Jail Sentences: Representing Prison in Twentieth-Century French Fiction

Jail Sentences: Representing Prison in Twentieth-Century French Fiction

Jail Sentences: Representing Prison in Twentieth-Century French Fiction

Jail Sentences: Representing Prison in Twentieth-Century French Fiction

Synopsis

A long list of canonical writers in Western literature have experienced incarceration and have subsequently written celebrated works about the imprisoned and the condemned. The French tradition is no exception: writers who produced noteworthy texts while incarcerated or who later wrote about their experiences in prison are found on the literary-historical landscape from the medieval era through the twentieth century. Prison writing by inmates, former guards, chaplains, teachers, and doctors is firmly established as part of the fabric of popular culture and has long attracted the attention of culture critics and scholars. Nevertheless, scant analysis exists of the prison novel- a literary genre that, as Andrew Sobanet argues in Jail Sentences, uses fiction as a documentary tool. Its narrative peculiarities, which are the main subjects of Sobanet's study, include the use of autobiographical and testimonial techniques to critique the penitentiary system.
Jail Sentences is the definitive study of the legacy of the Western tradition of prison writing in twentieth-century French literature. Although Sobanet focuses primarily on French writers- Victor Serge, Jean Genet, Albertine Sarrazin, and François Bon- his keen sense of literary dialogue pulls into the orbit of his study an international corpus of work, from Dostoyevsky to Malcolm X. Jail Sentences arrives at a coherent definition of the genre, whose unique conventions stem from the innermost regions of our understanding of stories, truth, fiction, and belief.

Excerpt

Prisoners are storytellers. Whether their tales take the form of a message tapped in code through concrete, graffiti traced on a cell wall, a conversation through the pipes of an archaic plumbing system, a lament spoken through bars in a visiting room, or written testimony left behind by the condemned, storytelling is an integral part of imprisonment. Incarceration lends itself to telling, and narratives of crime and punishment take many forms and serve myriad functions on both sides of prison walls. A prisoner assimilates into the hierarchies and cliques of the society of captives by telling a heroic tale of rebellion or a pathosridden fall from grace. Inmates ruminate on their legal cases and their appeals, determining precisely how to present their crime to the authorities (Who is to blame? Should I confess? How should I plead?). Isolated in their cells, prisoners seek pen and paper to record their thoughts and come to terms with their social relegation. Convicts are often compelled to write in order to convey to the uninitiated on the outside what transpires on the inside. Stories of brutality, dehumanization, and radical deprivation are counterbalanced—often in the same narrative—by accounts of solidarity, salvation, and enlightenment.

The prison narratives with which readers are likely to be . . .

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