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From Abailard to Les Zutistes

A New History of French Literature

edited by Denis Hollier
Harvard University Press, 1,150 pp., $49.95

The Oxford Companion to French Literature

by Sir Paul Harvey, by J.E. Heseltine
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 771 pp., $49.95

The new mode in history seems to be upon us. Hard on the heels of Columbia’s vast Literary History of the United States comes Harvard’s New History of French Literature, both weighing in at over a thousand pages, and distinctively new and different in the number of authors employed as well as in their deployment. The New French History has 164 different contributors, writing, as I calculate, 202 different units—they are not big enough to be called “chapters” and they are not numbered, even in the table of contents. Like its American predecessor, the French history arranges its units in chronological order, but it does not attempt to “cover” a particular author in an individual unit, and rather glories in the freedom of having several different units to handle different aspects of the same author.

A little arithmetic indicates that the average length of a unit in the New History of French Literature is about five pages; some run to as many as seven or eight pages, some as few as three. Each is headed by the date of a specific publication or historical event; each also is assigned a heading in the present tense rather in the manner of a newspaper headline: “Roland Dies at Roncevaux,” or “Honoré d’Urfé Finally Publishes the Third Part of L’Astrée” or “Antoine Watteau Paints His First Theatrical Subject.”

Connectives between the different units are minimal; there is some intermittent allusion to economic and a bit more to political history, but not enough to bind the presentation into a consecutive, interrelated structure. References to painting, sculpture, architecture, and the arts of design are infrequent and widely scattered. This destitution of narrative does not seem to be an unfortunate side-effect but rather the deliberate intention of the entire project. It is no insult but a simple statement of descriptive fact that the result is a kind of schusterfleck (patchwork) history.

There are, obviously, constraints and limitations to any arrangement of historical materials (including the no-arrangement-at-all option). Particularly a history that undertakes to summarize in a bit more than a thousand pages rather more than a thousand years of artistic, cultural, and social change is going to be inexact and scrappy. The assumption underlying the New French History must have been that by assigning each contributor a relatively limited field to be treated in a distinctive way one could combine some precision about the specific topic, perhaps even some depth of insight, with a suggested but largely unspecified context that the reader could work out for himself. The structure of the book doesn’t actually forbid contributors to make cross-allusions or generalize (there are several good—amazingly good, considering the limitations of space—generalizing essays); but the five-page barriers discourage straying into related topics, retrospective analogies, cross-cultural divagations, alluring but not strictly relevant details.

Inevitably, when there are several hundred joints in the narrative (but it is only implicitly a narrative, and I’m sorry to have to use the word) things fall through the gaps. Sometimes what is lost is surprisingly large, more substantial by far than what is retained. Omissions are inevitable, and they are particularly deadly because they don’t call attention to themselves; perhaps there are ways to circumvent the worst difficulties. But a more apparent problem for the consecutive reader (who, like the determined reviewer, begins at the beginning and works methodically through to the end) is that the different units of the history are written at strikingly different levels. Some are highly abstract analyses, deriving from currently fashionable psycho-linguistic formulas, and tuned to the wavelengths of intimate graduate seminars. Some explore, as a single chapter of a conventional history might, several examples of a particular genre or literary technique. Some describe the social background or political circumstances of an era without more than incidental reference to the literature. Some define general movements and period categories. Particular texts, for example Apollinaire’s “La Cravate et la montre,” are subject to close scrutiny. Some of the essays, such as the ones on Simone de Beauvoir and Commune culture work off familiar ideological grudges, against the male gender or the awful bourgeoisie.

It isn’t the variety of these approaches that will bother the reader as he makes his precarious way across the ice floes; it’s the different levels of discourse to which he must adapt. Sometimes he will be struggling to follow a contributor who is clearly writing entirely for himself; next minute he will be bumping along the rough (but not unwelcome) ground of social statistics, as in the entry on 1789. Hardened by such experiences, the reader surely won’t be bothered by the fact that the same material is treated several times over. No more will he be distressed by contradictions—for example, the flat statement on page 82 that “From the beginning, French literature, like all the other vernacular literatures of medieval Europe, was strongly religious,” when at least four previous entries have argued the contrary.

Other jolts will come in the course of one’s passage when contributors assume too blithely that the reader knows something he hasn’t been told. “Much has been written about the libertines,” a contributor writes on page 304. True enough, but this is the first time the word has been used in the New History; and the contributor proceeds to use it without any attempt to define or explain it. (It is in fact a confusing word, referring sometimes to liberal theological opinions, sometimes to bawdy writing or even behavior.) On page 361 the contributor refers to the Camisards and the Assemblées du Désert as if they were the common knowledge of every normally informed reader. The reader has heard a good deal about Jansenism and Port-Royal before, on page 320, some kind soul gets around to explaining the terms.

The serpent insidiously lying in wait for everyone who writes explanatory prose is the knowing allusion; it’s not only quicker and easier than laborious explanation, it makes beautifully clear to the dullard reader how familiar the author is with the whole subject. But for conveying information, that is evidently beside the point.

Reading the New History consecutively has its passing problems, but it’s an exhilarating exercise for an adventurous reader, and it leaves much routine material behind—perhaps material one “ought to know,” perhaps material one already knows and doesn’t need to be reminded of. But consulting the book for specific information presents problems too. Since a particular subject may be handled in three or four different units, it is not easy to know where to look.

Then there’s the matter of differing levels of discourse, previously noted; you certainly won’t get any biographical information, and you may get more or less basic literary information about the book that interests you—perhaps none, perhaps a great sufficiency. Of course you may not find your author included at all.

The omissions from the New History, alluded to above, are extensive. There is nothing about medieval historians like Joinville and Villehardouin, nothing about the Chroniques of Froissart (though he’s mentioned as a poet); after a unit on the Old Provençal Lyric, there’s nothing more to be heard from that part of the world—the jeux floraux of Toulouse are absent, like their cousins across the border, the jocs florals of Catalonia; so is all mention of Frédéric Mistral and his nineteenth-century movement, the Félibrige. Nothing about Mathurin Régnier, or Alain, or the Goliardic poets, or Senancour, or the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, or Brantôme, or Monluc, or Amiel, or—but this sort of list is all too easy to compile. The editor said he wasn’t trying to be comprehensive, and he isn’t.

Still, these omissions raise the question of another sort of book entirely, which ought to be mentioned as a place to look for information about the ins and outs of French literature. Mr. Hollier, editor of the New History, says that the dictionary arrangement “artificially homogenizes literature into linear genealogies.” But this is not accurate, indeed not possible. The dictionary approach basically breaks a literature down into petits faits vrais. Such a book may add, to greater or lesser effect, generalizing articles; but linear genealogies are wholly antipathetic to its structure.

The Oxford Companion to French Literature is now thirty years old; like its English cousin, it is unashamedly alphabetical. Over the years, it has been corrected but not revised. It is not, and does not pretend to be, complete, but it is modestly comprehensive. Of course it has little to say about the lively period since the Second World War, nor does it attempt such extended analytical exegeses as are a distinguishing feature of the New History.

On the other hand, its format seems more flexible than that of the New History; its entries may be as short as a couple of lines, or as long as four or five pages. And among its 6,000 entries one finds basic information, not only on all the topics noted above as omissions from the New History, but on much, much more. What was the great achievement of Jacques Amyot? Who was Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, and what did he do? Distinguish between Amadis de Gaule and Arnauld le Grand.

For basic information on problems of this order, one would certainly do better turning to the Oxford Companion than to the New History. It is a wonderful companion for browsing in; Sir Paul Harvey and Janet Heseltine had a gift for the concise statement of a central theme, the significant detail, and the comic episode. Generalizing essays are to be found amid the brief identifications, but they have as a rule little to do with linear genealogies; they are topical essays on critics and criticism, the novel, dictionaries and encyclopedias, and the like. Most convenient of all for the seeker after particular information, he has just one place to look, and before he looks, a general idea of what sort of information he’s likely to find. When he wants more, he can go elsewhere.

How the New History can best be used is a question far more open than most books provoke. Should it be read when one is just starting to take an interest in French literature? Certainly not then—that least of all. Half the time the beginner will not know whether he is learning about the author or the critic. Should one look into the History when one knows enough to have some specific questions about an author like Marivaux or Beaumarchais or La Fontaine? Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe maybe; it all depends on the contributor.

The editor thinks one might want to sample, in the History, various kinds of literary approach in use today. But none of them is identified; none of them can possibly be distinguished from the particular contributor using them. Well, faute de mieux, perhaps the book is for the long-suffering “general reader,” as a hopeful blurb-writer suggests; that’s a desperate idea. I can’t myself come up with any better formulas for approaching the book than “Take it or leave it in bits and pieces,” and after that “Catch as catch can.” There is undoubtedly good material in it; maybe with luck and resourcefulness you can get some of it out. But I’m quite sure that the more French literary history you know to begin with, the more confident you will feel about picking up the New History where it has something to say to you and putting it down when it doesn’t. A reviewer also has to do some picking and choosing to convey some idea of the gamut run by the units and to show what effect the format of the history has had on the work of the contributors.

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