Generations of writers, from across the world, have long drawn artistic inspiration from the unique atmosphere found in the small corner of Europe that is Brittany. Stimulated by these surroundings, locals and visitors alike have often put pen to paper with notable success; this post highlights some authors and their books not featured in an earlier literary tour of Brittany.
“I shall go to some quiet place in France to get right again; I don’t mean to live with anybody, even my own family but to occupy myself thoroughly.” These words were written by the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) not long after the death of his wife, the arguably greater poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Seeking solitude, Browning decided that Brittany offered the desired conditions. After his wife’s death, he stayed near Dinard for three months in 1861; the summer of 1863 was spent in Sainte-Marie, “a wild little place in Brittany,” a small coastal hamlet beside Pornic.
Here he wrote most of the collection that would be published as Dramatis Personæ in 1864; a volume that contained some of his finest work, including James Lee’s Wife and Gold Hair: A Legend of Pornic which carries all the flavour of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Browning spent the following two summers in Sainte-Marie and it was during his last stay that he saw the gypsy girl who inspired Fifine at the Fair; a reflective piece contrasting the exciting but ephemeral quality of lust with the steady permanence of love and the essence of truth in life and art.
In June 1866, after a spell in Dinard, he moved to Le Croisic, a little town on a small promontory that protected the salt flats of Guérande from the Bay of Biscay: “a spit of sandy rock which juts spitefully north.” Here he took “the most delicious and peculiar old house I ever occupied, the oldest in town,” and enjoyed discovering the area of Brittany that Honoré de Balzac had immortalized in Béatrix (1839). He returned in 1866 when he wrote Two Poets of Croisic and again in 1867 when he penned a spirited tribute to the modest bravery of the French sailor in Hervé Riel. When it was published in 1871, he immediately sent his £100 payment to the Paris Relief Fund.
After a stay in Quimper, he spent the summer of 1868 in Audierne, on Brittany’s Atlantic coast, “a delightful, quite unspoiled little fishing town,” with the ocean in front and green hills behind. His son, Pen, joined him in Brittany on a few occasions but also visited on his own account; he was a successful artist at one time, studying sculpture under Rodin and painting in Brittany.
Born in the north coast town of Tréguier, Ernest Renan (1823-1892) left for Paris to continue his studies in late 1838. Noting the contradictions that existed between the metaphysics he studied and the faith he professed, he realised that a career in the Church was no longer for him. He instead became a biblical scholar of some repute but also wrote on archaeology, history, linguistics and philosophy. Perhaps not as well known outside France as he once was, Renan’s best known work is his seven volume opus A History of the Origins of Christianity (1863-1883) but his attachment to his native land features heavily in The Breton Soul (1854) and the autobiographical Memories of Childhood and Youth (1883). He spent each summer, from 1884 until his death, in Perros-Guirec, a small fishing village near Tréguier. The 1903 erection of his statue in the cathedral square of Tréguier was seen as a deliberate provocation by the staunchly Catholic populace whose protest descended into a melee.
In 1847, the author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and his friend and fellow writer Maxime Du Camp, toured Brittany, primarily on foot; it was a long trip which lasted around four months. The pair wrote an entertaining, if slightly condescending to modern susceptibilities, travelogue of their journey; the chapters written by Du Camp were published in serial form from April 1852, those by Flaubert were eventually published in 1881, the completed work being known as By the Fields and By the Strikes.
Flaubert was an exacting writer and known to have laboured over every word he used, often taking a week to write a single page of text. His most famous novel, Madame Bovary (1857), took five years to complete; a year longer than he spent on writing his second novel, Salammbô (1862); a marked contrast to the literary output of his contemporary Balzac, who regularly wrote for ten hours, or more, a day and published two or three substantial new works every year.
A similar tour of Brittany was undertaken at about the same time by the author Anthony Trollope’s elder brother, Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810-1892). His travelogue, A Summer in Brittany (1840), is an easy read and shares many of the same impressions of delight and disgust at local customs and culture subsequently noted by Flaubert. Later that same decade both the Trollope and Browning households settled in Florence where the families were renowned for their generous hospitality and vocal support for Italian independence.
The English novelist and playwright Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927) is today best remembered for his most successful work, Three Men in a Boat (1889); a humorous and almost timeless tale recounting a leisurely trip down the river Thames. In 1914, his latest play was taken off the London stage due to its celebration of German drinking songs and upon the outbreak of war, Jerome volunteered for military service. Rejected by the British Army on account of his age, the 56 year old writer volunteered as an ambulance driver with the French Army in 1915 and served in Verdun during the following year; this was one of the longest, bloodiest battles of the Western Front. “Those who talk about war being a game ought to be made to go out and play it. They’d find their little book of rules not much use,” he said.
It was during this terrible time that Jerome wrote the short story, Malvina of Brittany (1916). A charming tale about the fairy Malvina, onetime favourite attendant to the Queen of the White Ladies of Brittany, who was expelled from the realm of the fairies four thousand years ago only to reappear to a British flying officer who had landed to make some minor repairs to his aircraft in the depths of Brittany in 1914.
In 1891, T E Lawrence (1888-1935) and his parents moved to Dinard where the unmarried couple were able to live quietly for the next three years. In August 1906, Lawrence returned to Brittany with a school friend and spent the month touring the north-east of the region by bicycle, returning the next summer with his father to explore the castles of eastern Brittany and the Breton Marches. The following year, he completed a 3,500 km Tour de France, from Le Havre to Montpellier and the summer of 1910 saw him again return to Brittany and Normandy to visit the medieval battlefields and cathedrals, devouring French classics in their original text.
Lawrence is one of those characters that almost defies being pigeon-holed and so, I shall not make the attempt. His most well-known works are Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), an account of his experiences during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 that the American diplomat Charles Hill described as ‘a novel traveling under the guise of autobiography’ and Crusader Castles (1936), his university thesis which was partly built upon the observations recorded during those many pre-war visits to Brittany and France.
Another noted author who made a point of visiting several castles during her time in Brittany was American writer Louisa M Alcott (1832-1888). Best known as the author of Little Women (1868) and its sequels, the financial success of that novel allowed the author, her sister May and their friend Alice Bartlett to visit Europe. The party stayed in Brittany for over two months in 1870 and a brief account of their sojourn is included in her collection of short stories, Shawl Straps (1872). As an artist of talent, May was particularly charmed by the province, subsequently describing it as a place where “an artist can rest with delight for many months” in her guidebook for women artists, Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply (1879).
In 1875, Émile Zola wrote to his friend and editor that he wanted to discover Brittany and so, the following summer, the pair set off to explore the Guérande region and rented a house in Piriac where they were subsequently joined by their wives. The beauty of the wild coast captivated Zola almost as much as the ability to eat freshly-caught seafood; his friend even noting that ‘his nervous fingers so trembling with happiness when he had clams for breakfast, that he could not eat them at first.’
Inspired by his stay in Brittany, Zola wrote The Shells of Mr Chabre (1884) in which he tells the story of the bourgeois Mr Chabre who takes his wife for an extended stay in Piriac with hopes of ridding themselves of the curse of infertility in the belief that eating seafood would facilitate the birth of a child. A prodigious and versatile author; more than half of Zola’s novels were part of the twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, which detail the history of a single family over five generations and published between 1870 and 1893.
September 1895 found author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) staying on Belle-Île-en-Mer as a guest of the actress Sarah Bernhardt before moving on to Beg-Meil near Concarneau on Brittany’s southern coast, where he stayed until the end of October. The atmosphere and the beauty of the region inspired him and he wrote the first pages of Jean Santeuil (1952) whilst there. Unfortunately, following the critical reception of his first book, The Pleasures and the Days (1896), Proust gradually abandoned Jean Santeuil between 1898 and 1899. Nevertheless, this novel is regarded as a precursor to Proust’s most significant work, In Search of Lost Time, published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927; often cited as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. Many of the themes developed within In Search of Lost Time find their first articulation in Jean Santeuil, including the enigma of memory and the importance of self-reflection.
The author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) married at the end of March 1896 and almost immediately set-off to honeymoon in Brittany. After a few days in the north coast town of Lannion, searching for a suitable property to rent, the newlywed couple moved to a house on nearby Île Grande where they stayed until the end of August 1896. During his time in Brittany, Conrad began working on The Rescue, a novel that he would periodically cast-aside but which he eventually finished in 1920. He did, however, complete several short stories here; The Idiots (1896), The Lagoon (1896) and An Outpost of Progress (1896). The Idiots is not your typical honeymoon fare, featuring as it does a murder, a loss of mental reality, abandonment of faith and a suicide. Conrad is sometimes said to have been one of the greatest English language novelists and is perhaps best remembered today by Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900) and The Secret Agent (1907), all of which have often been adapted for television and cinema.
Pierre Souvestre (1874–1914) was born into a renowned Breton family; his father was sometime Prefect of Finistère, his mother, the daughter of the Breton artist Victor Roussin and his great-uncle was the noted Breton author Émile Souvestre. Pierre joined the Paris bar in 1894 but gradually focused most of his attention on writing for newspapers and periodicals, taking a particular interest in motor car racing and sports journalism. In 1907, he hired Marcel Allain as his secretary and a collaboration was born that saw the serial publication of a joint novel in L’Auto, the predecessor of L’Équipe, in 1909.
In 1911, they created their most memorable character, Fantômas, a ruthless, enigmatic criminal genius and master of disguise whose hand was behind almost any unsolved crime. Much like Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, the amoral, sadistic Fantômas is doggedly pursued by the one man capable of tracing his involvement in all manner of ghastly crimes and always remains one step ahead of his pursuer, often assuming the identity of his victims. With a flair for the dramatic, his crimes often involve bizarre and over-elaborate procedures, such as trained plague-ridden rats or rooms that slowly fill with sand. One of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, Fantômas appeared in 32 books as well as in a number of film and television adaptations. Pierre Souvestre died in Paris in February 1914 but lies buried in the cemetery of his Breton hometown, Plomelin.
One of the founding members of the Society of Friends of Fantômas, Max Jacob (1876-1944) was born and brought-up in the south coast town of Quimper but moved to Paris as a young man, where in 1898 he became an art critic and a well-known figure amongst the artistic crowd of Montmarte. For a time, he shared a room with Picasso who subsequently became his Godfather on his conversion to Christianity in 1915. Abandoning journalism, Jacob took on a series of odd jobs and sold horoscopes, paintings and poetry to fund his rather itinerant lifestyle.
Jacob’s poetry was heavily influenced by Surrealism, Symbolism and Cubism as well as his life in Brittany and Paris. His prose poetry, especially The Dice Box (1917) is often cited as an important bridge between the Symbolists and Surrealists while his free verses, such as the collection published as The Central Laboratory (1921) have long been applauded for their inventiveness. Despite his reputation as a poet and writer, it was his painting that provided the main source of his income.
Tired of the Bohemian lifestyle, he returned to western Brittany to escape the excesses of 1920s Paris and later moved to a monastery at Saint-Benoit in 1936. Having lost both a brother and sister to the Nazi death camps, it was perhaps inevitable that the Jewish-born, homosexual Jacob fell under the Gestapo’s gaze. He was arrested on 24 February 1944 and transferred to a holding camp where he was assigned a place on the next convoy for Auschwitz. Frantic efforts, coordinated by Jean Cocteau, were made to secure his release but he died of pneumonia the day before his scheduled deportation.
The first four novels written by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, popularly known as Colette (1873-1954), were published under her writer husband’s pen-name ‘Willy’. Following their separation, she carved out a successful living appearing in music halls, often portraying characters from her own novels; a period she recounted in her novel The Vagabond (1910), which deals with women’s independence in a male-dominated world.
Following her divorce, in May 1910, Colette arrived in Dinard in hopes of finding a home which was as far removed from the literary circles of Paris as possible; by the end of the following month, she had found a magnificent house, set amongst “the most beautiful landscape on earth” just above the beach of Touesse in Saint-Coulomb, near Saint-Malo. Colette spent her holidays here until her third and final marriage in 1925; the new couple preferring the warmer climes of Saint-Tropez. By this time, Colette had become an established and successful author under her own name and is perhaps best known today for her novella Gigi (1944) which became an award-winning Hollywood musical in 1958.
Published almost 75 years ago, Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) novel The Plague (1947) became a publishing sensation again in 2020 thanks to its focus on the effects of a deadly epidemic. The book imagines an outbreak of plague in the Algerian city of Oran; the impact of which is, at first, downplayed by its inhabitants. As the plague’s grip tightens, people are forced to quarantine; such isolation feeding claustrophobia and fear. Each character in the book responds in their own way; some accept their fate, others seek to apportion blame but a few, like the narrator, have the courage to resist the fear that has enveloped the city. The book is widely regarded as an allegory for the Nazi occupation and the lives lived under an atmosphere of threat, separation and exile in which the occupied lived.
Camus finished the book in Brittany in Les Moutiers-en-Retz, about 10km south of Pornic, in the summer of 1946 and considered his collaboration with Louis Guilloux of Saint-Brieuc so significant that he noted that his friend had “written this book in part.” Camus travelled to northern Brittany to stay with Guilloux in 1947 and during this visit discovered his father’s grave; he died in Saint-Brieuc as a result of wounds contracted on the Western Front during the First World War.
Camus was not overly enamoured with Brittany; the sun was too often absent and the size of the tidal ebbs made sea-bathing an uncertain affair for a man accustomed to the Mediterranean. He drew from the region an impression, an atmosphere that would nourish the writing of his unfinished autobiography The First Man (1994). His encounter with his father’s grave inspired a key scene in this book. In the chapter entitled ‘Saint-Brieuc’, the hero feels a shock in front of the grave: “He read the two dates 1885-1914 and made a mental calculation: twenty-nine years. Suddenly an idea struck him which shook him to his core. He was forty years old. The man buried under this slab and who had been his father, was younger than him. The flood of tenderness and pity which suddenly filled his heart was not the movement of a soul that carries the son towards the memory of his dead father but the upset compassion a man feels in front of a child, unjustly murdered.”
A native of the north coast town of Saint-Brieuc, Louis Guilloux (1899-1980) was himself a highly regarded author and his most famous work, The Black Blood (1935), was an immediate and international success when published. After the liberation of Saint-Brieuc in 1944, he returned from hiding to serve as an interpreter for the Allied military tribunals, an experience he recounted in his novel OK, Joe! (1976), which also highlighted the racism he witnessed in the US Army at that time.
André Breton (1896-1966) was born in Orne but spent most of his formative years with his grandfather in Saint-Brieuc and his grandmother in Lorient on Brittany’s south coast. In February 1915, he began his artillery training in Pontivy in central Brittany but transferred to the medical corps in Nantes where he worked as a neurological nurse. Breton never seriously pursued his early interest in psychoanalysis but his subsequent thinking was heavily influenced by psychological theories.
One of the founders of the Surrealist movement, Breton believed that poetry transcended reason and logic. His Magnetic Fields (1920) is usually regarded as the first work of literary Surrealism, while his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) was one of the movement’s defining texts. Other major works include the novel Nadja (1928) and Mad Love (1937), the latter, a celebration of love, being a particularly difficult book to categorise contains many references to southern Brittany. The Czech artist Toyen was one of the founders of the Surrealists Group in Czechoslovakia in 1934 and her meeting with André Breton the following year marked the start of a lifelong friendship. Having settled in France in 1947, she visited Brittany several times with Breton.
“As a child of Brittany, I like the heathlands. Their flower of pauperism is the only one not faded in my buttonhole,” wrote Chateaubriand, to whom Breton replied in Entretiens (1952): “I also embrace these heathlands, they have often shattered me but I love this flickering light they maintain in my heart.”
Not as well-known as some other 20th century French poets, the works of Danielle Collobert (1940-1978) seem born of the trauma she experienced in her home town of Rostrenen, central Brittany, during the German occupation. She left for Paris at eighteen years of age but appears never to have settled; a restlessness that saw her travel extensively and one that seems to have condemned her to always revisit herself. She destroyed all unsold copies of her first self-published collection of poetry, Chants des guerres (1961) and although her first novel, Murder (1964) received some critical acclaim, a subsequent volume was rejected by the publishers. A few further works were published, including Say (1972) and Survive (1978), in very limited numbers, before her thirty-eighth birthday, when she took her own life.
Collobert’s writing style was then quite unique; she used minimal punctuation and unorthodox grammar, particularly around pronouns and other gender markers to create a deliberate impersonalisation that can be unnerving for the French reader accustomed to strict assumptions based on grammar and gender. Her writing is steeped not in melancholy but in oppressive pain and the notion of death, from the personal experience to its impact on the human condition, transcends her writing. In an introduction to her work, the French writer Jean-Pierre Faye noted that it “presents a cosmology of pain. An incredible pain, majestic one would dare say, rooted in a helplessness to live. Pain that avoids pathos and that never shows a desire to strike a pose: we feel that Collobert is not lying.”
Brought-up on tales of being descended from Breton nobility, Jack Kerouac (1922 -1969) the American novelist and sometime post-war counterculture icon is best known for his novels On the Road (1957) and Big Sur (1962) whose hero roars to the ocean at night: “I am a Breton!” to which the darkness responds “The fishes of the sea speak Breton.” In his book Satori in Paris (1966), Kerouac recounts his, ultimately fruitless, visit to Brittany in the summer of 1965 in search of his ancestral roots. Undeterred, in 1967, Kerouac and Breton poet Youenn Gwernig agreed to return to Brittany together to make another attempt, based from Gwernig’s hometown of Huelgoat in central Brittany. Interestingly, over thirty years later, researchers managed to uncover the truth of Kerouac’s ancestry: accusations of theft had driven the son of a village notary from Huelgoat to escape Brittany for the anonymity of New France in 1720 and it was this de Kervoac that proved to be the elusive ancestor.
I have devoted a previous post to Jean-Marie Déguignet (1834-1905) and his autobiographical Memoirs of a Breton Peasant (1998). Born into rural poverty, Déguignet escaped a life of begging and drudgery by joining the French Army in 1854, and over the next fourteen years saw active service in the Crimea, Lombardy, Algeria and Mexico as well as attending Napoleon III’s coronation ceremonies and losing his religion. An autodidact, he read widely on history, philosophy and politics but returned home to make a bad marriage and enter farming, eventually falling back into dire poverty. Deguignet’s radical thinking often found him at odds with his contemporaries and his memoirs were only re-discovered in 1984.
Another view of life in roughly the same corner of Brittany can be found in The Horse of Pride (1975) by the Breton writer Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914-1995). This entertaining book offers some wonderful insights into life in Breton-speaking rural Brittany between the World Wars and was adapted for the cinema in 1980. Hélias also wrote several books of poetry in Breton and produced numerous novels and collections of folktales in French. Thankfully, the English translation of this book retains the conversational charm of the French original.
A Gift from Brittany (2008) by Marjorie Price (1929-2020) is the autobiographical tale of a young American artist who finds herself living in a hamlet in rural Brittany in the early 1960s where she discovers a world little-changed from the end of the Middle Ages but on the verge of disappearing forever. As her marriage unravels, she develops a deep bond with an elderly, illiterate neighbour who has never left the village. This seemingly unlikely friendship transcends the many boundaries that separate the two women; transforming and enriching both their lives.
An amusing, affectionate account of life in a small Breton town from the perspective of an outsider can be found in two books by the American writer Mark Greenside (1944- ). Having made a snap decision over twenty years ago to buy a house in Brittany, the unique peculiarities of daily life in rural France continue to confuse and challenge him. I’ll Never Be French, No Matter What I Do (2008) and Not Quite Mastering the Art of French Living (2018) are set in Plobien, the fictional yet typical west Breton town where he happily spends his summers.
The first novel of Franco-English author Joanne Harris (1964- ) in 1989 met with limited success but her third novel, Chocolat (1999) became an international bestseller and was subsequently adapted for the cinema. One of her novels, Coastliners (2002) is set on a small island off the coast of Brittany, Le Devin. A fictionalised island but loosely based on one that the author visited every summer for long stays in her grandfather’s house. It tells of the return of a prodigal daughter of the island and her battle to save the little village she once called home. Two rival communities having fought for generations over the island’s resources, it seems as if her ancestral home has lost all hope of survival until our heroine takes up the fight to stop the decay and breathe new spirit into the community.
Her Mother’s Secret (2018) by Rosanna Ley is another book that deals with a prodigal daughter returning to her Breton island home to confront the secrets, lies and guilt that have cast a long shadow over her and her family’s relationships. Against the well-drawn and atmospheric backdrop of Belle-Île-en-Mer, our heroine peels away the many comfortable deceptions of the past to secure her future.
The prolific German author Nina George (1973- ) now lives in Brittany and is, at present, best known for her novel The Little Paris Bookshop (2013); the English language edition of 2015 turned it into an international bestseller. Another of her books to have enjoyed an international surge in sales since the appearance of an English language edition is The Little Breton Bistro (2010). It tells the uplifting, life-affirming tale of a desperately unhappy woman’s suicide attempt during a trip to Paris. Recuperating in hospital, she becomes obsessed with a scene of the small Breton port of Kerdruc which she resolves to visit. Once there, she gradually finds new hope and a renewed passion for life, discovering a better version of herself but is eventually tracked down by her husband who expects her to return to her old life with him. An English translation has been available since 2017 but note that the US edition is titled The Little French Bistro!
Written while Brittany was still an independent nation and published in Valencia in 1490, the novel Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell (1413-1468) is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of Hispanic literature and was a major influence on the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The book follows the many adventures of a knight from Brittany whose travels from England to the Holy Land and from Constantinople to North Africa reveal that chivalric tournaments, courtship, love and bloody conflict are not so very different from each other; cruel yet intoxicating for all protagonists. Martorell’s entertaining prose unfolds at an often frantic pace and makes great use of unspoken narrative to drive the plot forward.
Some commentators have claimed that the book illustrates the relationships between the Breton and Iberian peninsulas although I think that this is a little wishful thinking but I include it here nevertheless. After all, how else would I manage to cover almost 530 years of Breton literary inspiration in a single post? 😉