Re: RARA-AVIS: The French definition of noir

From: E.Borgers (
Date: 01 Oct 2005

I didn't read the lastest 25 or so R-A messages I just received, so I react here only after reading Juri's.

"Noir" is definitely a French adjective, which means "black" for its first most common use.

This word had also, a rather negative meaning, something like gloomy, sinister even "evil" (this last signification comes from older times). Noir, at least since the end of 18 th century, was already applied to a certain kind of literature in these days, but… it was to identify the
"gothic literature" (mainly German at first and then English) and other things alike.

Noir was after this also used to qualify something negative, dark, linked to gloomy *events* -but had also in another meaning: things illegal or underground (as in black market) as in other languages.

"S鲩e noire" is an expression in French that means: a succession of bad events, repeated bad luck …etc; this is where Duhamel picked the title of his famous books series, and it was a play of words between the meaning of the expression and evoking of a literature that was not conformist, dark… Duhamel wanted to underline the break from traditional detection mysteries, British style, in 1945 when he created his imprint.

"Noire" is the feminine version of the word "noir"; in French the adjective is always depending on the genre of the name related to it.
"S鲩e" is a feminine word.

All this explains also why, *outside the criminal and mystery literature*, the qualification of "noir" was also kept for another branch of literature in France, based on the "gothic" lit and having similarities, close or loose, with its style, intent, ambiance… and it evolved to the meaning we use now to qualify a "literary" noir novel
(roman noir). Today, the borderline between the two branches is thinner than ever, and highly controversial.

"Noir", for cinema. Yes, it was a French critic who coined "film noir", for a certain breed of "films policiers" during the end of the forties, stuck by common basic characteristics of a lot of "thrillers", gangster films, detective stories, coming from the USA. Do not forget that because of the war, a lot of American films of the late thirties and forties came late to France. This critic was Nino Frank, IIRC.

Hope this will clarify a little which are the French origins of the use of the word "noir".

As for the use of the word Noir in our circles, I do not agree with restrictive definitions, as I explained it many times here; it's not a set of characteristics that make a novel belong to the noir domain. Only a few traits and some intentions. I'm even supporting the idea that, in the end, hard-boiled is part of the noir territory. I do not want to put strict borders to the genre, a genre which is universal as we can see it more clearly now since the nineties, and which has highly diversified roots and influences. It's also, IMHO, one of the very few paths that could make the novel, a literary form, to survive our present days as a literary genre and to delay its full sclerosis. The alternative is that the novel will just be a mere glorified
"entertainment" genre in the future, repeating its forms and contents endlessly.

E.Borgers Hard-Boiled Mysteries Polar Noir

Juri Nummelin :

>The French critics used the word "noir" already earlier before
>the WWII to describe some of the films that were made in the
>country, such as Marcel Carn駳 PORT OF SHADOWS. The films were
>also called the poetic realism: dark, gloomy, atmospheric, and
>also with a sense of doom.
>I don't know who coined the term first in the thirties, but I'd
>suggest everyone read James Naremore's excellent study of the
>subject, MORE THAN NIGHT, which discusses largely the birth of
>the definition of noir (and many of its later uses - it's mainly
>about movies, though).
>I know one thing where Jim Doherty was wrong. Marcel Duhamel's
>line of books was Serie Noire, not Serie Noir.

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