Vallès (1832–85) shows a remarkably modern approach to the novel in L'Enfant and it's difficult to believe that it was written in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, many criticisms of modern French literature – and many within France itself – accuse writers of nombrilisme (or navel-gazing), and yet this classic work of the novel is an example of autofiction and therefore related to a number of other works such as Jules Renard's Poil de carotte (Carotte Top) (1894) or Hervé Bazin's Vipère au poing (1948). These are autofictions which are avant la lettre – before Serge Doubrovsky coined the term in 1977 in his book Fils – but the link with later works by, say, Marguerite Duras, Christine Angot, Camille Laurens, Chloé Delaume, Annie Ernaux, Guillaume Dustan, etc, is undeniable.
The harm that parents do in many modern autofictions is often intense, as it certainly is in L'Enfant. And if the expression autofiction hasn't travelled across the English Channel at all well, that quintessentially English poet Philip Larkin nevertheless famously summed up the problem in a wonderfully laconic manner: 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.'
Right from the first page maternal violence is described in graphic, onomatopoeic terms: 'Vlin ! Vlan ! Zon ! Zon !', all to convey the flogging of Jacques, named 'le petit Chose',* a phrase which inevitably recalls Alphonse Daudet's eponymous autofiction of the same name, published in 1868.
Jacques's mother normally does the beating, although his father does some too later in the book, which describes the movement of the family from Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne to Saint-Étienne, then (via train to Orléans and then by boat, staying overnight in Tours) to Nantes. At all three places, Jacques's father works as a teacher, although he comes across as a rather pathetic figure not only to his son but also to the students and his colleagues.
But Jacques's mother is even more pathetic: of peasant stock, Mme Vingtras now shuns her background and desperately tries to fit into her new environment. She indoctrinates Jacques with her perceptions of 'polite' manners within that class, although the trouble is she is invariably wrong about, for example, table manners within that class, and she not only makes a fool of herself but of Jacques too, as he of course behaves as she has taught him. Her meanness is also a source of painful embarrassment: to give just one example of many, when Jacques is forced to flee from Nantes to Paris after a romantic entanglement, his mother is delighted when she thinks – in spite of her husband's increase of wealth – that she's obtained her son's education in Paris on the cheap by pleading poverty.
L'Enfant, then, is to some extent a social satire, as the dedication makes clear: it is for all those who have been bored to death at school, those who have been tyrannised by their parents or teachers. Jacques would rather live the life of a peasant, and identifies with the outsider, with black people he envies. Jacques is a revolutionary in the making.
* The word 'chose' – which is normally a feminine noun – is used as a masculine one here to indicate the reification of Jacques Vingtras.
Gustav Courbet's painting of Vallès in Musée Carnavalet.
The house in Maisons-Laffitte where Vallès briefly lived.
And his grave in Père-Lachaise.