Gauche and Sinister; Review of Olivier Bernier, Firework at Dusk: Paris in the Thirties...

This consciousness of cultural mission affected French writers, giving them a comforting idea of their own importance. For their message was not restricted to purely aesthetic impressions.

Issue: Fall 1993

Review of Olivier Bernier, Firework at Dusk: Paris in the Thirties (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1993); and Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-56 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

France and Frenchmen, it may be said with some confidence, are incomprehensible for anyone insufficiently aware of their intellectual traditions. Those traditions, embodied in the works of great writers, are one of the glories of European civilization. From Montaigne onwards runs the line of brilliant moralists, whose concentration on the behavior of individuals in society enlarged the knowledge of human nature, laid the foundation for the achievements of a Balzac or a Stendhal, but also provided rather inadequate generalizations concerning the character of those who dined only intermittently at the top table of French culture. The importance for France of the development, during three centuries, of a classically clear and analytically subtle use of language to communicate ideas both within and outside the country cannot be overestimated. For more than two centuries French writers, painters, and architects made European culture, and the consciousness of this rayonnement de la culture franaise has remained to this day and explains the exaggerated and sometimes ludicrous importance attached to the spread of francophonie.

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