French Literature: A Very Short Introduction

John D. Lyons

Oxford University Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
An attempt to cover French literature in a hundred and thirty pages could easily end up as a collection of short biographies, with some timelines and a lot of bland generalities. Lyons avoids this fate by not even attempting to touch on most aspects of his subject: Dumas and Oulipo aren't mentioned at all, to pick just two examples, while Zola gets only two sentences and a parenthetical mention of "J'accuse!".

Lyons focuses on a single theme, the challenges facing protagonists, and tackles just a few works in most of the nine chronological chapters, bringing in broader literary and historical context only as necessary. On Moliere, for example, he doesn't give any background on commedia dell'arte, but discusses the character of Alceste in Le Misanthrope in the context of the 17th century idea of the honnete homme or "honest man". And the chapter on the French Revolution considers Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro and de Sade's Justine and their eponymous protagonists, along with later responses to the Revolution by Claire de Duras ("Ourika"), Chateaubriand ("Rene") and Stendhal (The Red and the Black).

The later chapters cover more works but retain the focus on a few themes. The final chapter, for example, surveys debates over "francophone literature" before touching on Maryse Conde (I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), Marie Darieussecq (Pig Tales), Michel Houellebecq (Atomised), Amelie Nothomb (Fear and Trembling), Jonathan Littell (Les Bienveillantes) and J.M.G. Le Clezio (Ritournelle de la Faim).

The result is no use as any kind of reference: there is an index, but any particular writer or idea is unlikely to appear in it. And anyone using this Very Short Introduction as their only source for French literary history will end up with a rather odd grasp of that. It will work best for readers who already have some knowledge of French history and literature and are looking to revive an interest or find a starting point for further reading. I found it enjoyable and engaging.

July 2014

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%T French Literature
%S A Very Short Introduction
%A Lyons, John D.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2010
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199568727
%P 144pp