Theses Doctoral

Car il y a beaucoup d’appelés, mais peu d’élus: Military Conscription in French Literary Representations of the Algerian War

Balkoski, Katherine

This dissertation offers readings of novels by Pierre Guyotat, Georges Perec, Patrick Modiano and other lesser-known French authors of the twentieth and twenty-first century, analyzing the representation of the “appelés d’Algérie,” the last citizens of France to be mobilized in a wartime draft. Dating back to the Third Republic, military service played a key role in turning both metropolitan and colonial populations into Frenchmen, though clearly not under the same conditions or in the same way. A historically informed account of military service’s role in citizenship formation can provide a useful analytic frame for clarifying literary engagements with contemporary French “identity-talk,” i.e. political and discursive deployments of identity and identity politics, as well as debates around laïcité, universalist assimilationism, and “communautarisme.”

In early literary responses to the Algerian War, the character of the conscript serves to criticize the rising tide of consumerism and Americanization in postwar France. In novels by Daniel Anselme and René-Nicolas Ehni, draftees participate in a homosocial republicanism in which “fraternité” trumps both atomized individualism and the normative heterosexual couple, a locus of consumption. In novels by Perec and Modiano, resistance to conscription enables a critique of universalist citizenship, as the figure of the insubordinate or ambivalent conscript provides an opportunity to reckon with Jewish identity and French anti-Semitism. My analysis addresses the unequal and uneven distribution of political rights based on “identity” factors as well as the asymmetrical deployment of the term “communautarisme.” Certain of Guyotat’s texts are perceived to respond politically and aesthetically to the Algerian War, even though they refuse the conventions of realism, verisimilitude, and even representation. Using Foucault to read Guyotat, my analysis of his work provides an opportunity to address twentieth-century French debates concerning engaged and autonomous art, as well as the relationship of radical politics to radical form.

I turn in my last chapter to recent novels by the prize-wining French novelists Alexis Jenni, Laurent Mauvignier, Jérôme Ferrari, and Alice Ferney. Set in part during the Algerian War, these novels draw explicit parallels between colonial violence and race-based violence in France today. These rhetorical parallels can obscure historical contingency and complexity, such as the evolving construction of the concept of “race.” Likewise, these novels contrast a virile, homogenous military and an effeminate, fractured republic and can be read as parables for the rise of the Front National in contemporary France. My analysis shows how these works can both participate in and critique particular racialized and gendered views of the French republic.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Dobie, Madeleine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 17, 2020