René-Émile Char was born on June 14, 1907 in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a town in the Provence region of France, to Émile Char and Marie-Thérèse (née Rouget). Char was the youngest of four children born to the couple. Char’s father died in 1918. Char received his education at a boarding school—Lycée d’Avignon in Provence—and left at seventeen. Despite the expectation that he would study business, he chose instead to work for a fruit merchant in Cavaillon, while reading the works of Plutarch, François Villon, Jean Racine, and Charles Baudelaire in his free time. He was influenced, too, by the French Surrealist poet, Paul Éluard, who introduced Char to key Surrealists, including André Breton.
Char’s literary career began in 1927. While doing his military service in Nîmes, he also began to work with local literary review journals. While in Nîmes, he published his first collection of poetry, Les Cloches sur le coeur (Le Rouge et Le Noir, 1928), a work that he would later largely disavow. In 1929, he released his second volume of poetry, Arsenal (Méridien), a limited release with only twenty-six published copies, which was dedicated to Breton. That same year, Char published work in La Révolution surrèaliste, thus solidifying his membership among the Surrealists. By 1934, however, he had distanced himself from the group and returned to his hometown. Two years later, while recovering from septicemia in Céreste, a town in the French Alps, Char wrote Moulin premier (Guy Levis Mano, 1936), his first collection of aphoristic verse—a style that would distinguish him from other French poets of the period. The publication of this collection heralded the beginning of a prolific period for Char, particularly of works published by Guy Levis Mano. Additionally, he contributed art criticism to Cahiers d’Art.
Char’s other works of poetry include Aromates chasseurs (Gallimard, 1975); Contre une maison sèche (Jean Hugues, 1975), a collection of poetry that includes nine etchings by Wifredo Lam; Le nu perdu (Gallimard, 1971), a collection of writings from 1964–70; Commune présence (Gallimard, 1964); Les Matineaux (Gallimard, 1950); Fureur et mystère (Gallimard, 1948); Le Poème pulvérisé (Editions Fontaine, 1948); Seuls Demeurent (Gallimard, 1945), a highly praised collection that brought him into contact with Cubist painter Georges Braque and the philosopher Albert Camus; and Le Marteau sans maître (Corti, 1934), which was prefaced by Tristan Tzara, illustrated by Wassily Kandinsky and, in 1955, adapted into a musical composition by Pierre Boulez.
Mary Ann Caws, a distinguished professor of comparative literature and a scholar on the work of René Char has identified him as “one of the most important modern French poets,” noting that “he wrote poetry which miraculously, often challengingly, confronts the major 20th century moral, political and artistic concerns with a simplicity of vision and expression that owes much to the poet-philosophers of ancient Greece.”
In 1939, Char was drafted to fight in the Second World War and was stationed in Alsace. In 1941, he began working with Resistance groups in Céreste, then officially joined the Forces françaises combattantes (FFC), a military organization made up of agents from Free France and operating in the region occupied by Germany and the Vichy regime. In 1946, Char published Feuillets d’Hypnos (Gallimard), a journal of his war and Resistance years, later translated into German by Paul Celan and into Italian by Vittorio Sereni. Char met Henri Matisse in the same year in which the book was published. Matisse would later provide illustrations for Le Poème pulverisé. After the war, Char resumed publishing poems in literary journals, particularly Cahiers d’Art, Cahiers du Sud, and Fontaine. In the same decade, he also performed his play, Le Soleil des eaux, on the radio, accompanied by music from Boulez.
In August 1978, Char suffered a heart attack, but the health scare did not seemingly slow his productivity. The next year, he published Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit, followed two years later by Le plan de vivre—a collection of poems in translation that included works by Petrarch, William Blake, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, among others, co-translated with Tina Jolas. Both works were published by Gallimard. Char died of heart failure on February 19, 1988, two months after turning in his final manuscript, Éloge d’une Soupçonnée, to Gallimard. The work was published posthumously in May 1988. In 2021, a new edition of Hypnos: Notes from the French Resistance, translated by Mark Hutchinson, was released by Seagull Books. The latest edition marks the first time in which Char’s historical account has been published in full in English.