All the gen for gens

The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French
September 15, 1995

The Oxford Companion to French Literature, to which Peter France's fine volume is the timely successor, was the vade mecum of francophiles, students of French and honnetes gens (people of "apparent modesty, naturalness, taste and wit") for three decades. Easily caricatured for its tendency to plot narration, anecdotal biography and value judgements, it none the less afforded a (largely accurate) compendium of information with which the better to enjoy the massive and diverse corpus of writing which was its subject. But the canon which it codified and the critical modes of reaction to it have evolved so rapidly in the interim since its publication as to make the compilation of a sequel both a daunting enterprise and an urgent necessity.

Quite apart from the simple updating which is required by new creative writing and scholarly advances, the activities of Barthes, Foucault and Derrida have marked the intellectual scene ineradicably, and such movements as structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism have all, from their origins in France, exercised a profound effect on international thinking about literature.

The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, while following the format of its predecessor in general terms, has taken all these (and many other) developments on board, and the extended limits of its brief are glossed with admirable and disarming circumspection by the editor in his introduction. Clearly this apologia will leave certain readers dissatisfied; but the elements of formal conservatism have the advantage of adhering to a familiar layout and appealing to a wide readership. (Indeed, the new volume is remarkably similar in size and presentation to its predecessor, and an unsolved mystery is afforded by the amount of new material it has included without apparently sacrificing attention to previously incorporated topics.) It is the work of a distinguished team of contributors and, although the majority are geographically based in the Anglo-Saxon world, their familiarity with the French critical spectrum is manifested both textually and bibliographically.

The thematic articles are conveniently tabulated at the outset under the general categories of political and social theory; intellectual and social movements; religious history; literary and cultural institutions; literary and theoretical genres; French writing outside France; other languages inside France and foreign influences; music, art and media; and language and science. They range from the history of the French language to the bande dessinee, from weights and measures to opera-comique, from baroque to Bonapartism; and, in particular, great efforts are made to incorporate non-metropolitan francophone writing (from Africa, Canada and the Caribbean) as well as neo-Latin, Occitan and Breton literature.

They provide succinct overviews of some of the most intractable of critical terms, with a distinction carefully maintained between popular and technical definitions, and as such compositely establish an etat present that succeeds remarkably well in being objective without being bland. But if more recently fashionable tendencies are fully explored, it is never at the expense of better-tried but equally problematic concepts: thus, there are outstanding contributions on negritude, for example, or eroticism and pornography, alongside equally acute surveys of neoplatonism, the sonnet or the chanson de geste. The canonical writers are given both a general entry (still in some cases verging too much towards biography), and a series of briefer accounts of their major works; and the topics of more limited concern are handled with a concise and realistic efficiency, resulting not least in some excellent cameos.

Of course, there are quibbles, and each reader will no doubt differ in their identification. The relationship between general and particular is not always finely judged: thus the entry "Genet", fortuitously on the next page to "Gay and lesbian literature" (ominously excluded from the index) neither refers to the general entry nor makes explicit mention of that writer's enduring preoccupation with homosexuality; the term mise-en-abyme receives an independent analysis, but no mention of it is made under the entry devoted to its literary originator, Gide; Debussy is referred to under Pelleas et Melisande, but not under Maeterlinck; and the distinction in the tabulated chronology between "cultural history" and "authors" is far from clear. The comprehensiveness of cross-referencing by asterisks also leaves something to be desired.

Generally, the shifts into and out of French are pragmatic, even if they err (perhaps inevitably) on the side of an overuse of English; and certain terms would have been more happily left in French. Balance, too, on occasion seems eccentric: Messiaen, for example, merits a mere two sentences under "Opera", while Saint-Sa ns and Jacques Brel among other arguably less seminal composers have complete entries to themselves. The same inequality occurs among the "great names", thus whereas Gide (whose record in longevity and output were both substantial) and the admittedly less prolix Mallarme or Racine are covered in about two columns, Rousseau manages four and Voltaire six; but then, it would be disingenuous to deny that implicit (and explicit) value judgements are to a great degree inevitable in an exercise of this kind. Perhaps the most obvious lacuna is topographical since, apart from the provision of historical maps, little mention is made of French cities or regions; history, politics and religion, on the other hand, are thoroughly documented, together with painting, sculpture and music, and collectively situate the written word in its broader context.

The difference between a companion and a dictionary is not an entirely clear one, and this volume lies comfortably somewhere between the two. The sheer number of contributors militates against anything more than a superficial homogeneity, but this is amply compensated for by the humanity which emanates from the confidence and ease with which they attend to their material, and by an accuracy which even the most hawk-eyed specialist must strive hard to fault. It is, unlike certain companions, difficult or impossible to read sequentially, but equally, like most good dictionaries, it leads the reader obliquely from topic to topic, often guided as much by coincidence as by design; in that way, it is very companionable. And the list of memorable quotations is positively asking to be made into a parlour game.

Frivolity aside, this is a remarkable and enduring work of great scholarly weight; as for its readers, I suspect they will remain as broadly satisfied as before, and many of us will heave a sigh of relief that there is at last an authoritative article to which we can refer colleagues from other disciplines in search of a summary of post-structuralism.

Richard Parish is a fellow and tutor in modern languages, St Catherine's College, Oxford.

The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French

Editor - Peter France
ISBN - 19 - 866125 - 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 865

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