precision and dispassionate rendering of psychological detail found in his masterpiece, Madame Bovary (1857). Although his strict objectivity is often associated with the realist and naturalist movements, he objected to this classification, and his artistry indeed defies such easy categorization. Gustave Flaubert struggled throughout his career to overcome a romantic tendency toward fantastic imaginings and love of the exotic past. A meticulous craftsman, he aimed to achieve a prose style ‘‘as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.’’

France during the nineteenth century was a place of frequent political turmoil and intrigue. The monarchy had only recently been removed from power during the French Revolution, in the final years of the eighteenth century. A republic was established in its place, though the country eventually came under the control of military leader Napole´on Bonaparte, who declared himself emperor and whose tyrannical and imperialist rule was in many ways not unlike the monarchy that had recently been deposed. After Napole´on was removed from power in 1815, an official monarchy was established once again, though the royal family’s power was no longer absolute. This resulted in a period of relative peace during the 1830s and 1840s; however, the dissatisfaction of the working class who for the most part were not able to vote, since they did not own property erupted in 1848 with another revolution.

Once again the vacuum of power left in the newly established republic led to a single leader with extensive powers, and once again his name was Napole´on: Louis Napole´on, nephew of the former emperor. He ruled from 1852 until 1870, when he was removed from power and yet another republic known as the Third Republic was established. These tumultuous times inevitably informed Flaubert’s writing, most notably in his last novel, Sentimental Education (1870). Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France, where his father was chief surgeon and clinical professor at the city hospital, the Hoˆtel Dieu, and his mother was a well-known woman from a provincial bourgeois (middle-class) family. Read the rest of this entry