- The Art of Survival: France and the Great War Picaresque by Libby Murphy
Modern audiences love the rogue in literature and on film or television. We are drawn to depictions of the irreverent detective (A Touch of Frost, ITV 1992–2010), the flawed barrister (Rake, Essential Media 2010–), the free-spirited teacher (Dead Poets Society, Touchstone 1989), and others who appear to flout the rules but always manage to extricate themselves from their scrapes. The picaro or rogue is not the character most often associated with World War I, however; even one hundred years after the war, the public tends to regard the conflict with solemnity, mindful of the horrendous losses incurred and the enormous sacrifices made during the years 1914–1918.
According to Libby Murphy, French soldiers of the Great War did not see themselves in such terms. In their eyes, they were neither victims nor heroes but survivors. The primary aim during their wartime experience was self-preservation, and in struggling to reach that goal, they resembled the picaresque figures of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish novels more than the patriotic warriors of wartime propaganda. To the French soldier, war was not about a metaphysical purification. As Murphy writes, "In war in the picaresque mode there is no personal payoff at the end of the soldiers' wanderings — no grail or earthly longing to sublimate. The only positive outcome these protagonists can hope for is that they don't get blown to smithereens along the way" (4).
Libby Murphy is an Associate Professor of French, specializing in nineteenth and twentieth century French literature and cultural studies at Oberlin College. Among her works are journal articles and book chapters on the French soldier in World War I. She is currently working on a digital humanities project focusing on Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century.
During the nineteenth century, France descended from Napoleonic glory to defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). In addition, France was a republic in 1914, not a monarchy, as were the other European belligerents. The French poilu, or infantry soldier, was a citizen-soldier rather than a subject, the heir to the French Revolution, and as such, he was more predisposed to react with satire and wit to the hypocrisies and duplicity of political or military leadership. To demonstrate her argument, Murphy draws upon examples from an extensive list of newspapers, novels, cartoons, and movies that illustrate the uses of the picaresque as a way of coping with and surviving the chaos of the trenches. Where British troops found humour in the prevailing air of resignation, the French were drawn to characters who flouted authority, made do with the absurd, and [End Page 603] always got the best of officers, the enemy, or evildoers. These accounts most often appear as assortments of experiences, in the recognition that war is too vast a subject to be encapsulated in one authoritative narrative. Among the author's examples of the roguish survivor are Pierre Chaine's (1882–1963) serialized novels, Les Mémoires d'un rat (1917) and Les Commentaires de Ferdinand, ancient rat de tranchées (1918), both written from a trench rat's viewpoint; Francisque Poulbot's (1879–1946) postcards and posters of Montmartre street-urchins enduring the encroachment of war with élan; and Gus Bofa's (1883–1968) illustrations for the satirical magazine La Baïonnette.
Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) was another cultural icon who appealed to French troops. Murphy notes that when Chaplin's films arrived in France during World War I, many Frenchmen were seeing movies for the first time in their lives. Chaplin's Little Tramp was an enormous favourite internationally, but in France, where he was known as "Charlot," his picaresque figure was the perfect antidote to modern technological warfare, providing a brief reprieve to his audiences. Charlot demonstrated ingenuity in the face of calamity and persistence in times of misfortune, illustrating the Common Man's ability to survive in the worst circumstances. In March 1917...