Myth of Russia in French Culture

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Thus, a rather small and, in truth, not exactly the best work of modern French literature has shattered the last “beautiful” perceptions of Russia where people find the only entertainment “in reading poems, walking in the birch woods and in having siestas on the banks of wide slow-moving rivers”. The population is depicted as a mindless herd which doesn’t care where it is led, the most important thing being to be allowed to take its lump of the common pie. Such things as warm-heartedness and aspiration to live by emotions not by reason, which were considered to be positive traits of a Russian person in France at the turn of the 19th – 20th centuries, in Beigbeder’s interpretation are violated by petty interests which lead to the loss of moral compass. The book derogates absolutely everything: the image of “a Russian beauty” shaped over the centuries becomes a simple fake; the image of “St. Petersburg as Venice of the North” is the residence of poverty and soul decrepitude. The great Russian poet gets beaten up as well: “We also stopped by Pushkin’s place: not a bad library for a guy who died at 37… I took a long time to examine the gun d’Anthès, the Frenchman, used to shoot Pushkin in the guts on the bank of the Chernaya River”.[1]

The image of a thievish and aggressive Russian man who dreams of “winning in a casino or opening his eyes one fine day as the owner of a gas processing plant or oil fields” has definitively scared ordinary French people.

Emmanuel Carrère stands out of the number of authors who decided to definitively destroy the alluring perceptions of the mysterious Russian soul. In 2011 he published his novel Limonov. The book became a best seller and revived the interest in Russia for a while. Limonov is not entirely a novel as it recounts personal meetings with famous Soviet dissident and modern opposition political figure Eduard Limonov. By and large, this is an attempt to tell that there is yet another political monster hiding behind the signboard of “the great power”.

Among modern French authors who one way or another touch upon the Russian theme in their works, Jean-Michel Guenassia and Andreï Makine deserve a special mention. This theme not only dominates their works but provides (as much as this is possible in France) a balanced view of the history, culture and the Russian national character.

The first book by a famous French author J.-M. Guenassia was a novel The Incorrigible Optimists Club (Le Club des incorrigibles optimistes) (2009) – a story of a standoff between the western and the Soviet worlds. The author won a prestigious prize – the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. This prize paved J.-M. Guenassia’s way for international fame. Nowadays right after publication his novels are translated into a dozen of European languages, including Russian.

Jean-Michel Guenassia is closer to the group of authors who, keeping up with the innovations of the novel of the 20th century, are still in line with the realism. In France this tradition is very often called Russian, meaning great Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Goncharov. Later it was continued in the 21st century in the novels by the French “classics” Le Clézio, Modiano, Echenoz.  Speaking of Guenassia journalists very often remember A. Makine who has recently become a member of the French Academy of Sciences. While A. Makine having Soviet origins knows the history of our country from the inside, J.-M. Guenassia on the other hand interprets it being a competent historian.

[1]  Ibid. P.  214 – 215.

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