An inverted pyramid that says it all

A History of French Literature
April 15, 2005

It was the millennium, we learn, that triggered this impressive survey of 1,000 years of French (rather a dodgy term in the earlier parts) literature (an even dodgier one in the later bits). David Coward describes his approach to such a potentially unwieldy enterprise as an inverted pyramid, in which the bottom layers bring the reader chronologically up to the end of the 19th century, while the top slices take it through the 20th and beyond.

He almost succeeds in carrying conviction. The way he writes about such a range of material, succinctly placing it in context and conveying its impact while being neither hackneyed nor simplistic, is truly professional. The whole could comfortably be read by anyone who wants a quick(ish) overview of the whole corpus, or sampled by those whose ambition is less exhaustive. In the preliminary canter through the pre-modern phases there are only a few slips, such as when La Chastelaine de Vergi mysteriously changes sex, or when a key tenet of Pascal's Pensees is misquoted. More seriously, the most significant writer of memoirs in French, the Duc de Saint-Simon, who was the major precursor of Proust, is omitted; and certain terms, notably "baroque", run for too long without a definition. In other respects it affords an accurate and at times refreshingly ironic summary.

But it is in his treatment of the 20th century, in his partial conclusions in that section, and in the last three chapters - devoted to "Beyond imagination, gender and the metropole", "Beyond 'literature'" and "Beyond words" - that Coward comes into his element, and provides an invaluable synthesis of where French is now and where it is going. A whole raft of mainstream and marginal writing is presented and evaluated, and it is here that those of us who teach French find ourselves pedagogically the most deeply in Coward's debt.

The only radical revision from which future editions of this book could benefit would be simply to republish it as two volumes.

Richard Parish is professor of French, Oxford University.

A History of French Literature: From Chanson de Geste to Cinema

Author - David Coward
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 606
Price - £21.99
ISBN - 1 4051 1736 2

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