Why have generations of French students (and foreign students of French) dutifully memorized and explicated a handful of poems by Jean de La Fontaine? In part, because the education ministry of the Third Republic decreed that these texts (along with many others on the “new” program) embodied “Frenchness.” Nebulous and elusive, francité was a unique and (of course) a uniquely superior set of attitudes and cognitive models which the new secular state sought to substitute for Roman Catholicism. A landmark analysis of this phenomenon appears in Ralph Albanese’s La Fontaine à l’école républicaine, a sequel to his classic study of Molière’s government-sponsored enshrinement.
The impact of “curriculum revision” was overwhelming. Not only literature manuals for French schools but nearly all university research on La Fontaine reflected the accredited image, and, until the last third of the 20th century, most foreign criticism, textbooks, and translations followed suit. In the process, La Fontaine’s vast and important achievement was reduced to unrepresentative extracts from one masterpiece, the Fables, and the Fables to the straightforward Aesopic and Indic models that La Fontaine had so ingeniously problematized. The experience of reading his poetry thus became an exercise in identifying common sense, conformist lessons on mores and strategies for living, with lip service paid to the poet’s more obvious jokes and to the intricate music of his verse. With the coming of postmodernism, however, the slickness, transparency, and simplistic didacticism of the official La Fontaine began to pall and his fables gradually disappeared from the program leading to the make-or-break examination for the baccalauréat. A millennial campaign to re-“establish” the Fables accomplished nothing.
Even as La Fontaine’s canonical star was imploding in France, republican certainties about his work faced challenges, chiefly from abroad. In the early ‘60’s, Odette de Mourgues, an expatriate lecturer at Cambridge University and a disciple of F. R. Leavis, examined the poet’s verbal nuancing and showed how it “maturely” synthesized baroque and metaphysical tendencies with the light-verse tradition of the salons. Mourgues’s boldness inspired other close readers, mostly Anglo-American, writing under the influence of New Criticism, the Chicago school, structural stylistics, reader-response theory, and modern rhetoric. Dwelling on features that had been overlooked or manifestly denied in France—the ambiguities, gaps, paradoxes, allusions, and buried metaphors that pervade La Fontaine’s creations—critics with little stake in French nationalism, and even less in the 19th-century republican agenda, began to discover the poet’s epicureanism, skepticism, and political alienation. A full-scale reassessment was under way.
Its reception in the Hexagon was initially cool. Because mainstream French academics reflexively disdain foreign—especially Anglo-American—scholarship on their literature, revisionist studies of La Fontaine passed all but unnoticed before the appearance of Marc Fumaroli’s two-volume edition of the Fables (1985). Its dazzling introductory essays and endnotes blended fresh insights with new approaches, many of which he had gleaned from the writings of Mourgues, of course, as well as Jean-Pierre Collinet’s dissident doctoral thesis, but above all from the essays of such outlanders as Jules Brody, Susan Tiefenbrun, Richard Danner, Jürgen Grimm, Gaston Hall, and the reviewer. (If Fumaroli updates his short list of La Fontaine exegeses for the next paperback reprint of the edition, the important books of Anne L. Birberick and Michael Vincent will almost certainly receive their due as continuations of the “project”.) Happily, Fumaroli’s influence has proven deep and persistent. In addition to creating a French public for the ideas and methods of La Fontaine critics practicing abroad, he institutionalized the new perspectives through his disciples (Patrick Dandrey in particular). Thanks to Fumaroli, it is now possible in the French university (if not the lycée!) to ask hard questions about La Fontaine’s poetry and to develop answers that approximate its richness and complexity.
In 1997, Fumaroli—by then professor at the Collège de France and member of the Académie Française—published Le Poète et le roi, a complement to his edition of the Fables. Now available in an accurate yet readable English translation, this study focuses less on form, technique, style, and meaning than on the way the poet and his poetry (as now understood) related to a complex environment, at whose very center was a struggle for the favor of Louis XIV.
Fumaroli spins out dozens of variations on the themes of marginality, exclusion, depreciation, and exile. His La Fontaine was an outsider par excellence: a lyric poet in an age of pompous odes to the king, a fabulist whose genre figured nowhere in the classical hierarchy, a discreet teller of lewd tales condemned by civil as well as ecclesiastical authorities, a foe of vanity when manipulating the swollen ego of courtiers had top priority at the Louvre and later at Versailles, a political skeptic when submission was the order of the day, a celebrant of solitude in a world of choreographed sociability. Even La Fontaine’s most conspicuous models—Montaigne, Boccaccio, and Ariosto—incriminated him: after all, they were widely and rightly associated with indifference or opposition to settled opinion. Worse still, La Fontaine never repudiated his first patron, Louis’s disgraced finance minister Foucquet, and he hobnobbed with disaffected nobles as well as erudite free-thinkers, both regarded as potentially dangerous to the Sun-King’s blueprint for a well-ordered society. Inevitably, this profile harmed La Fontaine’s fortunes: he languished without subsidy from the crown and was barred by Louis XIV himself from the Académie Fran¸aise until the very end of his career. Once admitted, La Fontaine was duly scolded at his reception ceremony by the very “immortal” assigned to welcome him! All of this, argues Fumaroli, La Fontaine took in good part, turning cheerfully away, cultivating inwardness, achieving spiritual exile that complemented and consoled him for his public status.
Even for readers uninterested in La Fontaine and his career, this book is invaluable as a fully researched and masterfully constructed case study of literary politics and survival in an increasingly authoritarian state. Should that not be enough, there are the undeniable pleasures of Fumaroli’s dense, resonant, and allusive prose, which alone would justify his eminence on the French literary (as well as academic) scene.