English Words and French Authors

John Sturrock

  • A New History of French Literature edited by Denis Hollier
    Harvard, 1280 pp, £39.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 674 61565 4

There is a hint of Thatcherism about this New History, with its queer fondness for dates. For Number Ten it was, wearing her metahistorian’s hat, who recently ordered dates back into the curriculum, as the sine qua non of history. But surely not of literary history, which is parsimonious over dates, save where it measures out for us the life-spans of authors. Literary historians like to gather time into innocuous folds, as decades, centuries, or ‘ages’, rather than brave it in its mortal, year-on-year extension. The New History is more candidly historical: it records the passing years at the head of each page.

The first date is 778, the year when the paladin Roland came very epically to grief against Saracen fundamentalists at Roncevaux, and the last is 1985, memorable for the 500th edition of French television’s authorial chat-show Apostrophes, whose anchorman, Bernard Pivot, like Roland, gets a fearsome pasting, of which more in a moment. And each of the book’s close on two hundred chapters has for a headline some cultural event, urgently dated to the year, the month, if possible the day when it happened: as, ‘1538, 6 March. The printer Jean Morin is Jailed for Having Published the Anonymous Cymbalum Mundi,’ or ‘1925, November. At 56, André Gide publishes Les Faux-Monnayeurs, His First Novel.’ Then, by way of a temporal recap, at the end there is a second list, of for the most part political French dates, progressing from the Roman invasion of 125 BC to the re-election as President in 1988 of François Mitterrand. This abundance of diachronic markers suggests that the New History has been planned with one eye at least on the contextual principles of the New Historicism: Literature will be implicated here more materially than of old in the society and politics of its time rather than seeming to evolve freely above them, unconditioned by anything but itself or by the lonely genius of its makers.

And so, up to a point, it proves. This is more a ‘literary history of France’ than a ‘history of French literature’, to steal a distinction drawn in a strategically reflexive chapter here on Gustave Lanson (a chapter very well done, by Antoine Compagnon), whose Histoire de la Littérature Française, first published in 1895, is in its stiff-necked way the most commanding volume of the sort to have been written in France. Lanson also planned, but never wrote, another, less professorial History, which would be the ‘portrait of the literary life of the nation, the history of culture and of the activity of the faceless crowd of readers as well as of the famous élite of writers’. That was far-sighted: it is the programme that French ‘historians of the book’ have been following for many years now, in recognition of the fact that more literature has survived than the exemplary writings admitted to the canon, and that whatever was written in the past had also to be printed, circulated and read. The New History is a move in this same, less exclusive direction: away from the merely singular, whether works of genius or authors, and towards whatever is representative in literature, of a time, a milieu, a genre, a creative kin-group – towards what Stephen Greenblatt, contributor here of a fascinating little piece on the textuality of death in the 16th century, calls ‘cultural poetics’.

This giant volume has, however, nearly as many different contributors as there are chapters and they follow no one critical score. With very few exceptions the authors are teachers in American universities, and the tunes they can be heard playing are the current campus favourites, be they positivist, semiotic, psychoanalytical, neo-Marxist, formalist, biographical, feminist, Foucauldian, or nothing you could put a name to. All the chapters tend to the one, pre-set length, and the authors have not obviously had the chance to confer among themselves. This combination of autonomy with local expertise marks off the New History definitively from such monocular histories of French literature as those by Cazamian or Geoffrey Brereton. No one-author history could ever cover so much as does this vast collaboration: the New History tells you more and tells it to you more convincingly. But it is unnecessarily erratic in its mode of address.

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