We were a couple of minutes late for the panel we’d hoped to attend. The doors were closed and there was a surly-looking man standing guard next to a sign that read ‘Complet’ – ‘Full’. No more room. A stubby line of six or so people had formed behind him.
‘Vous êtes là pour “Je est un autre”?’ we asked.
‘Yes,’ the guard replied.
‘Is it really full?’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘And for members of the press?’ I brandished my pass, appealing to the guard’s sense of
professionalism and media savvy.
My friend Elisabeth and I had travelled from Paris to Brittany to check out the Etonnants Voyageurs (Astonishing Travellers) literary festival in Saint Malo, created by Michel Le Bris in 1990. Every year, around sixty writers converge there to celebrate… well, what exactly we’re not sure, but it’s got something to do with travel literature, francophone literature, and Russians. In 2009, when I was researching a piece on the French literary milieu, all anyone could talk about was this festival and the movement associated with it: littérature-monde.
‘French literature is opening outward,’ I was told. ‘Just look at the success of the Etonnants Voyageurs festival.’ This was all the encouragement I needed to book a spot on the TGV to the 2010 edition, which was dedicated to Russian literature, Haitian literature, and the theme of the organisers’ new book, Je est un autre – I is Other. Of all the literary festivals in France – and there are hundreds – this one is the most political, and the most controversial. This is in part because Le Bris and Jean Rouaud were the major voices behind a 2007 manifesto, ‘Pour une littérature-monde en français’ (Towards a World Literature in French), which ran in Le Monde and was followed by an anthology of the same title.
Signed by forty-four writers including JMG Le Clézio, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Maryse Condé, Nancy Huston, and Edouard Glissant, the manifesto’s argument was twofold: first, that French literature ought not to be divided into ‘French’ (for work produced by writers born in France) and ‘francophone’ (read: those writers with origins in France’s former colonies) but rather should be considered as one continuous world literature in French. We are witnessing the ‘end of francophonie,’ they wrote, ‘and the birth of a world literature in French’. Second, they argued that French writers who since the rise of the nouveau roman and post-structuralist theory have been engaged in a ‘literature with no other object than itself’ should stop navel-gazing and put the world back in the text. Le Bris and Rouaud called for literature ‘to rub up against the world to capture its essence, its vital energies’, making the littérature-monde movement a sort of randy grandchild of Sartre’s littérature engagée.
The manifesto’s declaration of the ‘end of francophonie’ kicked up quite a fuss in Paris and beyond. No less than two special issues of academic journals were devoted to thinking through the issues it raised. Colloquiums were held in Florida, Denmark, California and New Brunswick. Other responses included a rejoinder in Le Figaro from then-Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy (‘Francophonie is not dead!’), and an angry Le Monde article from Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal and current Secretary of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. But Le Bris and Rouaud were content with their handiwork: the following year, Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize, and when asked if he regretted signing the manifesto he replied that he would do it again.
The manifesto seeks to correct an inequality in the way the French tend to think about Francophone literature, one which can be gauged with something I like to think of as the Fnac test. That is: you walk into a French bookstore – the Fnac, La Hune, your local bookseller, whatever – armed with a list of writers: Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Nancy Huston, Alain Mabanckou, Marie N’Diaye, Dany Laferrière. Pre-2007, you would find Beckett, Camus, and Huston in the ‘littérature française’ section, and Mabanckou, N’Diaye, and Laferrière in the ‘littérature francophone’ section. They all write in French. Camus was born in North Africa, but is considered French, not francophone. Beckett was born in Ireland, Huston in Canada; English is their native language. Both appear in ‘French literature’ because at a certain moment in their lives they began to write in French. If a writer is white, then, he can produce ‘French literature’. If not – he’s ‘francophone’.
As far as I know, the Fnac has no official policy about where particular writers should be shelved. But the Fnac test does illustrate an inequality between French and francophone writing that has endured for quite some time, and which the manifesto seeks to address. That such a division should exist seems absurd: you don’t hear about English versus Anglophone writing. Very often writers from outside the Anglo-American metropolis will be referred to as ‘post-colonial’ but that term – unstable though it may be – is not used as a hierarchical distinction. No one would argue that Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie should be placed on different shelves, or that one should be considered English and the other Anglophone.
The littérature-monde movement works against classifications in general, emphasising the common responsibilities of a shared language. Mabanckou and his colleagues say they have made French their own; it is no longer the language of the coloniser. Littérature-monde, according to the manifesto, is a way for ‘the French language to become untied from this exclusive pact with the [French] nation’ and to become an international poetic language.
This idea has its roots in Goethe’s Weltliteratur. In an undated essay, Goethe casts world literature as something to work towards, rather than an already existent entity: ‘The phenomenon which I call Weltliteratur will come about mainly when the disputes within one nation are settled by the opinions and judgments of others.’ Goethe had in mind a cosmopolitan community of readers and writers; he envisioned ‘a common Weltliteratur transcending national boundaries’. Appealing to Goethe would indicate a strong – if unarticulated – desire to heal the politically fragmented Francophone world through the salve of the French language. This is essentially the position of Léopold Senghor, who similarly believed in the power of francophonie to ‘promote a universal humanist model of cooperation between nation-states that was to be realised through the shared medium of the French language.’
Le Bris and Rouaud chose the oft-cited Rimbaldian phrase ‘Je est un autre’ for the title of their follow-up to the 2007 volume, an anthology published by Gallimard in May 2010 which argues for the empathetic, world-enlarging power of literature. Any novel worth its salt, they claim, enables a passage à l’Autre, or access to the Other; writers must learn to live at a ‘crossroads of identity’ and negotiate the pressure put on them to articulate an ‘identité-monde’: a ‘personal narrative orchestrating this identity’. Je est un autre emphasises the give and take between the writer and the world, acknowledging the contrasting influences which combine to create a writer’s identity.
Le Bris articulates what he sees as the genius of Rimbaud’s statement in terms of travel and exploration. ‘[The phrase] ‘je est un autre’ opens the very space of literature – the space, and the mystery, which writers obstinately explore.’ Writers set out into ‘unknown territory’, like ‘explorers in a dark forest’; sentences come and go, and guide him, or ‘throw [him] off the track’; but when he thinks he is on to something he experiences the ‘frisson’ of a ‘traveller … with the world crossing through him like a light wind.’
When the festival was founded in 1990, it was to celebrate travel writing. Le Bris told Lire magazine in 1999: ‘As a writer, I was suffocating in the French literary milieu, and I needed space to breathe.’ He founded Etonnants Voyageurs in the spirit of letting ‘the four winds of the world’ into French literature. Around that time, Le Bris also founded a magazine of travel writing called Gulliver, largely inspired by Bill Buford’s Granta – which he credits with reinvigorating contemporary English literature. Gulliver gave birth, in 1992, to a manifesto of its own, called Pour une littérature voyageuse (Towards a Travelling Literature) the terms of which are remarkably similar, and in some cases identical, to those of the 2007 manifesto. Taking aim even then at the nouveau roman and post-structuralist theory, Le Bris wrote, ‘the idea is less to be on the avant-garde and more to be resolutely elsewhere: outside.’
Writing about other places and other peoples has proved problematic for ethnographers, anthropologists, journalists, and travel writers (not to mention fiction writers) alike; it is a problem which different disciplines have solved for themselves in different and evolving ways. Perhaps due to a growing awareness of this problem, over the years the festival has become less about travel writing qua travel writing and more about the conjunction of cultures: Etonnants Voyageurs favours foreign writers who write about where they’re from, or writers with a sense of hybrid identity, or writers who evoke a strong sense of place in their work. (At most of the panels I attended, it was rare to find a writer who spoke only one language, and frequently they wrote in more than one language.) World literature is now the festival’s watchword.
But even if the festival is trying to get beyond the exoticising, Othering tendency of traditional travel writing by inviting writers from those far-off places to speak for themselves, they don’t completely avoid typecasting them as cultural emissaries. This may not be the fault of the organisers, but may have to do with the way the French experience and consume culture. The founders’ ambition is encyclopaedic. Their zeal for the hybrid and the international is laudable in theory, though in execution it sometimes verges on the absurd. (Russia! Haiti! Je est un autre!) But a festival is not only about the political statements its founders and participants may want to make. It is also about what the audience has come to hear.