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.

I have one disclaimer; I shan’t try to say anything about the field known (more in France than America) as “stylistics.” By and large the History is chary of quoting original texts and analyzing them closely. Of such poets as Ronsard, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Valéry hardly more than a dozen lines are quoted in all, and then they are transcribed into English prose. Occasionally the editors have relaxed to the extent of admitting a few lines of original text to stand beside the translations; but generally constraints of space, or perhaps of principle, have prevented this. The text itself is by no means tightly written and the sparsity of illustrative materials in French casts an ironic light on the frequent repetitions and redundancies of the critical comment in English.

In any case, close verbal analysis is infrequent, and so is discussion of topics like metrics, imagery, vocabulary, and dialects and argots. As for the contributors’ sensitivity to nuances of the French language itself, that is no part of my concern. As a matter of policy, the New History has been written predominantly by non-French authors; commentary on their proficiency should, and no doubt will, come from the French scholarly community, and to them I leave it.

To start, then, with some successes; Lionel Gossman presents on page 379 a summary account of Pierre Bayle’s enormous and enormously influential Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), which fits naturally into the format of the history as a whole. Bayle’s dictionary itself, with its striking idiosyncrasies of form, is firmly at the center of the discussion; peripheral material about the circumstances of its production and the reasons for its widespread influence puts the reader in good preliminary command of the subject. The unit has both a core and some suggestive peripheries. So also with Peter Brooks’s account of a novel much better received in our time than in its own, Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses. Here the contributor keeps a firm grasp on the texture as well as the structure of the novel.

Not every topic moves quite so spontaneously into the cramped format of five pages. Charles Muscatine, assigned to write on the thirteenth and fourteenth century comic tales called fabliaux (page 70), must have sighed over his immense, disorderly subject before settling on the question of whether they were intended for a courtly or a vulgar audience. (His answer, which is essentially “Neither or both,” strikes me as a model of good sense.) Jefferson Humphries (page 785) has interesting things to say about J.K. Huysmans’s novel A rebours, but they are said at the expense of Huysmans’s other well-known novel, Là-bas and its sequels—at the expense, also, of the entire perspective of Huysmans’s developing Catholicism. Eugene Vance writes (page 41) informatively and interestingly on the special Champagne backgrounds of Chrétien de Troyes; but he has room to discuss in detail only one of Chrétien’s five romances. A second one is assigned to another unit, in which a very different and almost unrelated perspective takes over. Joan Ferrante, discussing the dozen or so lais of Marie de France, simply has too much narrative material to present; as a result, the unit sprawls, even though concerned with only a single book.

On page 354 an account of the Comédie-Française concentrates almost entirely on administrative concerns. Janet Gurkin Altman on pages 415–421 writes a splendid account of letter writing for publication in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; by concentrating on Mme. de Sévigné and her innovations in the genre, this section maintains a center from which one can branch out suggestively. On pages 421–429 Jack Undank performs brilliantly on an eccentric topic. A discussion of Marivaux in a general literary history usually centers on his many plays and his two important, if incomplete, novels. Rather, Undank talks about a series of little-known essays by Marivaux, which describe a derelict philosopher, or a speculative tramp. In the modern manner, the discussion is abstract and metaphorical to a degree, barely accessible to an unspecialized reader, yet it is obviously intelligent, and the subject itself is crucial to the prerevolutionary stage of the philosophical movement. Rags and garbage are always important when they start haunting the imaginations of thoughtful men. But they are not all there is to know about Marivaux.

The question of dimensions obviously comes to a head in the phenomenon of the roman-fleuve. Essays beginning on pages 774 and 780 describe between them three novels by Emile Zola, L’assommoir, Germinal, and Nana. Though respectable combinations of summary and paraphrase, they still leave untouched the seventeen other volumes of Les Rougon-Macquart and the position of the chosen three in the total project. Even more striking is the problem facing a reader of the fiction of Balzac. Clearly the History can’t even think of discussing the more than seventy-five volumes of the Comédie humaine. But for reasons about which one can only speculate, there’s not even an effort to present a summary of the huge work or its several divisions. The ten volumes of Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, the twenty-seven of Jules Romain’s Homme de bonne volonté are not mentioned at all. This seems uppity, to say the least.

Compartmentalization controls even the writing of a single entry. On page 806, Victor Brombert could not conceivably have written such a weak piece on the centenary of the Revolution (1889) if he had seen the previous sections of the History, which preempt much of what he has to say here. Three separate parts are given over to the Revolution itself: a discussion (page 556) of the events of summer 1789; an account (page 584) of the Festivals of Reason, and a study (page 572) of the language of revolution. They are intelligent and informative pieces of writing, and yet almost all the major questions so hotly debated during the recent bicentennial are missing. We do not so much as learn that there are questions about the nature of the ancien régime (anyone who got his image of it from A Tale of Two Cities has a lot to learn), and we cannot guess that sizable units of the population known as Vendéens or Chouans existed, and that in the process of “pacifying” them more people were killed than in the Terror. Just as strikingly, nothing is said about the sort of mass vandalism that destituted France’s ancient monuments, ravaging the giant abbey of Cluny and ripping off the marvelous statues of the kings of Juda that used to adorn the façade of Notre Dame—to mention only a couple of innumerable instances.

One notes with gratitude that on page 402 Thomas Crow presents a stimulating and perceptive account of Watteau’s “fêtes galantes“—the first section devoted directly to art history, and very capably arranged. But where does this leave the vast gallery of predecessors (Poussain, Rubens, and all the rest), not to mention entire populations of sculptors and architects, and chateau builders? On a larger scale, Eric MacPhail writes (page 209) intelligently and with verve about Du Bellay’s role in looting Roman antiquities for the benefit of France during the sixteenth century; but it makes one look about—vainly, to be sure—for an account of the way Napoleonic armies raped Spain and Italy of whatever artistic treasures they could lay their hands on. If there was any principle behind the selection of what to talk about, it should have been made explicit; if the choice was helter-skelter, that should have been made explicit too.

Parts of the three units at the beginning of the New History deal with the Chanson de Roland, but the reader departs from all of them without knowing that the poem was written in laisses or what laisses are, without knowing what language the Oxford MS is written in, but he has no chance to guess at the poem’s relation to the historic events it pretends to describe. And yet, and yet…the story of Reynart the Fox has seldom been more zestfully or more neatly represented than by Kathryn Gravdal (page 46); wordless juxtaposition has seldom been more effectively used than in an account of popular culture under the Commune (page 751) and in a nearby description (page 761) of Mallarmé’s tenure as editor (and half a dozen simultaneous, pseudonymous authors) of a ladies’ fashion magazine. The savage vitality of the Commune contrasts effectively with the nuances of feeling evoked by Mallarmé through transparencies of lace and airy nothings—it’s a combination that says something cogent about modern society. (Incidentally, what was the height of fashion in 1874 is nowadays less likely to tickle one’s erotic sensibilities than one’s funny bone.)

Tom Conley, writing on Apollinaire (page 842), has, it seems to me, some witty and novel things to say about a witty and ingenious author; on the more pedestrian level of pedagogy, Antoine Compagnon (page 819) lays out the space occupied for many years by Gustave Lanson, author of the Histoire de la littérature française (1895), and his importance in the development of French literary studies. An interesting account of the vogue of Salomé in the late nineteenth century (examples from Mallarmé, Wilde, Gustave Moreau: page 813) might have widened to include background figures like those described in Mario Praz’s old but unsuperseded study of femmes fatales, The Romantic Agony (1933); it might even, given more space, have branched out and looked back to consider the story of French Biblical scholarship, e.g., Renan. Richard Sieburth, writing (page 789) on Wagner and the Wagnerians, has enough material for a book, but he compresses and elides to good effect; had he had space to explore the ripple effect of innovations like the leitmotif, the Liebestod, and the ring-structure, the New History might have fulfilled more of its promise to overstep boundaries.

As for the treatment of Proust, it is artful in the extreme. He pops up here and there as an observer on the periphery of other topics (Dreyfus and anti-Semitism, the law separating Church and State, homosexuality as treated by Gide) and finally gets a unit to himself on the occasion of his death. A reader who blinks may well miss the fact that there was a certain novel in there, with characteristics.

The last hundred pages of text are devoted to the literary history of the last sixty years; a couple of units stand out as significant. Allan Stoekl (pages 929–935) describes a small, temporary, and marginally crazy “college of sociology” that flourished informally in the rue Gay-Lussac from 1937 to 1939 before history disintegrated it. The members included a number of extremely intelligent and creative people, among them Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, and Michel Leiris, who later developed in their individual ways insights that they first glimpsed at the “college.” (It was really more like a club.) Samuel Kinser writes (page 958) an account of a quasi-anthropological approach to history worked out by Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and Marc Bloch which, after modest beginnings, came to enjoy widespread acceptance. That it was intelligent and thoughtful goes without saying; how new it was, the contributor does not make fully clear.

Beckett gets a properly terse unit to himself (page 977); Simone de Beauvoir receives a couple of more florid treatments (pages 982, 1045). Yves Bonnefoy (page 1023) is crowded into a unit with six other poets, and Francis Ponge gets a surely deliberate brush-off. The nouveau roman is given very cramped quarters (page 998). In these its late pages the New History picks up some scattered pieces by glancing at writers from Algeria, from the sub-Saharan countries, from the West Indies and Quebec (or at least a single Canadian novelist, Hubert Aquin). But most of the space is given over to journalism on journalism (newspapers, magazines), little groups with big but very temporary programs, developments in cinema, and description of a popular television program on which people plug their own books. Small potatoes, in other words. I cannot explain why space is allotted liberally to Drieu la Rochelle, Robert Brasillach, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, while the Resistance writers such as “Vercors” (Jean Bruller), René Chaux, and for that matter, Camus, are shuffled off into a tepid and evasive summary.

Overall, the History seems to me to devote far too much attention to “isms”—programs, manifestoes, cliques, catch-words, and ideologies—and far too little to actual works of literature. (An interesting essay on Maurice Blanchot and Jean Paulhan [page 953] proposes a recurrent pattern by which ideas develop and explode under the illusion of “originality,” then decline into fixed postures and verbal formulas, i.e., rhetoric. The insight isn’t applied often enough in the body of the history.) Discontinuity of style is a good and natural result of the history’s plan, but nobody seems to have had in mind any particular level of expertise in the readership. The most expert readers can accommodate themselves to plain discursive factual prose: but the contributors to the history have been allowed to lapse, all too often, into a kind of mandarin dialect rich with private vocabularies. There are too many examples to list, but one of the worst is a unit beginning on page 681, ostensibly about a snatch of Balzac and a fragment of Stendhal’s Chartreuse de Parme. Narcissistic prose is an evil in itself; it looks particularly odd when jostled against rudimentary grammatical errors, such as the failure of subject to agree with verb (pages 22, 484, 930).

Apart from the particular qualities of the New History, its method, though painfully difficult to execute, doesn’t seem flawed in itself—or, for that matter, startingly original. Individual essays on limited areas of history have been around for a long time. That a set of them should be arranged in chronological order shouldn’t affect their value as essays, unless they’re constrained into too rigid a format. Compromise between the different forms of constraint is always going to present problems. Still, the record of a culture’s literary or artistic achievement is a body of material which—if only to remember it better and discuss it more coherently—ought to be organized in some provisional pattern. The New History seems to have a phobia about linear genealogies and chronological sequences, perhaps even statements of cause and effect. Whether we must eschew expressions like “because” and “so that” (as a contributor implies on page 488: he is talking about Voltaire’s prose), because they are only mystified and mystifying pseudo-explanations—I tend to doubt. Though I don’t propose to verify the point by fine-tooth combing the entire History, it seems likely that sneaky intimations of a casual relation may have crept in now and then, even here.

In fact the texture of interrelatedness between one work of literature and the next is much looser and more open to question than the relation (loose and problematic though it may be) between a historical cause and a social effect. So “literary history” may be in large part an oxymoron; to the extent that one recognizes the qualities that make a work “literary,” one is precluded or at least discouraged from enlacing it in the seamless web of history. Change the title of the New History (perhaps to Aspects of French Literature), delete its mainly supererogatory dates, and you will eliminate many of its problems. Not all, but many.

This Issue

February 1, 1990