Re: RARA-AVIS: The French definition of noir

From: Steve Novak (
Date: 01 Oct 2005

This is an excellent re-view of the further fill the
'definition gap'...and to add an active view on the subject among French critics and writers themselves I bring forward the definition given by J.P. Manchette, the most famous 'n鯭noir' writer and analyst among the new generations of 'polar' writers in France: Manchette in an essay written on Sunday Sept 15, 74, published recently with his postusmous novel "La princesse du sang" (Gallimard-2005), divides the crime novel in two
'sections' along the idea of the law and the social order...

In one case novels deal with the restoring of order and the punishment of a criminal and we are witnessing an 'interior (i.e. intellectual) exercise about the price payed by society for the restoring of order that covers both the punishment of the criminal and also the 'suffering' of the one who enforces/manages this restoring/punishment. This suffering can go from simple description of the life of the cop/investigator (bad salary in a rotten environment....), to the most interesting cases where he/she suffers in his/her own soul and takes within himself the sins that he has to deal with (Holmes who plays violin to escape and takes drugs to be able to bear his work)...

In other cases the novel (and Manchette calls this the 'roman noir') is going to desbribe socially and historically the law and the social order at the time of the crime and the novel will underline the vast differences between the daily life of citizens (either those who serve the social order or those who oppose/transgress it) and the domain of the law
('juridiction')...and "we are therefore in the social novel, which is not necessarely from/of the left, but which can be called 'noir' insofar that it considers society as filled with darkness, that the law is immoral and that the delinquants have reasons to be opposed to the law" (my translation)...

As Etienne points out it is extremely hazardous to bring a strict definition of the genre, at best the area is made of different shades of grey and this is also valid for the 'noir' films....The Manchette definition has the merit to take it to a larger level and not confine it to the strict literary (i.e. Academic) definitions and therefore seems more apt to cover a larger ground than such superficial adjectives as gloomy, dark etc....that normal/standard academic and often journalistic circles tend to attribute to this literary phenomenon.

For further readings and very interesting articles about the whole genre go to the following website created under the leadership of Claude Mespl褥 that some of you have quoted and know: where very important interviews and analysis are translated in multiple languages including English of course.

Steve Novak Montois de D鴲oit

On 10/1/05 8:05 AM, "E.Borgers" <> wrote:

> I didn¹t read the lastest 25 or so R-A messages I just received, so I
> react here only after reading Juri¹s.
> ³Noir² is definitely a French adjective, which means ³black² for its
> first most common use.
> This word had also, a rather negative meaning, something like gloomy,
> sinister even ³evil² (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, butŠ it was to identify the
> ³gothic literature² (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.
> ³S鲩e noire² is an expression in French that means: a succession of bad
> events, repeated bad luck Šetc; 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, darkŠ
> Duhamel wanted to underline the break from traditional detection
> mysteries, British style, in 1945 when he created his imprint.
> ³Noire² is the feminine version of the word ³noir²; in French the
> adjective is always depending on the genre of the name related to it.
> ³S鲩e² is a feminine word.
> All this explains also why, *outside the criminal and mystery
> literature*, the qualification of ³noir² was also kept for another
> branch of literature in France, based on the ³gothic² lit and having
> similarities, close or loose, with its style, intent, ambianceŠ and it
> evolved to the meaning we use now to qualify a ³literary² noir novel
> (roman noir). Today, the borderline between the two branches is thinner
> than ever, and highly controversial.
> ³Noir², for cinema. Yes, it was a French critic who coined ³film noir²,
> for a certain breed of ³films policiers² during the end of the forties,
> stuck by common basic characteristics of a lot of ³thrillers², 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 ³noir².
> 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; it¹s not a
> set of characteristics that make a novel belong to the noir domain. Only
> a few traits and some intentions. I¹m 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.
> It¹s 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
> ³entertainment² 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.
>> Juri
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