René Char and the French Resistance

The Manuscripts Division is pleased to announce the acquisition of papers (C1599) of the celebrated French poet René Char (1907-88), documenting his role in the Resistance (La Résistance) against Nazi occupation of France and the collaborationist Vichy régime. Char was the author of more than 30 volumes of poetry, criticism, plays, memoirs, and other works. He was a native of the Provençal town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, located east of Avignon in the Département du Vaucluse, southeastern France. During his long and distinguished writing career, he had close literary friendships and artistic collaborations with Louis Aragon, André Breton, Albert Camus, Paul Éluard, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, and others. Pierre Boulez’s musical setting of Char’s 1934 Le Marteau sans maître (“Hammer Without a Master”) was first performed in 1955. Among the translators of Char’s poetry into English are W. S. Merwin (Princeton Class of 1948) and William Carlos Williams. When Char died in 1988, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac called him “the greatest French poet of the 20th century.”

Char was a Surrealist poet of 33 when he joined the French Resistance in 1940. Under his nom de guerre Capitaine Alexandre (see photographic image below), Char lead a maquis rural guerrilla unit in the French Alps (Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur). Resistance fighters engaged in armed warfare and sabotage, provided military intelligence to Allied forces, rescued soldiers and airmen from behind the lines, published underground newspapers, and performed other patriotic acts of defiance. Char commanded maquisards in a military sector along the Durance, a tributary of the Rhône River. The sector was an Allied parachute drop zone for arms and ammunition and for the landing of British Westland Lysander airplanes on clandestine missions. He offered valuable assistance in the Allied preparation for the landing in Provence in 1944. For his heroic war service, Char was awarded the French Medal of the Resistance and the Croix de Guerre, as well as being named to the National Order of the Legion of Honor.

His wartime experiences provided inspiration for poetic expression and especially for Feuillets d’Hypnos (1946), based on notes he kept in 1943-44. Sandra Bermann, Cotsen Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Comparative Literature, Princeton University, who studies the poetry Char wrote during this period, has observed, “Feuillets d’Hypnos brings before us the lived history of the French resistance, joining traumatic memory with hopes for a future of freedom and human dialogue. Closely intertwined with Char’s own actions as captain on the maquis, the collection of prose poems offers a rare engagement with historical experience in poetic form, both a tragic affirmation of life and, in its own right, a means of resistance…..But what makes Char’s text such a telling example is that it is not only a historical inscription that allows the past to ‘survive,’ but also an ‘original’ in its own right, a highly self-conscious poetic text capable of generating a literary afterlife of its own.” (Sandra Bermann, “Translating History,” in Sandra Bermann and Michael G. Wood, eds., Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation [2005]).

René Char’s French Resistance files cover both his World War II service and the post-war decades. The files include more than 500 original documents and scores of letters addressed to Capitaine Alexandre; more than 60 autograph letters and documents by Char himself; approximately 650 letters, telegrams, and postcards from companions in the Resistance, often written under their noms de guerre; and miscellaneous notes, texts, photos, and other materials. The correspondence includes many letters from French writers and journalists, such as Émile Bouvier (1886-1973), André Rousseaux (1896-1973), and Georges Roux (1914-1999). Marie-Claude Char, the poet’s wife, organized the files and added relevant materials after his death. The files are now being rehoused and described; they will be available for research use in a few months. For more information, contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, at dcskemer@princeton.edu

Char as Capitaine Alexandre.
Courtesy of Marie-Claude Char

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