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literature

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French Literature: Twentieth Century  
 
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The social and political upheavals known as May '68 accelerated social change toward a liberalization of sexual mores. The May '68 uprising led to a reinvigorated feminist movement and also to a gay liberation movement. The Front Homosexual d'Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR) was founded by, among others, the philosopher and novelist Guy Hocquenghem in 1971.

There was support from the socialist government of the 1980s for repeal of Article 331, and in 1982 this was accomplished; but consensual sex with minors between fifteen and eighteen years old was once again recriminalized--for homosexuals, not heterosexuals--in 1991, thanks to the conservative swing in recent French politics. The overhaul of the Code Napoléon in 1994 raised further legal questions.

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The Traditions of Gay and Lesbian Writing

Despite the relative legal and social freedom extended to gay men and lesbians, open homosexuality has never been fully accepted in France. Consequently, many gay and lesbian writers experienced various degrees of marginalization.

Nevertheless, they wrote and published, and there is a vital tradition of gay writing beyond the works offered by the best-known authors. The lesbian tradition, for example, includes the semiautobiographical works of Jeanne Galzy, Eveline Mayhère, and Jocelyne François, whereas gay male literature includes the varied writings of Henry de Montherlant, Roger Peyrefitte, and Julien Green.

In addition to writers who identified themselves as gay or lesbian, representations of gay and lesbian characters in the work of heterosexual authors have also added to gay visibility. Jean-Paul Sartre's gay characters--the autodidact of La nausée (1938), the lesbian Inès in Huis-clos (1944), Daniel of Les chemins de la liberté (1945-1949)--are not particularly attractive, yet Sartre unhesitatingly placed gay and lesbian figures squarely in the mainstream of literature.

Another example of a work by a heterosexual writer to feature gay or lesbian subjects is Françoise Mallet-Joris's Le rempart des béguines ([1951]; trans. as The Illusionist, 1952), an account of the fifteen-year-old protagonist Hélène's affair with her father's mistress Tamara, based, it was claimed, on a story told to Mallet-Joris (the pseudonym of Françoise Lilar, b. 1930) by a schoolfriend. The novel was made into a film directed by Guy Casaril in 1972.

There is also a strong female element in the work of Marguerite Duras (b. 1914). In L'amant ([1984]; trans. as The Lover, 1985), for example, the autobiographical first-person narrator writes "My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women," echoing Virginia Woolf's much-quoted "women alone stir my imagination." The narrator of The Lover proceeds to offer an erotic meditation on the body of her fellow schoolgirl Hélène Lagonelle.

A significant trend in gay and lesbian studies has been the recovery of work by writers who, for whatever reason, kept their sexual identity hidden.

The recent publication of the diaries and letters of Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), for example, reveals that although her relationship with Sartre remained primary throughout her life, she also had several affairs with women, including her students Natalie (Natasha) Sorokine and Bianca Bienenfeld.

(Referred to in Beauvoir's autobiographical works by the pseudonym "Louise Védrine," Bianca Lamblin, née Bienenfeld, published her own memoirs of Sartre and Beauvoir entitled Mémoires d'une jeune fille dérangée in 1983.)

It is clear, however, that Beauvoir did not identify as a bisexual writer, either publicly or privately. How to evaluate such cases remains a lively topic of debate since it involves questions of identity politics, the social construction of sexuality as a heterosexual-homosexual binary, and the problem of defining and interpreting sexual behavior.

Gay and Lesbian Exile Writers in France

In addition to works by native French writers, the French gay and lesbian literary tradition includes works by writers who wrote as exiles in France. Gay and lesbian writers sought refuge in France partly because of the relative social freedom there, especially in Paris, but also because France was a relatively inexpensive place to live in the early part of the twentieth century.

These expatriates include well-known figures such as Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes (whose Ladies' Almanack [1928] is a virtual roman à clef of the expatriate lesbian community), as well as James Baldwin, whose Giovanni's Room (1956) was written in France, where he had come to escape American racism, and most recently, the novelist Edmund White, author of an important biography of Genet.

In addition, one should mention such writers as Renée Vivien (Pauline Tarn), Natalie Clifford Barney, Janet Flanner, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and numerous others treated elsewhere in this encyclopedia.

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