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Sarah Kay, Terence Cave & Malcolm Bowie, eds. A Short History of French Literature

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Sarah KAY, Terence CAVE & Malcolm BOWIE, eds. A Short History of French Literature. Oxford University Press, 2003, 344 pp., €21.53, ISBN 0-19-815931-56.

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1At once kaleidoscopic and telescopic, the book presents three periods of French literature, the Middle Ages, the Early Modern and the Modern, in both overview and close-up. A triptych by three authors, each an eminent academic, and indeed emblematic specialist in their field, it condenses a remarkable amount of scholarship, close reading and critical practice. If three distinct voices emerge, they also converse, since there are echoes and overlaps between sections.

2This is a carefully crafted, detailed and harmonious work. After a common introduction defining an approach open to both broad brush and finer grain techniques, each author's account occupies a third of the book, and the whole is completed by a substantial reference section including a detailed index and suggestions for further reading related to each literary period.

3Furthermore, a series of illustrations, documents relating to the period in focus, are incorporated into the text and one wonders whether the picture library of this otherwise high-quality book might lend itself more aesthetically to the different ink and paper of an illustration page.

4Literary history in the telling is here written for readers at every level. Extracts of textual analysis, in which quotations are given in French, with the English translation in parenthesis, act as tantalising recalls of or incitement to reading itself.

5To a French academic readership it is interesting to recall the cultural backcloth against which this book emerges, that of British French Studies which has seen the literary tradition from which these authors, and the author of this review, emerge, seriously diminished in recent years and to which they refer in the introduction, “So does literary history have a future? Will people continue te read histories such as this in an age that is increasingly preoccupied with the modern and postmodern, with cultural studies and other interdisciplinary approaches?” (11)

6In proposing a New Literary History, arresting in its attention to detail and yet in its accessibility and audacity moving beyond the bounds of the strictly academic, they have achieved the double feat of wearing vast learning lightly and returning fondly to first loves while opening out beguilingly to a new yet undiscovered readership.

7And so we accompany our learned story-tellers on an engaging literary pilgrimage as they lead us through their elected landscape, playing gently, almost imperceptibly, with foreignness. As they remind us, the monuments and stereotypes which often characterise a culture for the outsider, “have a powerful life of their own, generating their own successors and counter-images [... and] need to be understood as part of the total myth-making activity of a national culture.”

8We move, under Sarah Kay”s deft authoritative guidance, through the abundant narrative and lyric forms of medieval Europe in which the split between music and composition only arrives with the move to single author work in the fourteenth century and the word roman is first used to describe translation from classical antiquity into Romance language, only to be later associated with courtly romance and always “gloriously preserving and entombing the morally wounded of the past.” Kay sets the tone in the first lines of her overview; this is an age characterised by innovation and diversity rather than tradition. The French lyric is at its height and from troubadour love poetry, “still affecting the European erotic imagination,” to the dits amoureux, writing moves seamlessly between lyric and history with the towering literary figure of Christine de Pisan emerging as an authoritative, moral voice in late medieval France and particularly in the querelles surrounding the question of misogyny in the courtly lyrics of Le roman de la rose or La belle dame sans merci. Women occupy the centre stage as Marguerite de Navarre takes up again the querelle des femmes in the utopian visions of the Heptaméron. The section closes with an opening, focusing on the modernity of Villon's Testament, its celebration of transitoriness and consummate break with tradition.

9In the early Modern period, by far the longest stretch of the tour, beginning with the first printing press and ending with the revolution, Terence Cave directs us from the Europe-wide network of medieval literary production to French literary models as “vehicles of nationhood”. This, needless to say, is a more conservative, institutional age, even if we can still trace a genealogy from Bocaccio”s Decameron through Les cent nouvelles nouvelles to the Heptaméron. Whilst avoiding characterising his literary figures in terms of Renaissance or Réforme, Cave nonetheless draws attention to the quarrels between the Sorbonne and Marguerite de Navarre”s Erasmian evangelism, to the rise of Protestantism and its significance in Marot and Rabelais. Then once again the story takes shape around female figure-heads, as Catherine de Medici rises to the throne to propagate the values of the Italian Renaissance and de Navarre’s influence diminishes. There is then a significant break in French literary culture in the mid-sixteenth century as Du Bellay heralds a new era of poetic energies and of the French sonnet cycle inspired by Petrach, of which Louise de Labé, a legend in her own right, is a most accomplished and resonant embodiment, as Ronsard coins the term “Pléiade” to refer to a new generation of poets and the alexandrine takes over as the standard, most remembered, metre, “Cueillez dés aujourd'huy les roses de la vie”. Montaigne closes the century in a paradigmatic way, both conservative and innovative, encapsulating its paradoxa,forging the essai genre and a style hovering problematically between imaginative and intellectual reflection. We then move to the grand siècle; while sketching out the quarrel between Ancients and Moderns Cave is quick to emphasise that these are ephemeral battle-lines crossed over in the literary practice of many. He highlights the paradox of La Princesse de Clèves, of romance in an intensely public age which sees the rise of the woman novelist but is the downfall of her heroine. Then amongst the philosophes Rousseau emerges, as the most dissenting, original voice and the literary descendant of Montaigne, as lesser known women writers such as Françoise de Graffigny and Isabelle De Charrières are brought once again to occupy centre-stage with their more commonly canonised contemporaries.

10Malcolm Bowie continues this most refreshing renewal of perspective on literary history as we turn to the Modern period and the fulfilment within a century of Diderot's pronouncement, “La poésie veut quelque chose d'énorme, de barbare et de sauvage” in a poetic genealogy traced from Nerval then Baudelaire to Rimbaud and Mallarmé. Balzac, Zola and Michelet are seen as mythical Icarus figures taking up the all-conquering pen in the wake of Napoleon. The “vast appetite and iron-clad capacity of the Hugolian ego” is offset by a detailed focus on transfigurative small-scale perceptions in fragmentary extracts from his writings. De Stael shares Romantic sensibility with Chateaubriand as the “many voiced complexity” of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is set against Lamartine. Thus Bowie takes us on a tour at once respectful of tradition, yet original and eye-opening in the new visibility accorded to women writers, such as Delphine de Girardin, Flora Tristan, Louise Michel, as he traces Scribe's influence on Ibsen and Dumas” on Verdi. His unparalleled eloquence and keen sense of paradox in resuming the central tensions of a literary work while expounding the tiniest detail excels in the commentary on Proust, and the account of Valéry as “Orphic builder of French verse after WWI” .There is a playful sense of perspective, Oulipo being referred to as a “cerebral boys” club”, and of literary moment as we pause before the poignancy and intensity of Pérec whose La Vie mode d’emploi  is marked out as “the last big book about everything”, the transcendence of Duras, raising all the feminist questions without ever being gender-bound or detained by theory, and Bonnefoy a vast “curator of artistic meaning”, knowingly detained by the image. A section on Francophone writing supplements the voyage.

11This is literary journeying at its most refined and radical, steering us well clear of complacency and commonplace, yet saluting all the old landmarks in the new light created as others are restored to visibilty both filtered and animated by a provocative, critical intelligence.

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Référence électronique

Anne-Marie SMITH-DI BIASIO, « Sarah Kay, Terence Cave & Malcolm Bowie, eds. A Short History of French Literature », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 6, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 17 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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