John Weightman (1915–2004) was a critic and literary scholar. After working as a translator and announcer for the BBC French service, Weightman turned to the study of French literature. He taught at King’s College London and the University of London. His books include The Concept of the Avant-Gardeand The Cat Sat on the Mat: Language and the Absurd.

A Soft Spot for Napoleon

Given the depressing list of dictators who have plagued the world in recent times—Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and tutti quanti, up to Milosevic and Mugabe—it is possible to have a soft spot for Napoleon. He began his career as a very young man, when it was a question of defending …

Molière Imaginaire

I sometimes think it a blessing that we know next to nothing about Shakespeare, the man, and so are forced to concentrate almost entirely on the works, without getting involved in the difficult business of explaining the works by the life, or deducing the life from the works. Of course, …

Death on the Installment Plan

The Collaborator is a well-researched and vivid account of a controversial trial which took place in 1945, at the end of the German occupation of Paris. I have, however, an initial quibble about the title. The definite article in The Collaborator gives Robert Brasillach too general an importance, as if …

Reconstructing the Colonel

The 1930s now seem so far away that many members of the younger generation outside France, and even in France, may never have come across the works of Roger Martin du Gard. Yet, in his day, he was famous enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but even …

The Outsider

It has to be said that this English version of Olivier Todd’s book is not altogether satisfactory. According to an introductory note, “Some material not of sufficient interest to the American general reader has been omitted to improve the narrative flow.” Actually, a volume some 800 pages long in French …

Cosmic Adventurer

Jules Verne poses an unusual problem. He enjoys the unique distinction of being the most widely translated, and therefore in a sense the most genuinely world-famous, of all French writers, yet it is still debatable whether he belongs to serious literature at all. During his lifetime, his books were immensely …

The Book of Cohen

Translation, which, like the wind, bloweth where it listeth, has suddenly and for reasons unexplained presented the Anglo-American public with this remarkable book, some thirty years after its original publication in France. Albert Cohen (1895-1981) seems to be little known in the English-speaking world. If there have been previous English …

Between Animal and Angel

This eight-hundred-page volume must be the most monumental account of Zola that has so far appeared in either French or English. It is some five hundred pages longer than an earlier notable English study—Emile Zola by F.W.J. Hemmings (second edition, 1966). The basic story told in both volumes can be …

Extravaganza in Progress

This is a new book in the sense that it has never appeared in this form in English before, but it is also an old book with a curious history. The author or presumed author—the attribution has been contested, but no doubt wrongly—belonged to a very famous and wealthy Polish …

Multicultural Mandarin

Larbaud’s name is probably no longer widely known even in France, something of him certainly survives, because I recently heard a speaker on the French radio use the phrase “Ce vice impuni, la lecture” (“Reading, that unpunished vice”), as if it were an anonymous quotation that had passed into the …

The Human Comedy of the Divine Marquis

Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, the most extreme of Donatien Aldonse de Sade’s surviving works, is not yet, so far as I know, prescribed reading for students of eighteenth-century French literature, but soon it may well be, since the status of its once-reviled author has undergone a striking change …

Fatal Attraction

This excellent book has been given an oddly inappropriate title. “Past imperfect,” in its literal meaning as a grammatical term, distinguishes a particular tense of the French verb from the “past definite” and the “pluperfect.” Here it is being applied metaphorically to a certain historical time span. But history is …

How Wise Was Montaigne?

Dr. Screech has done us a great service by producing a meticulous translation of the Essays in plain, contemporary English, and with no avoidance of those frank or obscene terms that Montaigne was not afraid of using. Of course, a twentieth-century translator cannot, in the nature of things, reproduce the …

Twilight in Flanders

Most people, when they come to write their memoirs in later years, naturally place themselves at the center of the story: how I rose from rags to riches, how I discovered the true faith, how my views were correct, although events may seem to have proved me wrong. Dear Departed, …

Sex and the Devil

Julian, or Julien, Green, an American born and brought up in Paris, is one of the most unusual figures in contemporary French literature. He is probably—after the eighteenth-century philosophe Fontenelle, who lived to be a hundred—the longest surviving French-language author known to history. He was ninety-one on the sixth of …

L’Homme Révolté

As far as I can ascertain, the novel under review is only the second of Nizan’s works to appear in English translation in the past fifteen years, and its publication was perhaps timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the writer’s death in May 1940. The book itself dates …

A La Recherche … …de Proust

In his brilliant, fragmentary pamphlet known as Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust gives forceful expression to the view that the biographical approach to writers is misconceived, because the literary work is produced not by the artist’s everyday personality but by what he calls le moi profond, which operates according to its own …

Written on Water

This publication is something of a puzzle. The statement on the copyright page, the “First American Edition,” leads one to expect a new translation, but the text turns out to be an undeclared reissue of an English version, published in 1952, four years after the appearance of the French original.

Confessions of a Polymorph

The English title and subtitle of this volume are both rather misleading. The original text, first published in 1977, is called Le vent Paraclet, without any subheading. The French expression refers directly to the New Testament, whereas The Wind Spirit suggests some pagan emanation of Nature, the sort of Spirit …

Summing Up Sartre

Is Jean-Paul Sartre—philosopher, novelist, playwright, critic, biographer, political theorist and activist—to be revered as the outstanding intellectual and artistic figure of twentieth-century France, or was he, as George Orwell suggested in the early days of Sartre’s fame, predominantly a windbag? To rephrase the question in politer terms, was he a …

Polymorphic Peter Pan

Like all his other works, this first collection of short stories by one of the most interesting French novelists of recent years has suffered a change of name in passing from one language to another, and the fact is probably worth commenting on, since it highlights the specific nature of …

The French Complaint

This arresting title may lead the reader to expect some great Promethean outburst, but in fact what we have here is a book by a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wyoming, consisting of a preface followed by five chapters, each devoted to the medical-cum-psychological case history of …

Ego, Prince of Id

All poets are mysterious, in the sense that they themselves are never sure about their creative impulse. But some are relatively easy to get the feel of as personalities, from outside, and their work appears as a natural extension of their being. Not so, at least not so at first …

Risorgimento and Romantic Agony

Before reading this biography, I confess I had never wittingly given a thought to Cristina, Princess Belgiojoso, although I must have seen the reference to her in The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz and encountered her name elsewhere. A spot-check among some of my colleagues working on nineteenth-century literature has …

What’s Going On Upstairs?

There has been a tendency lately in France to say that, after all, Mme Sarraute is not a “New Novelist,” since she is interested in psychological substance rather than in word-games. She clearly holds the old-fashioned view that “reality” is a pre-existing something that language tries despairingly to express. Whereas …

Stranger in Paradise

La mort heureuse, volume 1 in a projected series of Cahiers Albert Camus, is a first novel, written between 1936 and 1938, about a hero called Mersault, which Camus, for reasons unexplained, never attempted to have published. Instead he went on immediately to write his celebrated story, L’Etranger, reworking some …