Why would one want to read French literature?
The literature of the French language is the longest-lived and richest of all European literatures apart from English. Until very recent years, it was a model for writers worldwide. Medieval French writers gave us the stories of Arthur, the Round Table and the Holy Grail, and, some would say, the ideal of romantic love. Montaigne’s Essays have been read continuously by English speakers since they were first translated in 1603, and are still finding enthusiastic readers today. Molière’s character comedy has been an inspiration for writers in England and everywhere in Europe. The realistic novel of the French nineteenth century became the model for novelists worldwide, including America and Japan, and for the structure of the feature film. The cinema itself was a French invention, and is regarded by many French people as the chief art form of the twentieth century (’le septième art’). Every century has produced its crop of poetry and prose, history, fiction, comedy and tragedy, with new forms constantly appearing as audiences changed and grew.
The readership for literature in French has never been restricted to metropolitan France. A whole French-speaking literature developed in England in the two centuries following the Norman Conquest, while in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries French became the language of cultivated Europe as far as Russia. The determined imposition of French language and literary study in the education systems of its former colonies produced writers who could express the feelings and experiences of distant peoples in impeccable metropolitan French, and who found readers both in their newly independent countries and in France itself — what are now called the ’post-colonial’ writers. France also exports its culture around the world through the Lycée Français system.
For some readers, the word ’literature’ may have taken on a somewhat forbidding sound from its appearance in syllabuses and exam specifications. Sadly, many people now think of literature as the kind of thing one has to read for an exam, rather than something one might read or listen to from choice. ’Literary’ texts, they think, live in hardback books with introductions and footnotes. Though nowadays they often do, it is important to realise that none of them began their lives in this way, and not a single one of them was written to be examined on. I like to imagine Rabelais chuckling incredulously in his grave at the thought of university students answering exam questions on his stories.
I shall be trying in this book to give a sense of how the texts of the various periods took shape, what sorts of audiences they were aimed at and how they were received. I shall, obviously, have to pick out a relatively small number of authors, and shall try to show why they were the most admired in their day or afterwards, and what we can gain from reading them today. Almost every sentence here will be a generalization which specialists in the author or period discussed would want to question or qualify. This is inevitable, given the number of subjects to be covered in such a short space. Each chapter will have a small number of illustrative extracts, with accompanying English translation. The translations are my own, and are sometimes quite free — deliberately so. I shall also try, particularly in some of the illustrative texts, to show some of the ways in which readers ’used’ literature in their own lives and in their relations with other people.
But what I really hope to do is help readers with little experience of French literature to find some books that they will want to read, whether in translation or (I hope) in French. One motive for doing so might be the hope of understanding France and French people better. But reading these remarkable books is a lasting pleasure in itself, and for some people the way into a lifetime of enjoyment.