Places and Spaces in French War Fiction of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

by Peter Tame (Author)
©2015 Monographs XIV, 584 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 119


This monograph is the first book to examine places and spaces in French war fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These places and spaces are presented as literary isotopias, or fictional «worlds», and analysed in a selective corpus of thirty-three novelists and forty-two examples of war fiction. The book identifies and classifies the various types of isotopia that appear in fiction in the form of scenes, images or literary microcosms. The author establishes four isotopic modes – possession, dispossession or loss, alienation, and repossession – by which means the isotopias are expressed. The spaces considered include territorial demands, gains, possessions, losses and national spaces, as well as internal mental spaces.
The corpus of novels selected for this project covers a wide variety of examples of fictional worlds: the spiritual, the marginal, the regional, the ideological, the psychological, the erotic, the ecological and the political. The methods of analysis identify these worlds, demonstrate both how they function in relation to the characters in the novels and how they affect the reader, and provide further illumination on the intentions, achievements and ideologies of the characters and of the novelists concerned. One of the findings of the study is that the greater the stress of war and conflict the more authors and characters tend to seek refuge in their imaginary (isotopic) worlds.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of illustrations/figures
  • List of abbreviated novel titles
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: The Great War
  • Chapter 1: Roland Dorgelès, Les Croix de bois (1919): Memotopia of martyrdom
  • Chapter 2: Raymond Radiguet, Le Diable au corps (1923): Egotopia and erotopia
  • Chapter 3: André Chamson, Roux le bandit (1925): Rurotopia and sacrotopia in the Cévennes
  • Chapter 4: Jules Romains, Prélude à Verdun (1937) and Verdun (1938): Les Hommes de bonne volonté (1932–1947)
  • Conclusion to Part 1
  • Part 2: The War between the Wars
  • Chapter 1: Jean Giraudoux, Siegfried et le Limousin (1922): Amnesotopia – The effect of war on individual memory in peacetime
  • Chapter 2: André Chamson, L’Année des vaincus (1934): A Franco-German utopia/dystopia?
  • Chapter 3: André Malraux, L’Espoir (1937): The Spanish Civil War, as a preliminary to the Second World War
  • Chapter 4: Robert Brasillach, Les Sept Couleurs (1939): A rainbow too far – European Fascism and a divided France
  • Conclusion to Part 2
  • Part 3: Invasion
  • Chapter 1: On the margins: Julien Gracq, Un Balcon en forêt (1958) – Oneirotopia in conflict and wartime
  • Chapter 2: France violated: Irène Némirovsky, Suite française ([1941/1942] 2004)
  • Chapter 3: The labyrinth of defeat: Claude Simon, La Route des Flandres (1960)
  • Chapter 4: The rape of eastern Europe: Jonathan Littell, Les Bienveillantes (2006) – the Nazi occupation in Soviet Russia, France, Hungary, Poland
  • Conclusion to Part 3
  • Part 4: Occupation
  • Chapter 1: Sweet Occupation? Suite française Part II, ‘Dolce’ – Irène Némirovsky’s novel on the German occupation of France
  • Chapter 2: East and West: Political isotopias in André Malraux’s Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (1943)
  • Chapter 3: The dark, dystopian night-time of the soul: André Chamson’s Le Puits des miracles (1945)
  • Chapter 4: The conquest of a contested colonial space revisited: Robert Brasillach’s La Conquérante (1943)
  • Conclusion to Part 4
  • Part 5: Liberated spaces after 1945 … and beyond
  • Chapter 1: Jean Dutourd, Au bon beurre (1952): A ‘cornutopia’ – Profiteering in Occupied France
  • Chapter 2: France 1945: A space under reconstruction in Marcel Aymé’s Uranus (1948)
  • Chapter 3: Ecotopia in Romain Gary’s Les Racines du ciel (1956)
  • Chapter 4: Isotopias in invented autobiography: Four novels on the Occupation by Patrick Modiano
  • Conclusion to Part 5
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Glossary
  • Index of names
  • Index of terms
  • Series index


Figure 1:  The art-reality-art cycle: A two-dimensional view
Figure 2:  The overlapping of isotopias
Figure 3:  Isotopian circles
Figure 4:  The art-reality-art cycle and the temporal dimension: A three-dimensional view
Figure 5:  Isotopic or modal cycle of possession
Figure 6:  The Cévennes in France
Figure 7:  Les Cévennes (north): Detailed view
Figure 8:  Socio-political circles in Marcel Aymé’s Uranus
Figure 9:  Palimpsest – Metalepsis ← ix | x →

← x | xi →

List of abbreviated novel titles


I should like to thank Manuel Bragança, Michel Déon, Dominique Jeannerod, and Richard Lewis, for their continuing help and sensible advice on this book over the years it took to prepare it. Thanks are also due to my son, Mark, who gave technical help with the diagrams, and to my wife, Barbara, who stoically bore the brunt of isotopic speculation over the long period necessary for the preparation of this book. I should also like to express my thanks to the editorial team at Peter Lang, in particular to Hannah Godfrey and Alessandra Anzani for their help with the manuscript. I should finally like to thank Queen’s University Belfast for financial help with the preparation of this book. ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | 1 →


War has always been the mother of invention.1

‘Poussin went to Rome to paint Roman ruins. He would have painted Roman ruins anyhow. The ruins he painted were not the Roman ruins he saw. He simply needed to see them in order to paint what he wanted to paint.’2

Space, place and time

To human beings, space and place are needs. They are also desire, or they invite desire – in the sense that it is natural for us to want to move through space, to change places, and to discover new places as well as rediscovering old places that we have known. Such desires may lead to conflict, even to war, since man is essentially a competitive being and his desires frequently bring him into opposition with his neighbour. Possession, protection, loss and repossession of space are prime motive forces in wars. The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, wrote sagely:

tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.3 ← 1 | 2 →

[All the misfortunes that assail a human being come from one thing: that s/he cannot remain idle in a room.]

Paradoxically, his view of the human condition allowed for the fact that movement and action are not just choices for people: they are vital to life, survival and to their wellbeing.

Movement, space and time are closely bound together. Movement through space implies the passage of time, while movement through time involves the metamorphosis of space. This book is primarily concerned with places and spaces, together with the way in which they metamorphose, as they are represented in French war fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Secondarily, however, it will also deal with the associated dimension of time wherever it is deemed appropriate to do so.

Isotopias and the creative process

This book introduces a new field of study in literature, namely literary isotopography, which deals with imaginary places and spaces. In this particular volume, we are concerned with specific works of French fiction on war, written in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. We have given to these places and spaces the term ‘isotopias’ in order to facilitate reference to them as fictional places and spaces that exist as parallels to those in reality, and to present a consistent classification of different types of literary isotopia in the selected corpus. The term isotopia is more appropriate than that of fictional ‘world’ since the latter implies an autonomous, coherent system of existence.4 The types of isotopia that are dealt with here do not ← 2 | 3 → necessarily present coherent, self-contained domains; they function rather as virtual zones through which and by which the plot and characters of the novels chosen in the corpus are developed and instrumentalized.

It is true that one can speak of personal and private worlds that exist in fiction, as M.-L. Ryan argues, even if the reader recognizes them as being ‘incomplete’. However, we choose to examine such individual worlds in terms of what we call ‘psychotopias’ or ‘microtopias’ since this designation of personal spaces or, as Ryan calls them, ‘petits systèmes planétaires’ [little planetary systems] in fiction avoids the term ‘world’ and, thereby, the implication that these are necessarily coherent, autonomous ‘worlds’.5 Indeed, we shall treat the characters of fiction as psychotopic or microtopic spaces. On the other hand, the larger virtual spaces in which individual characters function can be considered as autonomous systems and are often macrotopic. The entire fictional world of any particular novel can therefore usually be described as a ‘macrotopia’.

It may seem strange to consider characters in fiction as spaces. Yet they represent cerebral spaces that think, imagine, conceive and interact in the text which is itself space. It is in this sense that we argue that space is a crucial and vital dimension in fiction, at least as important as the dimension of time that has received a great deal more critical treatment. Of course, characters in fiction represent more than just spaces; their aspirations, emotions and beliefs project the reader beyond mere spatial considerations. But, as we shall show, space can be regarded as the basic unit of a fictional character, a starting point for the development of literary analysis.

The real interest in fictional places and spaces lies, of course, in the way that characters in novels relate to them. The ‘emotional bond’ between place and character is of primary concern in this study. Indeed, in recent years, the topic of ‘spatial emotional engagement’, as for example conceived ← 3 | 4 → by Jacqueline Watts, has become an increasingly important area of debate, to which this study aims to make its modest contribution.6

Art and reality

Art is essentially representation. Scholars from Aristotle to Auerbach have agreed that art depends on mimesis.7 It represents reality, if we accept the philosophical viewpoint of the epistemological realists who maintain that an objective reality exists outside our perception.8 If, on the other hand, we agree with the idealist philosophers such as Schopenhauer who argues that there can be no absolute reality, we may still state that art represents the artist’s perception of reality.9 Applying the realists’ perspective, there are essentially three stages in the creative process of an artist: firstly, the reality itself; secondly, the artist’s perception of it; and thirdly, his or her representation of it. The second stage concerns an individual, subjective and personal perception of reality: this can be, and has been, called imagination. At the third stage of artistic creation, it is clear that the artist’s ability to select from, and develop, that imaginary world plays a crucial role. This ← 4 | 5 → process is primarily one of moving from ‘per-ception’ to ‘con-ception’.10 We therefore prefer to give that conceived, imaginary world the term ‘isotopia’, thereby identifying a fictional universe, with particular reference to the way in which it interacts with, and relates to, the characters of a novel, since this helps to identify more clearly the metaphorical nature of a voluntarily selected and artistically modified world of the imagination. The study of the interaction and relationship of place/space with the characters in a novel can provide fresh insights into authorial intentions, the personal ideology of the author, and the inner nature of the characters themselves. Their desires and points of view are more clearly revealed against the fictional backcloths of what Henri Alain-Fournier described as ‘paysages d’âme’ (spiritual landscapes or spatial décors created by individual writers), thereby facilitating the establishment of a more detailed axiology of these two aspects of fiction.11 More generally, this study of isotopias in a selective corpus of novels will enhance our understanding of the imaginative processes involved in literary creation.

Isotopias may be said to operate in all processes that involve human perception, but the conscious creation of a fictional, ‘isotopic’ world, together with the way in which it is received by the reader, is what concerns us particularly here. The overarching, all-encompassing world of a particular novel will be generally referred to in this study as a ‘macrotopia’, while the smaller and more personal worlds of the fictional characters will be considered as ‘microtopias’, or, on occasion, ‘psychotopias’, for example, when we wish to stress the inner, private, psychological world of an individual character. We refer to the fictional world of the novel as a macrotopia rather than as a ‘heterocosm’ (as used by Linda Hutcheon) since the former term is more ← 5 | 6 → appropriate and consistent with the rest of our terminology.12 As a corollary to the process of creation, there are also three stages in the process of reception of any given fictional work: firstly, the act of reading; secondly, the interpretation of what is being read; and thirdly, a conceptualizing process that takes place well outside the fiction itself, namely the superimposition of these perceptions and interpretations, gained from reading, on to real life. And because reality provides the initial ‘raw material’ for art, these stages constitute the ‘reality-art-reality’ cycle, the details of which we shall develop later (see Figure 1 below).


Figure 1: The art-reality-art cycle: A two-dimensional view

Art nevertheless possesses its own ‘reality’ and its own coherence, as André Malraux has demonstrated in La Métamorphose des dieux (1957–77). It is a reality in the sense that a work of art has a real ‘presence’ that speaks to us across the barriers of time and place. In the art-work, the artist is ‘realizing his vision’, as André Malraux writes of Cézanne in L’Intemporel.13 In terms of the art of literature, the novel presents the reader with a world ← 6 | 7 → of imagination, the world of the fiction. There may be two or more such worlds in any given novel. If so, they may flourish within one another like concentric circles, a smaller within a larger, they may clash, overlap, or they may cohabit, side by side (see Figure 2 below).


Figure 2: The overlapping of isotopias

The idea for the present book originates principally from Dominique Maingueneau’s concept of ‘paratopia’, a no-man’s land between the artist, society, and his/her creation.14 If this marginal ‘grey zone’ exists for the artist in which s/he works, functions and operates, then a similar zone, or zones, can be said to exist within the art work itself. Critics often write of ‘the world of fiction’ or ‘the universe of fiction’, without characterizing or analysing this concept in detail.15

The main purpose of this book is, therefore, firstly to define, classify and describe a wide range of literary isotopias or fictional ‘worlds’, along with the controlling isotopic modes, as examples of aspects of creative imagination in the selection of French war fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. More precisely, it will attempt to describe and analyse the ‘mechanics’, or functioning, of the creative imagination, charting the mental processes involved in the novelists’ complex aesthetic metamorphoses from reality to ← 7 | 8 → fiction. As Lennard J. Davis has commented, to say that art represents reality may seem to be obvious: but, insofar as we agree with this proposition, we should state from the outset that it is the ‘how’ of this process that really interests us.16 Furthermore, in terms of reader response, we shall present, theorize, and analyse a range of various possible reactions on the part of the reader to the phenomena of place and space in our examples of fiction.

It could be argued that the representation of war in fiction necessarily involves the depiction of harsh, sometimes brutal, reality. We have chosen war fiction as our corpus because it presents human beings in an extreme state of crisis whose representation makes challenging demands on the full creative and imaginative powers of the novelist. In war and in its representation, experience is heightened, a sense of place and space sharpened, and the traumatic, destabilizing effect of conflict on life and art can paradoxically reveal profound truths about human beings, their environment and the (often extreme) situations in which they find themselves. This book will investigate how war is not only catastrophic and catalytic but also how it relates to places and spaces, real and imaginary.

Literary isotopias

Firstly, as has already been mentioned, there is the overarching, enveloping fictional world of the novel, the contextual isotopia, that we shall call macrotopia, examples of which are the Paris of the nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac, the London of Charles Dickens or the Shanghai of André Malraux’s La Condition humaine (1933). Further examples from among those that are examined in the book are the France of the Great War in the novels of Henri Barbusse, Roland Dorgelès and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the Mediterranean of Robert Brasillach’s novels, or the Cévennes and the Montauban of André Chamson’s fiction. ← 8 | 9 →

Within the fiction itself are the intratextual isotopias, the domains and spaces that are created, or re-created, by the novelist. In Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu (1916), the trenches form a nightmarish world of mud and water that daily threatens the existence of the combatants. In Robert Brasillach’s Les Sept Couleurs (1939), for example, Paris functions as the somewhat utopian backcloth for the triangular relationship of the three main characters, Catherine, Patrice and François. André Chamson’s Le Puits des miracles (1945) creates a shadowy, murky underworld in the town of Montauban, never mentioned by name in the novel, in the south of France where the forces of collaboration and resistance struggle for survival during the Occupation.

This book will analyse the mechanics of transposition of places from reality to fiction and the way in which those places interact with the characters. Of course, reality itself is multiple, a construct that depends on the subjective gaze and personal points of view, constantly modifying itself over time. The novelist selects his/her particular reality as inspiration for the work of art that will necessarily present a transposed image, for example of a place, that will be temporarily ‘fixed’ by the author in black and white, and subsequently offered up to the multiple perceptions of its readers. However, places also undergo transformations in the course of fictional narratives. The shifts in fictional characters’ points of view and the passage of time both help to transform or metamorphose places in a novel. We refer to these two fictional dimensions as ‘isotopic modifiers’. These observations taken into consideration, it should be added here that both reality and art (in all its forms and genres) are clearly labile, shifting and constantly open to new and different interpretations.

Some of the places created or recreated by novelists are ‘intra-fictional’ – that is, they are created directly from the novelist’s imagination, having little or no basis in reality. Others are demonstrably transposed from reality and modified for the purposes of the fiction. All will tend to present relatively circumscribed locations that nevertheless contribute to a demonstration of ‘fictional truths’, to use Michael Riffaterre’s term, that are universally valid.

It should be stressed that we are dealing here with ‘literary isotopias’. All art is isotopic in the sense that it presents a world, or worlds, parallel to the one in which we live. These parallel regions bear a strong resemblance ← 9 | 10 → to the real world, but, at the same time, differ from it in significant ways. We often give to these different types of imaginary realm the general term ‘worlds’ in the sense that they are autonomous and coherent ‘wholes’, as André Malraux has argued.17 However, as stated above, we shall identify these different worlds in the corpus of novels chosen, classifying them, for example, as ‘oneirotopias’ (realms of dreams), ‘thanatopias’ (realms inspired and/or dominated by death), ‘erotopias’ (realms of eroticism), along with a number of other such ‘worlds’ since these terms allow greater precision to fictional spaces that are not always autonomous. More familiar terminology that is commonly associated with categories of imaginary places and spaces, such as utopias and dystopias, will also be used, particularly from the third part of the study on political or politicized isotopias. The reader may find definitions and explanations of all these terms in the Glossary that distinguishes, for example, between collective ‘worlds’ such as utopias and dystopias on the one hand and individual, personal and microtopic ‘worlds’ (psychotopias) on the other.

Isotopias that interact are compound isotopias. The relationship between them can schematically best be represented by circles that overlap. For example, when memotopia (the world/realm of memory) and thanatopia appear together in Roland Dorgelès’ Les Croix de bois in the form of memorial narrative that glosses on the deaths of thousands of young men in the Great War, the two topias can be represented as in Figure 2.

We shall also be dealing with individual isotopias (psychotopias or microtopias) that function within a larger context, for example within the novel itself, which we term a macrotopia, in which case the smaller space will be represented as a small circle within a larger one, as in the following diagram: ← 10 | 11 →


Figure 3: Isotopian circles

The mesotopia is an imaginary literary space halfway between macrotopia and microtopia; it is occasionally useful in nuancing between the two extreme kinds of imaginary space in fiction. The world of the trenches in World War I fiction as compared with the world behind the lines – in Paris, for example – are illustrations of mesotopias. Even the nation-space of France itself could be considered in some texts as a mesotopia since, beyond it, lies the far larger space, the hypertopia as we might say, of the continent of Europe.

We have chosen the genre of the novel for our study principally because of the freedom afforded by this genre to its authors who, paradoxically, usually reveal more about themselves and their views of the world via their choice of characters, situations and locations than is the case in other genres such as the essay, the autobiography, the article, memoirs, or the historical account, even if this occurs in an intuitive rather than a rational fashion.18 ← 11 | 12 →

Our basic geometrical models for this study are circular. (See particularly Figure 1.) This figure implies perpetual motion, a continual movement from reality to art, thence subsequently back to reality, and so on in a cyclical progression. More precisely, the literary artist bases his or her creation on reality, refines and develops it, contextualizing it in aesthetic terms, until the creation takes on a life of its own within the fiction of the writer. Among recent critics who have demonstrated how this process takes place, Bertrand Westphal shows in his ground-breaking work, La Géocritique: réel, fiction, espace (2007), how the location of a place in fiction may or may not be named, is usually quite well defined at any rate, and will eventually contribute to modifying the reader’s perception of the place that s/he can identify in reality. Since this perpetual state of flux exists in both the reality of places – they are constantly being developed and modified in all sorts of ways – as well as in their representation in fiction – because readers follow their deployment and development over a period of time, as they read a novel – our circular model is an ideal image for this continual process of metamorphosis, renewal, and modification. Westphal gives to this process the term ‘consensus homotopique’ [lit. homotopic consensus], in which the fictional work exerts a modifying influence on the real place itself (‘le référent’ – the original):

En d’autres termes, les propriétés virtuelles exprimées à travers le récit viendront s’ajouter aux propriétés progressivement actualisées dans le référent.19

[In other words, the virtual properties expressed in the narrative accrue to the constantly updated properties of the original.]

In actual fact, as we shall show, the influence really affects the reader, in his/her perception of the place, rather than directly affecting the place itself. Lennard J. Davis observes the same phenomenon, notably in the case of ← 12 | 13 → Charles Dickens’ London and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, which illustrates how, as Davis puts it, ‘[…] the colonization of the imaginary leads to concrete and perceptible gains in reality’.20

It is with this concept in mind that we propose to modify the original circular model (Figure 1), introducing a vertical dimension – in order to represent the temporal dimension – by converting it into a spiral, which will serve to show that there is real progression (by the upward thrust of the spiral) over a period of time rather than simply a sterile, two-dimensional circular movement that leads nowhere. (See Figure 4 below.) At each instance of art feeding into reality, a new layer of perception is created in the reader’s mind concerning place. As a result of his/her reading, that reader will then perceive reality in a new way, a perception that is made up of preconceived notions, previous experience, together with the more recent perception of the place as modified by the reading of a particular fiction. These spaces, or ‘blanks’, as Wolfgang Iser calls them, are usually made up of what seems logical or likely to the reader from his/her reading of what precedes.21 On the part of the author, who is of course also a reader, the various experiential layers, including the act of reading, form a palimpsest of perceptions upon which s/he can then draw in order to create a fresh, newly formed portrait of the place or space. And so the process continues ad infinitum. ← 13 | 14 →


XIV, 584
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
great war invasion liberated spaces after 1945
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XIV, 584 pp., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Peter Tame (Author)

Peter D. Tame was Reader in French Studies at Queen’s University Belfast from 1999 to 2013. He specialises in the literary representation of ideology and politics in French fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His recent publications include an annotated and fully edited translation of Robert Brasillach’s memoirs, entitled Before the War (2003), André Chamson 1900–1983: A Critical Biography (2006), and two co-edited volumes on war and memory, Mnemosyne and Mars: Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-Century Europe at War (2012) and The Long Aftermath: Historical and Cultural Legacies of Europe’s Wars 1936–1945 (2014). He has been awarded the Prix Robert Brasillach (1980) and the Académie Française’s Prix Hervé Deluen (2007).


Title: Isotopias
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