A History of Modern French Literature –
From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century
Edited by Christopher Prendergast
Princeton University Press – £41.95
”In Shakespeare’s time ”century” didn’t mean a hundred years; it meant a hundred of anything […]. As for the French term siecle, this didn’t originally mean a hundred years either.”
There is a certain irony in the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is celebrated as the inventor of modern autobiography. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau was obsessed with origins, and he offered in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men) one of the most influential accounts of natural man ever written.
(‘Rousseau’s First Person’)
To describe this book as an exceedingly well analysed and tantalizing tomb of French induced, literary depth, might initially appear as something of a detriment to not only the book, but also the vast complexity of French literature itself. Reason being, it is so much more than that which the title might initially suggest. As it’s also a historical, as well as philosophical analyses on the subject; which, in and of itself, has more of a complex trajectory than one would ever care to fully comprehend.
As Michael Wood, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University has since been noted as saying: ”This is a tremendous achievement, bringing into a single volume much of the best writing and thinking on French literature that is currently available anywhere.”
Can’t really argue with that, as most of its 652 pages (excluding a List of Contributors, Acknowledgements and Index) are a quintessential revelation in themselves; just as the book’s editor, Christopher Prendergast, nigh substantiates in Introduction (I): ”I have already used the word ”glimpse” in connection with one of the contributions. The term could be generalised to encompass the whole book as a collection of glimpses, angled and partial snapshots (which, with variations of scale, is all history can ever be). On the other hand, it is not just an assortment of self-framing windows onto the French literary-historical world. It’s unfolding describes, if in patchwork and fragmentary form, the arc of a story centered on the nexus of language, nation and modernity.”
A History of Modern French Literature – From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century is a book which one can obviously read from beginning to end; but it’s also a book that can be dipped into at random – as if a most inviting reference work.
For instance, Wes Williams’ third chapter ‘Marguerite de Navarre – Renaissance Woman‘ opens with enough inviting and informative information, one is simply enticed to want to read more: ”Sometimes described as the ”first modern woman,” Marguerite de Navarre occupies an extraordinary place in French Renaissance culture. Commonly referred to simply as ”Marguerite,” in part because of the secondary meaning of the name as ”pearl,” she was, as well as sister to King Francois I, a skilled political operator in her own right, working to effect change within the French court and on the wider European stage.”
Likewise, Christopher Braider’s seventh chapter ‘Moliere, Theater, and Modernity,’ which begins: ”The classical tragedians of seventeenth-century France are routinely said to have invented the modern stage. A key element was the three ”unities” extrapolated from Aristotle’s Poetics, demanding that a play’s action unfold within a single natural day; be confined to a single, readily identifiable place; and exhibit the logical consistency required to convey an air of internal natural necessity and coherence.”
To be sure, almost all of the book’s thirty chapters begin and intrigue with that of a similar persuasion; which, to once again quote Princeton’s Michael Wood, accounts for A History of Modern French Literature being ”highly readable and full of energetically pursued arguments […], it will last for a long time, precisely because its notions of history are so flexible and imaginative.”
Indeed, if nothing else, this book almost underlines the fact that the history of literature, can only benefit from disciplined speculation with regards the possibilities of the past.
Once again, Christopher Prendergast reasserts as much mid-way through ‘Aims, Methods, Stories,’ when he writes: ”[…] the loss of the historical sense as that which demands that we try to understand and appreciate the past (here the literary past) on its terms rather than our own, while remaining aware that we can never fully see the past from the point of view of the past. On the other hand, if the past is another country, it is not another planet, nor are its literary and other idioms, for us, an unintelligible babble.”
The book commences in the sixteenth century with the formation of a modern national literary consciousness, and ends in the late twentieth century with the idea of the national coming increasingly into question; especially with regards both the inadvertent as well as the inherited meaning of what being French actually means, beyond the geographical border(s) of mainland France itself.
As such, A History of Modern French Literature is as compelling, engaging and uncompromising as that of a lot of the actual subject matter itself.