Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2016

French Literature, a Very Short Introduction (2010), by John D. Lyons, #2

french-literature-a-very-short-introductionMoving on from my previous post about this VSI to French Literature, I have discovered a French Boccaccio

In Chapter Two, ‘The last Roman, cannibals, giants and heroines of modern life: antiquity and renewal’, Professor Lyons shows how the French preoccupation with identity goes back to Renaissance times.

The Renaissance, renewing contact with antiquity, challenged French cultural identity and the identity of each individual in France.  For France and Frenchness, the cultural vitality of Italy was a source of emulation and anxiety.  The odd reversal that constituted Renaissance culture meant that the recent achievement of French, writers, painters, architects, and musicians was increasingly seen as out of date, while the much older philosophical , and artistic legacy of Greece and Rome, being rediscovered, had an aura of freshness. (p.18)

[Well, we in Australia certainly understand this emulation and anxiety.  We were just starting to shake off a derivative British culture and develop our own distinctive cultural identity when along came the Americans.]

The issues of French identity came down to this: could the French language rival the languages of antiquity and contemporary Italian as a vehicle of poetic and intellectual expression?  And then there was religion – yes, *sigh* volatile back then as it is today.  The emergence of printing meant people could read and interpret the Bible for themselves, offering the responsibility or the burden of choice to individual consciences. 

Francois I was on the throne from 1515 to 1517, and his sister Marguerite de Navarre was a keen proponent of the new evangelism. And it is she that Lyons names as the ‘French Boccaccio’ because she wrote L’Heptameron – 70 tales about her contemporaries, everybody from the nobles at court to the humble monks and mule-keepers. These folk struggle with their individual consciences in a style that apparently looks a lot like realism though nobody used the term back in those days.  And by writing (what would have been, if she’d finished all 100 tales) a ‘Decameron’ in French, Marguerite was following the Italian model but doing it in a domestic French way sans rhetoric, and in the French language.

The essay arose in this period too, and its champion is Montaigne, who used the form for an introspective study of the self.  His central character was moi.  Lyons includes the fascinating snippet that Montaigne may have been the last person whose first spoken language was Latin.  He explains in his essay called ‘On the Education of Children’ that Montaigne’s father hired a classical Latin scholar to speak to the baby and to teach enough of it to others in the household so that Latin became the boy’s mother-tongue. So Montaigne was the embodiment of both an intellectual commitment to ancient classicism and to contemporary French life, acting as mayor of Bordeaux at one stage.  Why haven’t I got any Montaigne on my shelves?  I can see that reading this VSI is going to cost an agreeable small fortune by the time I’ve rectified the gaps in my literary education…

It was in this era, of course, that Europe ‘discovered’ the Americas, and there was a fascination with what was thought to be a noble and simple life like that of Homeric heroes, or indeed, a possible pre-Adamite race of humans.  Small wonder then that Rabelais (c.1490-1553) popularised the giants Gargantuan and Pantagruel with his chapbook of tales.  These tales are listed in 1001 Books You Must &c and they are a carnivalesque critique of social institutions in a form that derives from Plato’s Symposium and is distinct from the high culture of C17th literature.

The C17th was a tense era in France, an era recovering from civil and religious warfare.  In Chapter 3, ‘Society and its demands’, Lyons puts it like this:

Politeness, moderation, discretion, self-censorship, irony and a great attention to the formal rituals of civil and religious life are the hallmarks of 17th century France.  Looking back from today, it is tempting to speak of a very repressed and repressive society.  Seen from the point of view of those who had lived through the ferocious civil and religious wars of the late 16th century, the peace and stability, and a modicum of religious tolerance, were no doubt welcome.  (p.32)

So literature of this period was characterised by the ideal of moderation, discretion, and even concealment, yet was fascinated by excess, by the exceptional, and by the superlative.  The ideal was personified in the concept of un honnête homme, which doesn’t mean an honest man, but rather a reasonable person, an amusing, sensitive and accommodating companion…[…] someone who fits in, who is not notably eccentric.  

Moliere’s comic plays explore the uneasy fit between politeness and heroism.  Alceste, an outsider who seems to need society even though he rejects it, is in The Misanthrope (1666) too forthright for his own good and risks his lady-love, his fortune and his life in a duel.  He is contrasted with Philinte who is an honnête homme, but he is not captivating like Alceste who is refreshing in his vigour and candour.

French Lit of this period likes outsized heroes who dissent from the norm, and who don’t fit into the ordinary world around them.  While Corneille (1606-1684) wrote tragedies that reveal the moral quandary of elevating as heroes people who are capable of extreme excess, Racine (1639-1699) was interested in ‘middling goodness, that is a virtue susceptible to weakness.’  This bonté médiocre features in Racine’s characters as everyday people, self-consciously mediocre.  They fail at heroic acts because they don’t have the larger-than-life qualities that heroism needs, but, Lyons says, in a C17th France craving peace the attitude was that such heroic feats

belonged to the past and should have been left in the past…[…] the moment in which it was useful to act as violent military heroes has gone by, and the protagonists would have been well advised to adopt the skills of peacetime. (p. 40)

That peace did not last: there was another civil war mid-century, contributing further to ambivalence about aristocratic, independent heroism as did the rise of Jansenism, a pessimistic religious movement promoting severe austerity.  Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was one of these moralisers (as well as an important mathematician, physicist, and inventor) and he saw mankind as anything but heroic.

Fortunately for French literature, IMO, the C17th brought the rise of the literary salon, a cultivated meeting place for ideas that was controlled by women (as distinct from taverns where male writers went on their own).  As court and urban life intensified, and there was disenchantment with moralism, these salons promoted friendships between men and women and also freedom from arranged marriage.  In these new social spaces, the literature of the later C17th turned towards ‘literature of psychological analysis’, and a social and cultural movement called préciosité with a new conception of the protagonist and the rise of the novel of courtly manners, such as Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves (1678).  Thus, with this novel where misinterpretation of the very subtle turns out to be lethal…

The heroism of the battlefield, the exotic locations, the very visible hostilities that pit the protagonists against one another in tragedy, epic, and the huge romance novels of earlier in the century, have here been replaced by the subtle decoding of glances, details of dress, and presence or absence at balls and other social gatherings. […] Lafayette showed the cost of being exceptional and not following the prevailing code of conduct


she also shows how changes in French culture and in the status of women modified the standard for what is worthy of attention and for what constitutes exceptional achievement.  (p.45)

Onward to Chapter 4 and the 18th century!

Update 18/12/16 Click here to see Vishy’s review of One Hundred Great French Books by Lance Donaldson-Evans.

Update #2 18/12/16 Jean de La Fontaine also wrote his celebrated fables in the 17th century, and at My French Quest you can see RK Lowrie’s translation of Le Loup et le Cigogne (The Wolf and the Swan) from a lovely edition illustrated by Marc Chagall.

Update #3 29/12/16 I have finished reading this VSI and expect to refer to its latter chapters again and again when I read contemporary French Lit, especially the innovative adventures with the form, style and characterisation of the novel.  Lyons discusses questions of identity, geographical borders and critiques of Western society, resulting in a list of authors I want to read that will keep me busy for many years to come.  For that reason if no other, I recommend this little book as a very useful insight into a literature that commands a special place in world literature:

Just as important as the increased diffusion of French literary culture is the widespread perception that French intellectual culture is the single most significant alternative, at least among Western nations, to the English-speaking world. For some people, the notion of an ‘alternative’ easily slides into the idea of an ‘opposition’, and thus implies hostility and struggle. For many other people, including perhaps the readers of this book, the French literary tradition offers a welcome new vantage point from which to see the world, past and present. In a world threatened by sameness, we have never had a greater need for the French différence. (p. 128)

Author: John D. Lyons
Title: French Literature, a very short introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780199568727
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: French Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)




  1. The 17th century is also the century of Lafontaine.

    You can’t avoid Shakespeare in school, we can’t escape the trifecta Racine/Corneille/Molière. Molière is rarely disappointing and he feels very modern. I don’t think Racine and Corneille resonate as well as Molière with our world.

    La princess de Clèves is wonderful, really something widely read and modern.

    I’ve never read Marguerite de Navarre so I can’t tell you anything about her Heptameron.


    • It occurred to me even reading only as far as I have, that although not every author is mentioned, there are far too many books mentioned for students to read them all and that it must be a challenge for modern educators to choose which ones are essential.
      The other thing that’s interesting to me is how many of them have been made into film which I have seen screened here in Australia. As soon as Lyons starts describing the plot, I think oh, I’ve seen the film of that one. (I am lucky to live near an arthouse cinema). It’s an interesting comparison with German and Italian literature, which seems to have generated fewer films that have made their way down under.


  2. […] VSI is not like the mostly chronological structure of the French VSI which I read a little while ago.  After a useful four-page introduction, the book is framed as […]


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