Writing Inspiration: Eight French Nobel Laureates in Literature

How did a Swedish man and his name become attached to the highest achievements of mankind? Alfred Nobel was a Swedish inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist whose claim to infamy was profiting off of his creation of dynamite. False news of his death led a French newspaper to publish an obituary meant for him, in which his passing as a “Merchant of Death” who
writing inspiration - 8 french nobel laureates in literature“made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else who had ever lived.” was celebrated.

Guilt-ridden with his involvement in weapons manufacturing—or perhaps keen to mend his reputation—he sought to set things right. On the 27th of November 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament and left a sizeable chunk of his fortune to a series of prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace – the Nobel Prizes.

With the rich cultural heritage of the French language, it comes as no surprise that it is the country with the most Nobel Laureates in Literature. What literary movements are these French Nobel Laureates associated with? What were their individual qualities and identities? Learn about how these masters of the written word earned their place in history.

Sully Prudhomme the ParnassianSully Prudhomme the Parnassian

“In my soul rages a battle without victor. Between faith without proof and reason without charm.”

The very first Nobel Laureate for Literature, Prudhomme belonged to a poetry movement called Parnassianism, which reacted against Romanticism—then the most dominant movement in literature, art and music from the late 18th Century to the end of the 1800s—for its preoccupation with all that is emotional and spontaneous. Instead, they wanted to write in a measured, technically precise style. Other Parnassians include Albert-Alexandre Glatigny, Théodore de Banville, François Coppée, Léon Dierx, and José Maria de Heredia.

Frederic Mistral the ProvincialFrederic Mistral the Provincial

“Well then, since our mothers do not comprehend enough of French to understand the songs which filial tenderness has inspired, let us sing in the language of our mothers!”

Frederic Mistral dedicated his life to the uplifting of Provençal literature. He wrote epic and lyrical poems on the pastoral idyll of his native Provence and worked on a dictionary of the local language entitled Lou Tresor dóu Félibrige.

Romain Rolland the PacifistRomain Rolland the Pacifist

“I would rather have this life of combat than the moral calm and mournful stupor of these last years. God give me struggle, enemies, howling crowds, all of which I am capable.”

No mention of writers who wear their politics on their sleeve can be complete without Romain Rolland. A staunch advocate for peace, he wrote against World War I, expressed support for Gandhi’s nonviolent protest and joined the World Committee against War and Fascism. While he also wrote plays, it was not necessarily his only contribution to the craft. His essay The People’s Theatre sought to democratize the stage so the masses would no longer be alienated by it.

Jacques Anatole Thibault the ClassicistJacques Anatole Thibault the Classicist

“The books that everybody admires are those that nobody reads.”

Indeed, a curious quote coming from a best-selling novelist and Nobel Laureate! He was more famously known as Anatole France, a name he got from his father’s French Revolution-themed bookstore. France used his sardonic voice to advance social causes, making him something of a literary celebrity. Such was his status as a Man of Letters that Marcel Proust based a character in his novel In Search of Lost Time after him.

Andre-Paul-Guillaume Gide the FreeAndre-Paul-Guillaume Gide the Free

“To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

From the political to the personal, Guillame’s oeuvre is rife with introspection and liberation. His travels to Africa and Russia, along with his experience during World War I affected his growth as a writer. As a man who was struggling in coming to terms with his homosexuality, he prolifically produced poems and prose of the confessional, autobiographical kind.

Albert Camus the AbsurdAlbert Camus the Absurd

“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

Absurdism believes that searching for meaning in a meaningless life may be conflicting, but that the world has so much to offer that one ought to embrace it anyway, positioning oneself between acceptance and rebellion. Algerian-born Albert Camus’ philosophies are laid bare in his essays, novels and journalistic work. Next to Rudyard Kipling, he was the second-youngest writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 43. Camus unfortunately died in a vehicular accident three years after winning.

Jean Paul Satre the ExistentialistJean Paul Satre the Existentialist

“Existence precedes essence.”

Notorious for declining the Nobel Prize in Literature, Jean Paul Satre was a philosopher, novelist, playwright and activist. His name is just as notoriously attached to existentialism, which emphasized individual free will in determining one’s own meaning in life. Sartre shared a close friendship with fellow Nobel Laureate Albert Camus, although they eventually drifted apart due to ideological differences.

Gao Xingjian the ÉmigréGao Xingjian the Émigré

“It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.”

Rapid globalization has changed the face of French literature, and playwright, novelist and painter Gao Xingjian exemplifies the breaking of walls and borders. He started with dissident works during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution, where he experienced the hardships firsthand. Upon attaining French citizenship, he is now based in the suburbs of Paris where he continues to write.


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