- Nouvelle Biographie, Pulp Nonfiction, and National CrisisThe Year in France
By a stroke of fate, the summer of 2017 has seen the demise of two famous French biographers, Max Gallo (1931–2017) and Gonzague Saint Bris (1948–2017). Although they came from radically different social backgrounds, they both stood for a certain idea of biography as a popular literary genre characterized by conservative tendencies and a kitsch style of pop history.
Max Gallo was the son of working-class Italian immigrants who had found in Nice, in southeast France, a shelter against Mussolini's fascism before his father took an active part in the French resistance. Having left school at the age of eleven to earn a living as a factory worker, then as a radio technician, Max went on educating himself as an autodidact. At the time of the Algerian War, in 1956, he was already leaving the Communist Party, and the next year he passed the agrégation to become a professor of history at Lycée Masséna. Then in 1968 he defended a PhD dissertation on Italian fascist propaganda that opened for him the door to a brief academic career as assistant lecturer at the University of Nice. Dabbling in politics and journalism, he became a socialist member of Parliament in 1981, the year when the socialist Union de la Gauche won the presidential election with François Mitterrand: Gallo acquired national notoriety as an official government spokesman. In 1992, he left the Socialist Party to found a center-left divergent current with Jean-Pierre Chevènement, whom he still supported in the 2002 election that saw the defeat of the Socialist Party and the extreme-right leader of the Front National reach the second round of the presidential election, a shocking first since World War II. In 2005, Gallo campaigned for the "No" in the referendum on the European Constitution that brought the build-up of political Europe to a halt. In 2007 he had completed his ideological metamorphosis, [End Page 588] and spoke publicly in favor of the right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, adhering with naïve sincerity to the apology for the necessity of the debate on the question of identité nationale. In 2008, Gallo was elected to the Académie française.
This thumbnail life sketch is helpful in understanding the ideological meaning of Gallo's literary commitment, based on the conviction Gallo captured in his La Croix article titled, "La France est dans une crise nationale de longue durée" [France is in an extended period of national crisis]. In an interview to the news magazine Le Point, which claims to be a French equivalent of Time magazine, he declared that, contrary to the US, France is a country where the people are not united by an "attachement religieux" (Gallo, "Il suffit"), going as far as to say that the French Revolution was "un antimodèle qui pèse encore aujourd'hui" [an antimodel that still weighs on us today], a bloody, unfortunate birth of the Nation that Gallo saw as forever exposing it to "l'irruption de la violence et des barbaries" [an eruption of violence and barbarism]. In a 2002 interview, given to the Catholic news magazine La Vie, which republished this text in July 2017 on the occasion of his death, Gallo declared, "La France a besoin de retrouver ses racines chrétiennes" [France needs to rediscover its Christian roots] ("Pourquoi je prie"). He went on to explain that such had been the meaning of his literary work over the years: "essayer de donner une image la plus complète possible de la diversité de notre histoire nationale" [to attempt to give the most complete image possible of the diversity of our national history]. His multivolume historical novels—Les Chrétiens following Bleu Blanc Rouge and Les patriotes, soon to be followed by Morts pour la France—read like prosopographies, or group biographies, of the most obvious great figures of French history. It is a return to a form of popular historiography, implicitly assuming, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, that "there is properly no history; only biography" (15), turning the page on a few decades...