- Jail Sentences: Representing Prison in Twentieth-Century French Fiction
As Andrew Sobanet reminds readers in the introduction to his superb, eminently readable new study of the representation of prison in modern French literature, incarceration is excellent narrative fodder. The penitentiary is not only "a privileged center for thought" (6), but also a place where creation—and especially literary creation—often happens. Writers holed up in dank cells have, for centuries, conjured up some of the most enduring works in the French literary tradition (Villon [End Page 154] and de Sade, most famously). And imagined tales of jailed narrators—like Hugo's anonymous condemned man and Camus' Meursault—are memorable not only for exploring the depths of prisoners' minds, but for the innovative nature of their prose. Indeed, as Sobanet maintains from the outset, "prisoners are storytellers" (1).
The novels examined in the individual chapters that compose Jail Sentences—Victor Serge's Les Hommes dans la prison (1930), Jean Genet's Miracle de la rose (1946), Albertine Sarrazin's La Cavale (1965), and François Bon's Prison (1997)—testify to twentieth-century French literature's fascination with the carceral realm. They also collectively help to define a literary sub-genre—what Sobanet calls the "prison novel"—that has received relatively scant attention until now. While the trend has been to read these texts as documentaries that testify to the realities of life behind bars, Jail Sentences seeks to underscore their status as fictions. Each novel offers accurate portrayals of the sights, sounds, and smells of daily prison life, shedding light on a world that will be foreign (one hopes!) to most readers. Yet the status of these texts as documents does not necessarily imply the absence of make believe. As Sobanet compellingly demonstrates, authors of prison novels often wield their mastery of narrative technique to strategically develop their own potent critiques of various hegemonic institutions; these narratives, he argues, not only corroborate sociological studies of prison life, they mobilize the various "signposts of fiction" to denounce the growing inequities of market capitalism (in Serge), castigate the influence of mainstream, bourgeois morality (in Genet), and condemn the abuses of France's judicial and penal systems (in Sarrazin and Bon, primarily).
While each chapter has its particular merits, the study of François Bon's Prison is particularly illuminating. Here Sobanet had privileged access to the author's notes and transcripts of writing that inmates produced during workshops that Bon conducted in a youth-detention center near Bordeaux in 2006 and 2007. Genetic analysis of these texts alongside an earlier, unpublished manuscript and the final, published volume of Prison allows Sobanet to show how, and to what ends, Bon mobilizes his creative license to manipulate the words of his workshop's participants. More particularly, Sobanet attributes an ethical dimension to Prison. He suggests that Bon's sociopolitical leanings encourage him to selectively edit the text to demystify the crimes that these prisoners commit, the reasons they commit them, and their behavior [End Page 155] while incarcerated. Bon associates the criminal behavior of these young convicts with a dangerous lack of stability in their lives, a deficit that originates in earlier experiences, beyond their control, with "homelessness, recent immigration, poverty, fractured families, and an inadequate social safety net" (147). This is a compelling idea that aligns Bon's project in Prison with a politically informed kind of fiction from France (think Didier Daeninckx) that melds the art of storytelling with verifiably documented or historically accurate facts as a way to excoriate the past and present ills of French society more than the foibles and wrongdoings of the characters these fictions portray.
Thanks to the strength of readings like these, Jail Sentences will surely interest scholars and students of modern French literature. Given the place that the various representations of "correction" occupy on the cultural stage today, this fascinating, lucidly written book is also bound to intrigue more general audiences as well. The success of recent films and television programs like Oz, Prison Break, The Shawshank Redemption, and Dead Man...