Fiction and Film for French Historians is an online cultural bulletin for historians working, and teaching, on France. It’s an offshoot of the scholarly discussion network H-France, which anyone working on French history should be signed up to (tip: get the daily digest, it’s a very active list). Each issue contains shortish, approachable articles on films and novels that have something to tell us about French history, or that can be used for teaching it. The bulletin is published six times a year, on a slightly irregular schedule that fits US teaching semesters. Although it’s only been running since 2010, the bulletin already has articles on a wide range of novels and films about aspects of French history ranging from Louis XIV to Vichy, from the Haitian revolution to the Algerian war of independence—check out the previous issues page.
The current issue has two pieces about Victor Hugo: one on the recent film adaptation of [the musical of] Les Misérables, which we’ve already discussed here, and one on the vision of Paris’s medieval past that Hugo presented in Notre-Dame de Paris, better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The books were written at quite different times: Notre-Dame de Paris in the unrestful early years of the July Monarchy, in 1831, when Hugo wasn’t yet 30, and Les Misérables in 1861, under the authoritarian Second Empire—the climax of the later book is an abortive insurrection that took place in 1832, just after the first had come out.
The other article in the current issue is about Alexis Jenni’s novel L’Art français de la guerre (‘The French art of war’), which came out in 2011 and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. This book isn’t out in English yet, though it’s been translated into several other languages. It traces the history of what Jenni calls the ‘twenty-year war’, from France’s own resistance to German occupation through its postwar attempts to reassert and retain control over its colonies in Indochina and Algeria—when former résistants became torturers. The novel is also about the formative impact of that period on contemporary France: if you want to know why policemen in modern-day Paris, Lyons or Marseilles go about like so many Darth Vaders, this—Jenni argues—is it.
So, it’s worth keeping an eye out for updates to FFFH. But really this whole post is just an excuse to include the gorgeous image above, an engraving by Luc-Olivier Merson from an 1881 edition of Notre-Dame de Paris. It’s so wonderful that my admiration of it survived the discovery that Merson was responsible for the mosaics over the chancel in the basilica of Sacré-Cœur, one of the ugliest bits of the one of the ugliest architectural manifestations of 19th-century French Catholicism, though the golden statue of a freakishly huge Virgin and Child on the tower of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles (where the basilica itself is less grotesque) perhaps beats it. Apologies if this is something of a derail to end on, but yuck. See below.