Skip to content

French Nobels

Dynamite, literature, and the rise of the engaged intellectual.

· 9 min read
French Nobels
Annie Ernaux in 2011. Wikicommons

In 1896, two events occurred that soon claimed the world’s attention. The first was the death of the Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel, whose invention of dynamite funded his invention of the prizes that bear his name. The second was the discovery by a French intelligence officer, Georges Picquart, that a fellow officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, had been wrongly accused of treason four years earlier—a development that led, inter alia, to the invention of the French intellectual.

Both events, which were to have explosive consequences, at first bore no relation to one another. Yet the recent announcement of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the French writer Annie Ernaux, reveals that their paths have merged in remarkable ways.

Let’s first take up the chemical explosion. Nobel’s relentless and restless intelligence had, over the course of his career, earned him hundreds of successful patents. Yet his reputation was forever tied, not just to his invention of dynamite, but also to his habit of selling his explosive wares to almost anyone who would buy them. Thus dubbed the “merchant of death,” Nobel used his will to repair, perhaps even reinvent, his posthumous reputation.

Oddly, he drew up and signed the document during a two-month stay in Paris in 1895. This was odd, but not because Nobel was in Paris. Something of a wanderer, he had bought a handsome pile near the Arc de Triomphe in 1873, where he continued his scientific experiments. It was odd because the fruit of one experiment, yet another explosive compound he called Ballistite, led to his abrupt departure from France in 1891. When Nobel sold a large quantity of the explosive to the Italian military, an irate French government forbade him from undertaking further experiments on French soil.

Angered that he had to leave the city where he felt most at home, Nobel naturally settled in Italy. Yet when he returned to Paris in 1895 to write his will, he committed another oddity. In the single (though long) paragraph in which Nobel distilled his vision of the world’s most famous prize, the criterion for a prize in literature runs a single line. This prize, Nobel declared, should go “to the person who shall have produced in the field of Literature the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency.”

What did he mean by “work”? Surely, an amateur poet and avid reader like Nobel knew that the word could mean a single work or a corpus of works. Moreover, did the “work” have to appear the year immediately before the prize was given? Or could it have been produced in any preceding year, so long as the author was still alive? More important, what did Nobel mean by “idealistic tendency.” Must the work smack of Platonism or Kantianism? Or more simply, must it denote a work with an uplifting and moral character? Or, indeed, did it mean (as others claimed about the Delphic pronouncement) that the work should adopt a skeptical attitude towards religion and society?

The recipe that makes for a great work, it turned out, was more elusive than one that makes for a great explosion.

This truth was confirmed five years later, in 1901, when the Nobel committee awarded its first prize in literature to the poet Sully Prudhomme. Inevitably, the committee members hailed the Frenchman’s “lofty idealism,” by which they seemed to mean a serene detachment from human affairs. By the turn of the century, though, few French were reading Sully Prudhomme’s elevated verse. (And more than a century later, fewer French still even recognize Sully Prudhomme’s name, much less read his poetry.)

Instead, many were reading newspapers and journals, blaring the latest news about the other event that had also occurred in 1896. On a March morning of that year, Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart, the newly arrived director to the army’s counterintelligence office, was sorting through a fresh pile of trash on his desk. This was not any old trash, mind you, it was haute garbage: the intelligence office’s daily harvest from the wastepaper baskets at the German Embassy.

That morning, Picquart stumbled across a confounding document that contained French military secrets. This sort of treasonous activity had supposedly been ended four years earlier when Dreyfus, who happened to be the only Jewish officer in the High Command, was sentenced for the crime of selling military secrets to the Germans. Yet Picquart found that the handwriting on this document was identical to the script on the document—the infamous bordereau—that had led to Dreyfus’s condemnation to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.

It did not take much in the way of Cartesian logic to realize, as did Picquart, that the wrong man was rotting away on that malarial rock off the coast of French Guiana. But it did take much in the way of courage and integrity to act upon this realization. Picquart’s refusal to hide the truth resulted in his immediate transfer to a desert post in North Africa. But it also transformed a judicial matter into the existential crisis we now know as the Dreyfus Affair. The scandal slashed a fault line through France. On one side were the Dreyfusards who embraced reason and insisted that the French Republic was founded on the principles of equality and liberty. On the other side were the anti-Dreyfusards who privileged the irrational and claimed that France’s identity was rooted in la terre et les morts—the soil which countless generations had cultivated, in which countless ancestors were buried, and on which Jews would always be an invasive species.

These two competing versions of reality squared off against one another, and the ensuing clash created one of France’s most exotic and extraordinary exports—the intellectual. Though also found on the political Right, les intellos were mostly those writers and academics on the Left who insisted that justice was universal and indivisible, and that guilt or innocence was determined by reason and truth. As the prominent intellectual Lucien Herr declared, what matters “is not the appearance of my conduct, but the conduct itself, and the abstract motives that direct my conduct … it is, finally, the coherence, dignity and ethical value of my conduct.”

Few writers more fully embodied this ethic than Émile Zola. By 1896, Zola was the best-known and best-paid writer in France. He had also just completed the massive work on which his fame (and infamy) rested: the Rougon-Macquart novels. In sweeping yet surgical detail, the 20 volumes portrayed France as a land blighted by military incompetence, government indolence, and union impotence—a nation in which millions of men and women were condemned to lives of pauperization and desperation.

Now that he had completed his life’s work, what was Zola to do with his time? Should he not, as Herr insisted, allow abstract motives to direct his life toward the true and good? Not quite, as it turns out. When Zola first learned about the miscarriage of justice, he was agog at its narrative potential. “It’s thrilling! It’s horrible! It’s a frightful drama! But it’s also drama on the grand scale,” he exclaimed. Not only did it take a Zola to write such a drama, but such a drama would, in turn, write “the most beautiful age of my life.”

The all-too-human element in Zola’s motivations does nothing to diminish his extraordinary courage. In 1898, he published “J’Accuse,” a merciless litany of accusations against those military and political leaders who had conspired to punish an innocent man. The subsequent hounding by the military and the baying by the mob forced Zola to seek safety in England. He returned to France after the government pardoned Dreyfus in 1899, but perhaps he should have stayed a while longer in London. In 1902, Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning while asleep in his Paris home. While police declared it accidental, skeptics then and now believe that Zola’s chimney had been deliberately blocked by his enemies on the nationalist Right. As a result, Zola never had the chance to be repeatedly rejected by the Nobel prize committee for his lack of idealism. Still, his life and death gave the world the chance to encounter the ideal of the engaged intellectual.

Ironically, the Nobel prize in literature has since tended to reward engaged rather than disengaged writers—those who take to the streets rather than scale the heights. This is especially true of France’s Nobel laureates, whose true lineage begins not with Sully Prudhomme’s brand of idealism, but instead the brand established by the novelist Anatole France. Winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize, France joined the fray on behalf of Dreyfus and subsequently gave the stirring funeral oration for Zola, immortalizing his role as a “moment in the history of human conscience.”

Come 1940, however, the evolution of the engaged writer was turbo-charged by France’s defeat and occupation by Nazi Germany. When the future Nobel laureate Jean-Paul Sartre declared in 1944 that the French were never freer than under the Occupation, he believed it was the task of the intellectual to both assume and act on this realization. (Such claims helped obscure Sartre’s own lack of true engagement during the war. As he once confessed, he was as a writer who resisted, not a resister who wrote.)

It happened that some of his fellow intellectuals—and fellow Nobel laureates—were more deeply engaged in the Resistance. The author that Sartre had famously slammed as a literary fossil, the Catholic and conservative François Mauriac, joined the Resistance’s National Council of Writers in 1941 and published his collection of brutal reflections on the Occupation, Le Cahier Noir, in the underground press. Already in 1940, Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement knew their man when it appealed to Mauriac, not Sartre, to use his pen to resist the Nazis.

Yet another intellectual and future Nobel winner hardened in the crucible of the Occupation—and yet another critic of poor Mauriac—was Albert Camus. By 1943, the young French-Algerian writer, who had made a name for himself with the wartime publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, realized that the “absurd”—which he had diagnosed in those works—“teaches nothing.” Or rather, the only thing that it does teach is the duty to rebel.

Camus risked his life to become editor of Combat, the most influential underground paper at the time, and emerged after the liberation as the public face—a face favorably compared to that of Humphrey Bogart—of existentialism. Unlike Sartre, who became, along with most other intellectuals, an apologist for communism, Camus became its arch adversary. In The Rebel, which ended his friendship with Sartre, he praised revolt as an ethic that, unlike communism, “aspires to the relative and can only promise an assured dignity coupled with relative justice.”

It was on behalf of this ethic that Camus again risked his life when, in 1956, he flew to Algiers to speak on the need for a “civilian truce” to end the spiral of blood-dimmed violence in his native country. As Camus urged his audience to “renounce what makes this situation unforgivable, namely, the slaughter of the innocent,” a crowd of French colonists massed outside the building. Furious at his “betrayal” of French Algeria, they demanded his death. Only when Camus finished did he allow his friends to hustle him to safety as rocks were shattering the hall’s windows.

When Camus was awarded the Nobel prize in 1957, the committee rightly praised his “authentic moral engagement.” No less rightly, Camus affirmed this duty in his acceptance speech, declaring that the writer “cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.” The nobility of our craft, he continued, will always be rooted in “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.”

While Sartre also embraced that duty, he defined it differently from Camus—a definition which, paradoxically, underscores the reason he did not give an acceptance speech when he won the same prize seven years later. When the Swedish Academy announced Sartre as the recipient of the 1964 award (and one-million-dollar gift), he turned one and the other down, politely insisting on refusing to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. With one eye on Camus’s earlier claim, Sartre explained that the writer “must refuse to let himself be transformed by institutions, even if they are of the most honorable kind.”

One French newspaper headline at the time captured Sartre’s neat, but perhaps near-sighted gesture: “Win-win for Sartre: He gets the Nobel. He refuses the Nobel.”

Deciding to be right with Camus rather than wrong with Sartre, the 82-year-old Annie Ernaux has both gotten and accepted the Nobel. Upon learning the news from Stockholm, she affirmed her “responsibility to pursue” the causes she had long defended in words and deed, promising to “continue the combat against injustices.” These range from physical violence against women and industrial violence against the climate to the economic violence against the most precarious in society. Unsurprisingly, a couple of days after the announcement, the newly minted Nobel laureate joined a large demonstration in Paris to protest on behalf of financially squeezed working families.

In the cascade of articles applauding Ernaux’s achievement and weighing her work, her existentialist lineage to earlier French laureates was mostly missed. Yet her writing bears a close family resemblance to Camus’s. Not only do both writers mine their pasts—seared by scarcity and struggle—in their works, but they both recreate these experiences in what the literary theorist Roland Barthes called “l’écriture blanche.” By this, he meant a terse and tense style, the simplicity and clarity of which reflect the narrator’s integrity and attachment to truth. In fact, not only does Ernaux’s description of her writing as “knife-like” describe Camus’s style, especially in The Stranger, but in Une Femme, her autobiographical account of her mother, Ernaux begins as did Camus in his first novel: with the death of “Maman.”

In a recent interview with the art magazine Frieze, Ernaux was asked what images she keeps in her study. Postcards of paintings and photos of family, she replied. But, she added, there is also “a portrait of Albert Camus.” This, too, seems right. After all, as one of the characters in her novel La Femme Gelée remarks, “It’s like Camus said: ‘Love is accepting to grow old with another.’”

Robert Zaretsky

Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the Honors College, University of Houston, and teaches at the city’s Women’s Institute. An author of literary biographies, he is now writing a book about Stendhal.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette