Modern Breton Literature
The following is a panorama of 20th century Breton literature. Very many writers penned Breton texts during the 20th century: Transcript confines itself here to those whose work is outstanding in its Armorican context, and worthy of appreciation by an international readership.

by Diarmuid Johnson

1: 1900 to 1920
Tangi Malmanche and Yann-Ber Kalloc'h.
Our first chapter begins about 1900 and ends with First World War, a turning point in the history of Brittany. Two literary figures who wrote in Breton between 1900 and 1920 are Tangi Malmanche and Yann-Ber Kalloc'h.

Tangi Malmanche (1875 -1953 ) spent his childhood near Brest and as an adult lived near Paris where he worked as a blacksmith. Proximity to Parisian libraries enabled him to become acquainted with Breton literature. In the early years of the century, he produced an important body of theatrical work in Breton. These include Marvailh an Ene Naonek, An Intanvez Arzur, and Gurvan ar Marc'hek Estranjour. Malmanche dramatised themes and motifs from medieval Celtic and Breton literature, and his works entered their widest public arena during the early forties when they were broadcast on Radio Roazhon-Breizh.

Poet Yann-Ber Kalloc'h (1888-1917) was born on the island of Groix off the coast of southern Brittany. He harboured ambitions to become a priest. However, concern for his health led him to leave the seminary at Vannes in 1907. He taught for a time, and met his death near St Quentin in the War. His major work is Ar en Deulin. Amongst his better known poems is a long piece 'Dihumamb', a politico-cultural appeal, signed 'Bleimor', a pen-name. Due partly to the fact that they were set to music, and partly to the fact that they celebrate his island home, certain of his lines are among the most widely quoted of the century. Other poignant pieces describe the horror of war: 'How long, my God, will this cruel war continue to sever the roots in the woods, the homesteads, everywhere?'. Kalloc'h's is a lyric voice, religious and patriotic. His passing aged 29 deprived his language of unsung genius.

2: Between Two Wars
Gwalarn; autobiographical writing; Jakez Riou and Youenn Drezen.
Gwalarn was a review published between the two world wars. It represents the most influential school of thought in 20th Breton literature. Roparz Hemon (1900-1978) was the father figure of the Gwalarn movement. In an early book Ur Breizhad oc'h adkavout Breizh, he writes: 'If each of the Celtic peoples were asked: what have you contributed to the treasure-chest of Celtic literature? we could not answer like our brothers in Wales and Ireland. Our only answer might be: some theatrical pieces, - precious little else indeed' (138).

Hemon and the creators of modern Breton literature sought to rectify this state of affairs. They pursued a twofold objective: to devise and promote a standard literary language, and in this language to produce a corpus of modern literature.

The written standard proved difficult to promote. Though Breton was the mother-tongue of a million speakers during the first third of the 20th century, the language was excluded from the education system, and the population was largely illiterate. Neither was Breton the language of government. Thus, standard Breton remained the language of specialised journals, and the intimate circle of people who wrote and read them.

An important figure among the early Gwalarnists was Abeozen (1896-1963). His Istor al Lennegezh Vrezhonek a-Vreman, (1957), is the most detailed and informed account which has been written of Breton literature in the first half of the 20th century. Abeozen's best known creative works is the short story collection Pirc'hirin Kala Goañv. The stories are set before and during the Second World War. 'Rom an Aotroù Person' tells of hoarding victuals during the German occupation. 'Un Danvez Den' is the story of petty theft and stone-throwing as a young boy grows to become a good Christian.

The years between the first and second world wars witnessed the Herculean translation into Breton of much medieval Irish prose. These translations appeared in Gwalarn. Thus, complimenting their primary objective of producing sophisticated modern literature, the Gwalarnists had laboured to invent an extensive medieval heritage.

Many 20th century prose works in Breton are autobiographical, E Skeud Tour Bras Sant Jermen (1955) by Yeun ar Gow, for example. Ar Gow's book is a valuable social document which avoids nostalgia. He remarks on the reading of Breton about 1910: 'At that time, Breton papers had a readership, unlike now'. Jaques Priel's Ma Zammig Buhez is another important autobiographical work. In it Priel describes life in Russia.

As if conscious of the weight of the autobiographical tradition, Abherri informs the reader that his Evit Ket ha Netra is 'a novel about love'. It begins with the author's childhood and continues in reminiscent vein. A series of letters account for much of the book. Evit Ket ha Netra marks a searching for new structures.

Between 1930 and 1940 two outstanding writers emerged. They are Jakez Riou and Youenn Drezen. Jakez Riou (1899-1937), was born in Lotei, western Brittany, and in 1911 went to Spain to be educated as a missionary where he stayed until 1918. He survived the war, but suffered ill-health. While convalescent, he debated whether to pursue an ecclesiastical career or to devote himself to Breton. He taught for a time before becoming involved in publishing. He continued to live precariously until his early death whose imminence added poignancy to his writing.

Riou's An Ti Satanezet appeared in book form in 1944. It captures the conviviality of rural Breton at a time when anecdotes surrounded each village's more colourful characters. An Ti Satanazet occupies a space in Breton literature between tales of death and the occult, known as 'marvailhoù', and the modern short story.

The short story was Riou's forte. A slim volume, his collection Geotenn ar Werc'hez is unrivalled in modern Breton. The title story 'Geotenn ar Werc'hez' describes a young girl's slide into ill-health and her premature death which haunts her father: 'In the cavity of his heart, he could distinctly hear the voice of his daughter Lotea blaming her death on his niggardliness'. In 'Ur Barrad Avel' a man breaks his plough. To replace them he must sell his horse, and, returning home from market, he decides to recount his money. A gust of wind carries the notes into the river. That evening: 'Yann ar C'herneis drew a deep breath, filled his lungs with the fragrances of spring, and let the noose take his weight'. Riou's Geotenn ar Werc'hez probes a rural community with a modern light. With it he illuminates the darker reaches of the Breton and human psyche.

Youenn Drezen's An Dour en-dro d'an Inizi (1931) is a racy novelette which spills off the page as Herri Maheo, an artist, and Anna Bodri, daughter of a successful Douarnenez entrepreneur, flirt with romance. A pragmatic marriage arrangement forces them apart leaving Maheo devastated. An Dour en-dro d'an Inizi the tour de force of a modern, outward-looking native Breton speaker.

3: The church, exile, and the land
Maodez Glanndour, Youenn Gwernig, Per Jakez Hélias
Poet Maodez Glanndour (Loeiz ar Floc'h 1909 - 1986) was born in Pontrieux in northern Brittany. He was admitted to the priesthood in 1932 and went on to study theology and philosophy. Maodez Glanndour's poetry is primarily concerned with the search for, as well as the definition and affirmation of divinity in man's environment. Society brings little to bear on his literary output: 'Leave the noise behind and leave the clatter, the comings and goings, the chattering people, and rise, my soul!'.

A compilation of poems written at different periods of his life, Glanndour's Komzoù Bev (1985), is one of the most important Breton books of the 20th century. The tone is philosophical: 'Beings are of three parts: substance, vitality, thought'. And: 'Gain is no raison d'être. Beauty is reason enough for fine things to exist'. He creates moments of lyric beauty: 'Not swans but winged snow falling on the island, and at the river mouth there are only rocks dreaming softly beneath their coat of feathers'.

The first cycle in Komzoù Bev, 'Dour' (Water) establishes a poetic idiom. This is Glanndour's major achievement. He sees divinity as being ubiquitous: 'Summoned by God from the darkness of non-being, all things answer him with joy'. The lines 'I wish to reflect great hilltop forests and the dizzy flight of swallows recklessly turning over and back' are a manifesto.

Imram is an epic poem, a rhetorical work to which the notion of a Celtic Eden is fundamental. The wartime imagery is apocalyptic: 'I vomit my heart out at the sight of the stinking blood and the rotten flesh eaten by flies and maggots, at the sight of the greening bodies decomposing in pits, the blackened corpses of christened men'. From this the poet wishes to flee: 'I have heard that in the sea is a sheltered island which knows only love and perpetual happiness'.

Glanndour's poetry is born of the Christian tradition which shapes his thoughts. However, by conforming to a given dogma, the works risks becoming banal. Nonetheless, Glanndour's legacy is that of a true writer and thinker, a fact sets him apart from many others.

Youenn Gwernig was one of many Bretons who spent time in New York. The emigrants established themselves there mid-century, working in the catering industry and forming a Breton-speaking community. Gwernig wrote of his life in New York in the 1960s. A major theme in his work is the emigrant's coming to terms with a new environment while pining for the familiarity and simplicity of the distant home place: 'Surrounded by water the City sleeps, yellow water, tamed water, calm and soft water, simmering of magic lives alive and secret, mute world of strange creatures, pitiless, cold, virgin as a cradle with no cry nor song, metaphysical peace' (from 'On the Bank of Harlem' River 1963). This contrasts with: '. . . tomorrow when the young sun shines on the flowers of my old valley, when I am sprawling under the sky searching in a flower that old forgotten fragrance . . .' (from 'Coming Back'). Books by Youenn Gwernig include An Diri Dir (The Steel Stairs), a trilingual work in Breton, French and English, and An Toull en Nor.

Per Jakez Hélias (1914- 1998) is a giant figure in Armorican literature during the final third of the 20th century. He wrote both in Breton and in French. His work embraces several genres: journalism, radio drama, creative prose and verse. Le Cheval d'Orgueil, the French language text of his best known work Marh ar Lorh (1986), an autobiography, met with phenomenal success and brought several Hélias celebrity status. Among Per Jakez Helias' principal literary works in Breton are two collections of poetry, Ar Men Du (1974) and An Tremen-Buhez (1979). A theme in his poetry is the fact of language, and its power to define: 'Breton-speaker that I am, my heritage lives in my speech, it shall never be yours', he writes. Hélias owes his individuality to his modest upbringing coupled with a rigorous education. His work illustrates the importance of regionality in Brittany. His Marh ar Lorh is rooted in the Bigouden region southwest of Quimper. The work's regionality was central to its success.

4: 1970 - 2000
Angela Duval, Mikael Madeg, Yann Gerven.
Whereas two world wars cast their shadow on the Breton literature of the early and mid 20th century, industrialisation and rural depopulation are central concerns during the latter decades of the century. A flame of revival burns in the seventies, but Breton literature in the 5th French Republic is a literature in crisis.

Mikael Madeg (1950 - ) emerges as a prolific and confident writer. Collections of his short stories are Ar Seiz Posubl (1987), and Nozvez ar hig-ha-fars (1988). Two of his novels are Tra ma vo Mor (1989) and Gweltaz an Inizi (1990). Madeg is firmly rooted in the north-west Leon region, but his work transcends local boundaries. In Pemp Troad d'ar Maout (1987), a further collection of short stories, for example, the reader finds himself in Paris.

Yann Gerven (1946 - ) has published a number of novels. His Bouklet ha Minellet (1990) is a reaction to an increasingly consumerist lifestyle. See our feature on Yann Gerven.

Angela Duval is synonymous with late twentieth century Breton literature. Read our separate feature on Angela Duval.

To conclude, we may say that, despite language-change and the collapse of a civilisation, the corpus of Breton literature written in the 20th century outweighs the combined corpus of previous centuries. Of course, the same could be said of many other languages.

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