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 and 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…

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