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

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.

A very few contributors are sufficiently décontracté to say whether they think the literature they cite is worth our while: the great majority would clearly look on any evaluation as an impertinence – or mere ‘chitchat’, in the late Paul de Man’s intimidatory phrase. As for style, some contributors do the plain, teacherly thing, and stay out of sight; others are over-clever or too flamboyant by half – an especially ill-judged chapter is D.A. Miller’s on Balzac and Stendhal: ‘Body Bildung and Textual Liberation’ – let the title be a warning. But then there is not much sign that the general editor, Denis Hollier, has tried to keep his authors in check, or sent round a reminder that, as the publisher’s foreword squarely promises, this is a literary history directed at the ‘general reader’. The general reader of today will have to be a whole lot smarter than the general reader of yesterday not to be floored by the more precious performances.

Such moments of ostentation apart, this is a literary history laudably set on rewriting the past and on showing how the practice of literature can merge at the edges with that of other arts, with painting, opera, music, the ballet, even fashion – the excuse for fashion being the remarkable fact that in the 1870s Mallarmé edited a women’s journal called La Dernière Mode. As an earnest of its inclinations the New History contains a few, token illustrations, but more important it regularly draws far enough back from the literature itself to show something of literature’s cultural matrix or neighbourhood. For the visual arts, there are chapters on Watteau, on the use of copperplate illustrations, on the calligrams and cubism of Apollinaire, on Picasso’s Guernica, on the cultural politics of André Malraux, and best of all, a brilliantly revealing chapter by Michael Fried on the spectator-centred aesthetics of Diderot in his Salons. The association of words with music is traced from the jongleurs in the 11th century through its successive manifestations as an element of courtly spectacle to interesting chapters on the 18th-century arguments between the partisans of (melodic) Italian opera and those of (dramatic) French opera (Herbert Josephs), and on French Wagnerism (Richard Sieburth). Ideal site that it is in which to register the mutual exchanges between art-forms, the theatre does conspicuously well throughout this History, where drama is seen no longer simply as a script but as a mutable event, evolving in its own richly significant space. Would that the cinema had done as well: it emerges here only with the advent of Truffaut and the semiotically-inspired notion of a filmic écriture – which is evidence more of how Film Studies are going in North America than of how the cinema has affected writing in France since 1900. The other art which is sold short is architecture, which has a stronger presence in this History as a metaphor, in Renaissance chapters on the ‘textual architecture’ of Rabelais or Maurice Scève, than as a discourse in its own right; it is touched on substantively only once, in a neat chapter (Anthony Vidler) on Chateaubriand and the ‘Gothic Revival’, or that medievalising frame of mind which was to be a precondition of French Romanticism.

The New History incorporates also the kinds of writing that have long fed off and into Literature: ethnography, for example, beginning in the 16th century with Lévi-Strauss’s missionary role-model in Brazil, Jean de Léry, and passing by way of Bougainville, and Bougainville’s utopian surrogate Diderot, to the Collège de Sociologie in the 1930s, whose members made literature out of the teachings of Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, and to the cult in those same years of négritude; and philosophy, whose literary as opposed to philosophical aspects are dealt with soundly enough, so far as Cartesianism, the Enlightenment, the Ideologues and later, the Existentialists, are concerned – though the once seductive vitalism of Bergson is missing, and there is no proper account of the ideas of Derrida, who deserved better, having done more than anyone else to try and erase the ancient boundaries dividing the philosophical from the literary. But of all these other, near-literary disciplines it is, and rightly, historiography which does best for space, from its earliest, pleasantly unreliable forms in the Middle Ages, through Jean Bodin in the 16th century, the glorification of Louis XIV in the 17th, its passionate revival with the Romantics, on up to its flowering in France since 1945, in the work of the social and economic historians associated with Annales.

Expansive the New History is, very commendably so; but timid, too, in places, or downright neglectful. There are topics that it skimps, others that it leaves aside. There is surprisingly little about the history of literary criticism in France, and its evolution away from the cliquish impressionism of Sainte-Beuve through Proust into the extreme sophistication of the present. The (poor) account of the Nouvelle Critique of the 1960s is to be found under the proleptic dateline of 1699 – this because Racine was a test-case in the quarrel between Lucien Goldman, Barthes and co and the university professors. There is little or nothing on the influence and patronage exercised in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries by literary journals and reviews – you would think from this History that the Nouvelle Revue Française had done less for literature, even under the formidable editorships of Jacques Rivière and Jean Paulhan, than Les Temps Modernes or Tel Quel. Once we are past the philosophes science more or less disappears from view: there is no sign of the influential discourses of medicine, or evolution, or more recently of cosmology.

As for the actual making and selling of books, there are good sections on that for the earlier centuries, and an especially good chapter (Lucienne Frappier-Mazur) on the promising conditions for writers of fiction that came into being with the new competitiveness of the press in the 1830s. But in the 20th century it is as if publishers had gone underground. There is a credulous chapter on the newspaper Libération, started in 1973 to be the ‘voice’ of the generation of May ’68, but no fuller analysis of the modern French press or of its literary connections. To get any sense of the modern literary marketplace we have to wait indeed for the New History’s brutally downputting last chapter, by Stephen Heath, who picks on Apostrophes and on Bernard Pivot as his example of everything that is neutered and intellectually contemptible in a country whose literary radicals have all sold out and whose once subversive literature has finally collapsed into a tame commodity. Heath writes from way out on the left touchline and his is a chapter of the sheerest ‘endism’, as if not only the New History but French literary history itself were suddenly complete, its fine and fruitful antinomies all now unhappily resolved. Heath has accorded it a wonderfully grumpy valediction.

And what, lastly, of the French literary canon, on the state of which a history such as this makes the ideal bulletin? How much has been done to enlarge, to prune, to reorder that? Something, but not, that I can see, so very much. The New History plays up Medieval literature very successfully (as Lanson did in the 1890s, if for reasons of national assertiveness in his case), giving to it a wider, less condescending and more informed attention than it is used to getting – an outstanding chapter is that by Joseph Duggan on ‘The Epic’. This has a lot to do with the affinity with the Middle Ages so patently felt by the theoretically-minded, who enjoy making close acquaintance with a literary age in which the supposedly god-given categories of work, genre and author had yet to be invented. Women’s writing does every bit as well as one would expect, taking its revanchiste cue from the fact that the founding work of French literature, the 11th-century poem of ‘La Vie de Saint Alexis’ is the story of a man who took his first step on the road to sainthood by deserting his wife on their wedding-night. (In a properly frosty chapter on the Surrealist cult of Sade in the 1930s, Carolyn Dean comes within three italic characters of making the volume’s one joke, when she has Georges Bataille dismissing Sade’s new-found admirers as ‘con artists’). Of the women writers for whom admission to the canon is demanded, one, George Sand, has surely never been dropped from it, but another, the late 18th-century novelist, Isabelle de Charrière, is argued for extremely effectively by Joan Hinde Stewart. And should gender fail, geography is enlisted further to stretch the limits of the canonical. There are chapters, too cursory to be altogether flattering, on writing in French from outside France – from Canada, from North and Central Africa, and from the West Indies.

These are prudential extensions of the canon, reflecting topical anxieties in academia as to the sorts of writing previously disregarded there. What is not admitted to it, even now, is the fine French tradition of populist writing, in the work of such authors as the magnificent Jules Vallès or Charles-Louis Philippe, or, in a rather different direction, Simenon; and another native tradition, similarly strong, of the splendid humorous writing there has been in France over the past hundred years. The delectable band of the OuLiPo – inspired word-game-playing heirs of the Medieval rhétoriqueurs, who do get a chapter – are mentioned only in passing, and the lineage of the intellectual, highly literate comedy to which they belong is wholly obscured: the father of ’pataphysics, Alfred Jarry, comes and goes in a single sentence, Raymond Queneau is made to sound quite a solemn fellow, Raymond Roussel and Boris Vian are no more than names, and poor Georges Perec, unforgivably, is not even that. This is the saddest omission of all.

The New History will please its General Readers by being so ample, so varied and so expert: but it may well displease them by the provocative way that it has with authors, with the Great Names whom General Readers still expect to find articulating the course of literary history. In this volume the sign of greatness among authors is not, as once, to have been given a long chapter all to yourself, but to find yourself dissolved into your component parts and scattered among several chapters. It will be no use going to the New History as if it were an encyclopedia, expecting to look up Pascal or Stendhal, and learning all you need to know about them from a few consecutive pages. Pascal, Stendhal and the other members of the French Pantheon have been disseminated, Pascal through three chapters and some fifty pages, and Stendhal much the same. Lesser writers may escape dismemberment: in the best chapter in the entire volume, by Peter Brooks, Laclos and the Liaisons Dangereuses are contained within seven magisterial pages. Such a process makes very good sense intellectually, particularly with authors as inherently decentred as Diderot or Rousseau, but it is unlikely to make sense commercially, if general readers find themselves having to keep a finger in the (admirable) index as they attempt to pursue the career and concerns of a single writer.

If, in respect of the entity of authors, the New History is uncompromisingly Post-Modern, in respect of the French language it has compromised beyond all reason and decorum, the editors’ concession to the General, presumed monoglot Reader having been to leave it out. This volume contains almost no French. In nearly every case the quotations that it includes, whether of prose or verse, are given only in English translation. Indeed, not until we get to December 1761, does anything longer than a particular work’s title appear in the original French, and then it is only some forgettable verses by Voltaire. Such a policy is beyond me. Is any reader, however general, going to open this New History who is either so ignorant of French or so unwilling to set eyes on it as to be put off for good if French is found there? Translate by all means, but why not en face, printing the French alongside or below the translation? To give an English version alone, however adequate, is peculiarly disloyal and misleading in a work whose contributors freely and rightly resort to the idiom of semiotics and stress how irreplaceable the signifiers of a language are in the actual making of literature. By acting as if the signifiers of English will do just as well as those of French the editors of the New History have reverted to an old, idealist view of what language is and have undermined their otherwise resolutely topical volume by an anachronism.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences