In Amiens last week I attended a meeting of L’ Association des Amis du Roman Populaire. This is a group of academics and others interested mostly in French popular fiction of the last century, and the two-day conference was about the popular literature of the Great War.
We met in the Logis du Roy in the centre of Amiens, very close to the Cathedral. I gather that Amiens is the chosen centre for the Association’s activities because it was the home of Jules Verne, possibly the greatest of French popular novelists. There is a Verne museum in the town, which I’d hoped to visit, but the conference kept me too busy.
Mostly the conference papers covered French popular literature (novels, stories, feulletons, children’s magazines and so on), though there were also contributions about German and Austrian literature. Another Brit, Michael Paris, had also been invited, but he had to drop out at the last moment – a pity, since I enjoyed his book, and would have liked to meet him. So I was the only contributor from this side of the channel, speaking about ‘Sapper’ and his transition from relatively realistic war stories to the wild melodrama of Bulldog Drummond.
I won’t try to summarise the gist of all the papers, if only because my grasp of spoken French is not what it was. I became very grateful to speakers who, in the classic style of the French academy, provided a PowerPoint display with headings and sub-headings that made the paper’s structure quite explicit. Several speakers left me rather puzzled, to be honest, and of one fast-talker I hardly understood a sentence. Afterwards, others told me that her paper was good. I’m looking forward to the promised publication of the conference papers, when I hope to discover what it was all about.
I gained a few insights into the ways in which French popular literature was different from British. The usual stereotype of the German, as one might expect, was even more negative in a country that had been invaded. I had wondered a while back whether the French had any equivalent of the British portrayals of the Kaiser as a figure of pathos, and was told that no, Gaston Leroux’s diabolical description of him was much more typical.
The fact I learned that intrigues me most is that for the last three years of the war, both the German and the Austrian authorities banned the sale of adventure thrillers about the war to young people. Their equivalent, I suppose, of British papers like The Dreadnought:
The ban was inspired by criticisms that the tales gave an unrealistic picture of war, and that their dashing young heroes were individualists who often displayed a disregard for authority and social hierarchy.
In Britain there may have been sniffy comments about the low quality of some magazine stories, but there was no such ban. Instead, when Northcliffe took over the Ministry of Information, officially-sponsored literature became more populist. In the early days of the War, Wellington House material had been very high-minded – the Oxford History professors’ presentation of the British case is a typical example, later products aimed much lower. In the parliamentary debate of 5th August, 1918 voices were raised against the low quality of the material that was actually being sponsored by the Ministry of Information, and especially the nasty little short film The Leopard’s Spots, sometimes known as Once a Hun, Always a Hun.
Cultural comparisons like this help show ways in which the British literary treatment of the war could have been different, so the conference gave me plenty to think about. It was also very well organised, and the midday buffet lunches put most British conferences to shame.
By the way, while in Amiens, I was pleased to see a street named after a Great War writer.
Do we have any Sassoon Avenues or Manning Parades in Britain?