Last month, France commemorated the centenary of the poet René Char (1907-1988). Despite an exhibit at Paris’s Bibliothèque nationale de France, which runs until July 29, and various dutiful school commemorations, some observers have noted that Char is receiving as much disrespect as adulation in his native land. The French poet Jacques Dupin told the newspaper L’Humanité that Char, once widely admired, “is now unfairly disparaged.” In true French style, much of the current resentment against Char stems not only from his poetic accomplishments—including the rare honor of inclusion in the prestigious Gallimard Pléiade series of literary classics while still alive—but also from his very real wartime heroics.
During the German occupation of France in World War II, Char joined the Resistance under the pseudonym le capitaine Alexandre, organizing paratrooper insertions and arms drops in the south of France. In his compelling wartime collection of poetic, aphoristic prose fragments, Feuillets d’Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos; 1946), Char explained what he called the “humanism of resistance” by declaring, “I shall write no poem of acquiescence.” (He added to this a piece of memorable advice for his fellow vanquished Frenchmen: “Bow down only in order to make love.”)
A physically massive rugby player, Char was the antithesis of the neurasthenic Parisian poet of the late 19th century. Born in the south of France (where he would spend most of his life), Char was prescient about politics, writing to his friend, the poet Paul Éluard, in January 1933 to express concern about the rise of Adolf Hitler. Éluard, a leftist, dismissed Char’s fear, believing wrongly that Reichstag Communists would squelch Hitler. After the French defeat in 1940, Char became a target of the German army because, among other things, his wife, Georgette Goldstein, was Jewish.
After the war, according to one French poetry website, Char’s “pose as a living God of poetry, his entry into the Pléiade series . . . wound up irritating people. As a resistant against every kind of military or intellectual invasion, he was a monolithic block of granite in his brusque, willful points of view.” Char was also accused of writing obscurely, to which he replied that he always read his poems aloud to a shepherd in his village, who fully understood them.
Still, Char’s writing can seem hermetic—it’s certainly very hard to translate. Char’s best collection in English remains the 1992 Selected Poems edited by Mary Ann Caws and Tina Jolas from New Directions, with translators including Samuel Beckett, James Wright, and William Carlos Williams. Overdue for translation are the French critic Laurent Greilsamer’s insightful 2004 biography L’éclair au front, la vie de René Char (Lightning from his Brow: a Life of René Char), published by Fayard, and an affectionate 2003 memoir by Char’s friend and fellow Resistance combatant Georges-Louis Roux, La nuit d’Alexandre (Alexander’s Night), from Grasset.
Much by Char remains unpublished in France, including his extensive correspondence with Éluard, which would be fascinating to read in toto. Unfortunately, it seems that behaving heroically during a war is a sure way to invite sarcasm and neglect from France’s literary world.