French Literature

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French Literature – A Cultural History

By Alison Finch

Polity – £16.99

”[…] certain contexts of skilful language is a particularly effectual non-physical demonstration of status. It can hold conflict in equipoise. France’s elite would appear to have learned this lesson early on – to have placed high valuation on a linguistic dexterity that can both express tension and be used to deflect its bodily enactment.”

To write of French literature in just one volume is surely a mighty brave if not altogether bold move; for as the very opening gambit of this overtly compelling book makes resoundingly clear: ”The body of writing that we call ‘French Literature’ has had a striking impact on the rest of the world. Courtly romance spread all across Europe from the mid-twelth century on, as did French models of chivalric behaviour and love, originating in these romances and the troubadour tradition […]. These still shape our ways of thinking, even of feeling.”

Indeed, from thinking to feeling to writing to absorbing to understanding to a whole lot more besides, the sparkling historical trajectory of the dense subject matter contained herein, warrants, in its mere analysis and execution alone, resounding applause.

To be sure, French Literature – A Cultural History by Alison Finch, offers a chronologically brilliant introduction to a subject matter simply steeped in risk and heritage, as well as cultural dimension. And as a result of its linearity, it enables the reader to dip in and out whilst simultaneously being informed and inspired. It is as Tim Unwin of the University of Bristol has written: ”While revealing how the agenda of literary study has changed, she demonstrates that we can engage with the great canonical texts of French literature in new and exciting ways. The book is to be commended for its clarity, its shrewd analysis and its sheer readability.”

Suffice to say, wherein deciphering such a potentially volatile subject as (French) literature, streams of societal as well as that of political depiction are always bound to be be brought to the fore. This is evident for instance, in the fifth chapter (‘Republic, Reaction and the Murder of Taste (1870 – 1913)’), wherein Finch writes: ”French counter-intelligence officers fabricated false documents designed to secure Dreyfus’s conviction for treason. Zola’s article ‘J’accuse’ of 1898 was a turning point, leading to Dreyfus’s retrial in 1899. However, he was again found guilty. By now, the choice was between him and the Army’s honour, which – anti-Dreyfusards argued – must be protected even if Dreyfus was innocent. This vile line of reasoning (la raison d’etat) held that because the state was more important than the individual, it was morally justifiable, even mandatory, to sacrifice an innocent person rather than admit that government prosecutors had erred (as with Guantanamo). Dreyfus was in due course ‘pardoned,’ but not fully exonerated until 1906.”

I really like the fact that Finch goes out on something of an opinionated limb here, and endeavours to shoot from the questionably, inflammatory hip; especially in writing ”This vile line of reasoning.” It emphatically shows a commitment to that which remains morally right, regardless of falling foul of the myopic majority. As opposed to that which is horribly wrong, regardless of spurious and/or historically stained honour.

Moreover, in such a publication as this, it’s inevitable that certain writers will always have a slightly larger spotlight placed upon them than others; which, in the rather big scheme of (political) things, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I say this because in relation to Zola – a mere few pages on from that of the above quote – the authoress rightfully states: ”Earning a huge income from his sales, Zola can be difficult to pigenohole socially: some of his attitudes both to fellow-writers and to the working class align him with the affluent bourgeoisie, and traces of this show in his fiction. But he was also admirably independent-minded: he set the example for the emergence of the modern public ‘intellectual’ who is unafraid to speak out on political issues, and himself helped to create the same liberal awareness that he then reflects in his works. Zola is an outstanding example of mutual imbrication, indeed symbiosis, between the creative individual and the culture that surrounds him.”

From what (relatively little) I know of Zola, I couldn’t agree more.

This just leaves me to say that French Literature is an outstanding example of the sometimes contentious continuities of fraught French history; not to mention the outstanding beauty and occasional fault lines of its Literature.

David Marx

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