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A Crazy-Quilt Map

ISSUE:  Autumn 1990
A New History of French Literature. Edited by Denis Hollier. Harvard. $49.95.

This 1150-page volume sets the reader no easy task: to identify its genre, to isolate its successes from its failures, and to determine its usefulness to the numerous, and not always overlapping, publics that it addresses.

First, the NHFL is new less in matter and form than in format. Prof. Hollier and his team—including R. Howard Bloch, Peter Brooks, Joan Dejean, Barbara Johnson, Philip E. Lewis, Nancy K. Miller, François Rigolot, and Nancy J. Vickers—invited 164 specialists to compose one (or in rare cases, two) essays on currently or perennially important topics linked, sometimes tenuously, to dates and events, only some of which can be reckoned as momentous. David Hult, for example, convincingly treats Jean de Meun’s Continuation of Le Roman de la rose” under the fascinating rubric, “1277, March 7 [:] The Bishop of Paris Condemns as Errors 219 Propositions Taught at the University of Paris.” By contrast, Vincent Kaufmann’s incisive discussion of Valery on the intellect is a pendent of the following triviality: “1925, December [:] Paul Valery Writes a Short Introduction for Ronald Davies’ English Translation of La Soirée avec M. Teste.”

As the foregoing suggests, the book hardly qualifies as a history, if by that term is meant a methodologically coherent narration or description of crucial events or situations, emphasizing through analysis and interpretation not only the continuities but, above all, the cause-effect relationships. Obeying a kind of post-modernist impulse to fragment the subject and shift critical perspectives to the point of vertigo, the editors juxtapose traditional literary historiography and history of ideas with modernist formalism, Foucauldian discourse, deconstruction, sociology of literature, gender and ethnic approaches, psychoanalysis and metacriticism. The grand design makes no concession to coverage or articulation—whether from period to period, movement to movement, or author to author; sources, models, and traditions, as well as influence and reception—the very stuff of literary cause and effect—are left to each contributor’s discretion.

Finally—and this is actually to the editors’ credit—not all of the articles deal with literature. The events of May 1968, “certain tendencies of the French cinema,” “committed painting,” and “commune culture,” receive attention, however brief. By the same token, French is understood to encompass francophonie, literature written beyond the hexagon, in Africa (north and central), as well as the Mediterranean and Canada.

As a result, the NHFL resembles nothing more or less than a crazy-quilt map: every zone has its own projection and scale, subject matter and color code.

If the volume does not keep its ostensible contract with the reader, what does it deliver? Less than promised, to be sure; but at the same time, vastly more.

First and most usefully, the editors’ programme permits the haute vulgarisation of ideas, methods, and research findings which have had profound but narrow impact because of publication in obscure journals or prohibitively expensive short-run books. Three examples are Terence Cave’s “Writing without Reserve,” Doranne Fenoaltea’s “The Architecture of Poetic Sequences,” and Timothy J. Reiss’s “The Origins of French Tragedy”—which make available without distortion the main lines of argument in the same authors’ Cornucopian Text, Si haulte architecture, and Tragedy and Truth. The policy also permits other major contributors— such as Mitchell Greenberg, Louise K. Horowitz, and John D. Lyons—to explore new terrains or rethink positions staked out in their earlier books, Detours of Desire, Honoré d’Urfé, and The Listening Voice. Further, the volume provides a venue for richly insightful studies that are nevertheless tangential to the authors’ scholarly agendas, e.g. Aram Vartanian’s essay on Candide.

In short, the NHFL gives the public a sense of the excitement that has animated recent French literary studies. But beyond sizzle and aroma, what will be the use of all this? If the NHFL offers no model for reconceptualizing the shape or direction of French literature from Roland to Simon, can it—in its shorter segments—have a salutary effect? Of this, I think, there can be no doubt, chiefly in the classroom, but also in scholarship and the intellectual press. To keep their subject alive, lower division undergraduate and AP teachers of the canon—those who reach the widest and most impressionable audience for French literature in the US—must find alternatives to the cliches propagated by French school manuals, and this volume—replete with lively and accessible viewpoints—is certain to motivate enthusiastic reading and discussion. Professors wishing to fine-tune their advanced courses and seminars will tactfully redefine topics, syllabi, and research problems in the light of many NHFL studies. There can be little doubt, finally, that well into the next century graduate students, young faculty, and writers for the advanced literary quarterlies will echo and respond to the challenges, power, and daring of key contributions.

The NHFL’s real vocation, in my view, is to replace—and surpass—the old Oxford Companion to French Literature.


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