Some post-canon fodder

The Cambridge Companion to the French Novel
February 27, 1998

In quoting Barthes's "Literature is what gets taught", Timothy Unwin admits that no conspectus editor can nowadays lay down the law, on pain of being laughed out of court. The canon has been spiked. For the conspectussler Unwin, as for most regular readers, the French novel "is essentially self-scrutinising". Perhaps more vociferously than uniquely so? He see this as a sign of vitality. In this ecumenical tome, every interest-group gets a look-in, though some are introduced so abstractly and distantly that they get no further than the reader's threshold (the articles by Jann Matlock and Jane Winton remind that theorie means "procession" as well as "theory").

For her part, Alison Finch stretches the term "realism", so that she can winningly argue that "Balzac and Zola owe as much to Rabelais as to any contemporary theories emanating from the sciences". Realism houses monstrification and excess as well as observational accuracy. She notes astutely Balzac's gender bending, as when Rastignac is likened to a female date-palm waiting to be fertilised.

Margaret Cohen salvages the post-revolutionary novel, mainly by women (unfortunately termed, by analogy with confreres, consoeurs). In this, a struggle between collective (usually familial) values and individual freedom predominates. Even here, the "male malady" - the failure to attain the militarist masculinity embodied in Napoleon - sets men above women. The wet hero, due to have a long history in novels by male authors, was born. Cohen proposes that the realist mode owes much to its sentimental precursor, though now it became the heroine's turn to be pathologised, whereas the male protagonist, in Balzac and Stendhal, learned to become socially manipulative. More focus on George Sand might have shown that victimisation was not the sole fate available to women writers or their heroines.

David Coward's piece provides the commercial infrastructure for 19th-century fiction: the growth of cheap printing, advertising, accelerated distribution, and, at a slower pace, increasing literacy. We should indeed talk of the aural rather than the oral tradition of chapbooks continuing into this period. Coward stresses the political as well as the consumerist significance of popular novelists such as Sue, a real influence on socialism (pace Marx) with his exponential Myst res de Paris. Contrariwise, he indicates the deep conservatism of many French readers, emotionally destabilised by so many political upheavals. Sartre's Les Mots illustrates perfectly Coward's contention that "a whole generation cut its literary teeth on popular novels". For a comparable area of our century's fiction, Stephen Noreiko conducts a well-informed quick march. It is a pity, however, that widely read middlebrow fiction (Romain Gary, Herve Bazin) is ignored, though Noreiko pays due homage to that uniquely French phenomenon, San-Antonio, who combines detective plots and esoteric wordplay.

On the fin de siecle, Lawrence Porter selects as ur-text Huysmans's A Rebours, which he suggestively links to Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, that farcical encyclopaedia and stranded whale of a book-against-books. Porter suggests also that the Gidean gratuitous act, that late flowering of decadentism (for me, more akin to naughtiness and spanking than to crime and punishment), would have attracted, if perpetrated by a woman, the charge of irrational hysteria. He sums up the characteristics of the decadent novel as "voluntary seclusion, often accompanied by torpor"; A Rebours ends in "autistic psychosis".

Christie McDonald's study of the Proustian revolution cannot be faulted on its fidelity to Proust's intentions and practices, but it is humourlessly fleshless where Proust is comic and concrete.

On formal experimentation in the first half of the 20th century, and in order to explicate recurrent French constipation in this area, David Walker adduces the envy often felt for the thick textures of Tolstoy and the unstable characters of Dostoevsky. On the later postmodern novel (that Cheshire cat grin floating above fiction), Johnnie Gratton tries hard to locate interesting French examples, though he finds that more French writers concern themselves with restoring the subject, supposedly liquidated by structuralism, than with deconstructing it. He is on firmer, because shakier, ground when he points to "generic cross-over" and "the blurring of borders" - as in multiculturalism or interdisiplinarity - for the most promising developments. As a prime example, he cites Georges Perec's La Vie mode d'emploi, modelled on the 1001 Nights in its "framed miscellany of stories".

The most refreshingly judgemental of the contributors, with two entries, is Dennis Boak. The first, "War and the Holocaust", picks Zola's La Debcle, on the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, as the godfather of French war novels, and speculates productively on the dearth of such fiction in the second world war as contrasted with the first.

Boak's second article, on the French-Canadian novel, remarks on its difference from other postcolonial forms, in its isolationist ignoring of Anglophonia and its fidelity to a long-established, rather than yet-to-be-achieved, identity.

The real growth area (though more widely taught in the United States than in France) is the colonial and postcolonial novel, studied here informatively by Francoise Lionnet. She divides the motley world of francophonie into the adherents of a universalist culture inherited from the French revolution's better sides, and the anti-elitist, anti-hegemony protesters. An understandably retaliatory Congolese writer put it in a nutshell: "The French language has colonised me, but I'll colonise it right back". The best examples criticise not only the sitting duck of colonialism, but also their own culture's frequently passeiste myths. (It is, incidentally, a nice change to read a book where Derrida is mentioned only as being of Algerian provenance.) Unlike Gratton, Lionnet finds, though she puts it more decorously, that postmodernism has got everywhere, like fleas. Persuasively, she judges her chosen area as productive of a rich and diversified literature.

Inevitably, this companion has gaps: Sand, Vall s, Guilloux, Bernanos, Queneau, Celine. Otherwise, names are dropped as readily as trousers in farces. The editor has ensured very useful cross-referencing between chapters, which suggests team-work. There is much of value in this volume, not only for aspirants, but also for budding expirants.

Walter Redfern is professor of French, Reading University.

The Cambridge Companion to the French Novel

Editor - Timothy Unwin
ISBN - 0 52149563 6 and 49914 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 281

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