How do you put 1,000 years of French Literature into one book?
Written by: John D. Lyons
John D. Lyons, editor of The Cambridge Companion to French Literature (2016) explains how best to handle the 1,000 year rich history of French Literature.
Creating a Companion to French Literature seemed to me a gigantic leap.
Most of the Cambridge Companions to literature that I have used over the years define their object more narrowly, focusing on a particular author, a particular genre, or a particular movement. How could one provide the kind of insight and useful detail to which I was accustomed while dealing with a span of a thousand years? And how would such a volume differ from the excellent Cambridge History of French Literature (2011)?
Taking stock of the challenge
With such a challenge before me, two thoughts came to the fore.
First, this Companion would not ‘cover’ a thousand years nor would it constitute a reference work like the History. Instead, it would aim to present a certain number of portals into vital and intriguing moments and topics, essays written by expert and passionate readers of French literature.
Second, this Companion, within a limited number of chapters, could not do justice by itself, to the explosion of novels, poems, plays, and essays written in French by authors throughout the world. Many volumes would be required for that. Instead, this Companion would concentrate on the literature written in French and in what is today France, leaving an opening for other Companions for what is often called the Francophone world (itself a matter of controversy addressed in Charles Forsdick’s chapter on ‘French literature as world literature’).
The fifteen authors who joined me in this venture each took up the challenge of writing an essay that would look at a specific topic, usually grounded in a particular historical moment, that also opened up connections to other periods and other topics in French literature.
For instance, Karen Sullivan’s opening chapter on the medieval genre of the roman (which is usually translated as ‘romance’) also addresses the characteristics of the modern novel (confusingly, for an English speaker, also called roman).
Another chapter on the novel, Warren Mott’s introduction to the fiction of the first decades of the present century, concludes the volume.
Elisabeth Ladenson, in writing about ‘Literature and sex’, relates the modern reputation of the French for writing scandalously salacious books (particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries) back to earlier genres such as the medieval fabliau.
Besides erotic literature, the French are also known for important essays, and this multi-century tradition is the subject of Ian James’ chapter on the ‘Literary-philosophical essay, which begins in the Renaissance with Montaigne and continues up to the early twenty-first century. Readers can read the chapters in any order, depending on their own tastes and priorities.
Since I myself am a specialist of the seventeenth century—what the French traditionally call the Grand Siècle, the ‘great century’—I learned a lot from reading the chapters as they arrived from my colleagues. I believe that anyone interested in the literature of France will find something stimulating and informative here.