French Literature – A Very Short Introduction


French Literature – A Very Short Introduction
By John D. Lyons
Oxford University Press – £7.99

I have to say, I’m becoming quite a fan of the Oxford University Press collection
of A Very Short Introduction.

This is my third review in the series, and what I particularly like about them, is their short, concise overview of the subject matter at hand. There’s no unnecessary, elongated padding nor flim-flam; but rather, an informative revelation of the most relevant information one essentially needs. And with most Introductions clocking in at around 120 to 130 pages, one can decide whether or
not to investigate further, which is all the more aided and assisted by way of the ‘Further Reading’ section(s) at the back of each book.

French Literature – A Very Short Introduction by John D. Lyons appears to cover nigh all aspects of French literature – not that I know all aspects of course – beginning with a chapter called ‘Introduction: meeting French literature,’ in which the author interestingly writes: ”Protagonists necessarily have problems.
If they did not, there would be no story, no quest, no obstacle to overcome, no mysteries to solve, no desire to satisfy, no enemy to defeat. In the French literary tradition, moreover, the central figures often have problems of such a unique type as to warrant being called ‘problematic heroes’ – heroes and heroines whose very status and place in society is at stake […].”

By immediately reinforcing within the reader a considerable chasm of literary food for thought, I found the above sentiment remained with me for the next eight chapters, concluding with ‘French-speaking heroes without borders?,’ where Lyons wholeheartedly invites us to embrace the French-Mauritian writer Le Clezio: ”There is no better representative of the movement for a ‘world literature’ in French than J. M. G. (Jean-Marie Gustave) Le Clezio, whose novel Ritournelle de la faim (The refrain of hunger) appeared in October 2008 just as the author became the latest French-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature […]. Le Clezio’s work ‘belongs to the tradition of the critique of civilisation. which on French ground can be traced back to Chateaubriand, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Diderot, and […] Montaigne.’ In this respect, Le Clezio is highly representative both of his own time, a period of post-colonial criticism and debates about national and linguistic identity. His work is therefore a good place to enter into French literature, both in its origins and in its persistent variations.”

So there you have it, a full-on, up-to-date endorsement of where to perhaps start.

That said, as is surely well known, French literature covers an exceedingly wide terrain. From any of the aforementioned writers to the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (both of whom would chastise me for mentioning their names in the same sentence, due to having fallen out to the point of not speaking to one another for years), to the likes of such brilliant female writers as Simone de Beauvoir and Helene Cixous.

Indeed, where to even start with French literature is anyone’s guess.

All the more reason, that if you’re relatively new to the genre, or would simply like to recommend or promote it to a family member or friend, then I’d highly recommend this stimulating (and at times), provocative A Very Short Introduction. After all: ”In a world threatened by sameness, we have never had a greater need for the French difference.’

David Marx


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