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FR361 Crises of Identity in the French Novel

Module Code: FR361
Module Name: Crises of Identity in the French Novel
Module Coordinator: Dr Douglas Morrey
Term: 1
Module Credits: 15

Module Description

For centuries, the French have enjoyed one of the strongest senses of national identity in Europe or the world and this identity has long been reflected in French literature, widely regarded as one of the proudest artistic traditions in the history of human expression. What has become of this literary heritage in the past decade or so when French identity has been in crisis and when the novel, as a genre built for reflecting the world, has come to be seen as dated and laborious as compared to television, blogs, or online journalism?

The French were once regarded as defenders of an egalitarian Republican tradition; as world-leading thinkers, on questions bringing together self, society and language; but also, as experts in the domain of intimate psychology and sensual proponents of an adult savoir-vivre. How can France maintain its claims to liberty, equality and fraternity when a quarter of the population regularly vote for far-right parties? Has the vicious and personal nature of Islamist attacks in France fatally undermined the French Republican model? Why was a modernizing young president met with waves of furious – if sometimes inarticulate – protest from across the social spectrum? Why have covid-related hygiene measures sparked such anger and resistance in France? What becomes of the French libertine tradition in the age of #MeToo when serial male predators (like Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Gabriel Matzneff) are publicly shamed? What does it say about French national identity that some of its most famous contemporary cultural exports are writers and politicians propounding a depressing view of European cultural decline?

This module looks closely at three ‘state-of-the-nation’ novels published in France since 2015 and considers what they reveal about the multiple crises at the heart of today’s French identity: crises that might be variously interpreted as political, economic, or ethnic, or relating to developments in gender, sexuality and France’s place in the wider world. The module encourages students to develop skills of close literary analysis while also placing cultural texts within their wider socio-cultural context and reflecting on the multiple ways in which French literature continues to overspill the limits of its form in order to affect and interact with the culture at large.

Note: the texts on this module contain sometimes graphic descriptions of sex and violence as well as passages that may be identified as giving voice to racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and hate speech. These issues will be the focus of critical approaches in class but please bear this material in mind before choosing the module.


Soumission (2015) by Michel Houellebecq (please buy the J'ai lu edition)

  1. Who is Michel Houellebecq? Houellebecq, Houellebecq criticism, the Houellebecq ‘industry’
  2. Soumission and the terror attacks of January 2015
  3. Soumission: reception and debate

404 (2020) by Sabri Louatah (please buy the J'ai lu edition)

  1. Sabri Louatah and Les Sauvages
  2. Minority voices in contemporary French literature
  3. Islamophobia in France

Vernon Subutex 1 (2015) by Virginie Despentes (please buy the Livre de poche edition)

  1. Virginie Despentes, feminist
  2. France and economic crisis
  3. Vernon Subutex and its avatars


Assessment Method:

One assessed essay of 2250-2500 words (70%) and one critical commentary of 1250-1500 words (30%).

Mode of delivery:

One in-person lecture and one in-person seminar.

Thursday 13.00 - 15.00, FAB 4.79.