From the medieval ‘Song of Roland’ to a novel about human cloning—and a lot of greatness in between.
Last year’s big literary ruckus in France, which pitted President Nicolas Sarkozy against fans of the 17th-century novel “The Princess of Clèves,” served as a reminder that classic story-telling can still raise pulses. Mr. Sarkozy’s proposal to remove “The Princess of Clèves” from the school syllabus—the president confessed “to having suffered a lot from it” as a boy—not only failed to win approval but also encouraged impromptu readings of Marie-Madeleine de la Fayette’s novel in towns all over the country. Sales of the book shot up by more than 40%.
Lance Donaldson-Evans rightly includes “The Princess of Clèves” (1678) in “One Hundred Great French Books,” his deft and illuminating study of landmark French literature. He explains that Madame de La Fayette’s 124-page tale—concerning marriage and wayward passion within an aristocratic household— offered “a radically new concept of the novel,” moving the genre away from the massively long works that were “wildly popular at the time but whose length and complexity attract only few readers today.”
It is clear from Mr. Donaldson-Evans’s survey that the first female writers in France were often more daring than their male counterparts. Marie de France, who came to prominence during the 12th century, wrote about adultery as though it were “normal practice,” Mr. Donaldson- Evans notes. The poet Louise Labé perturbed her 16th-century contemporaries by writing sonnets about female sexual desire at a time when “writing in general and writing poetry in particular were primarily seen as male occupations.”
Mr. Donaldson-Evans wisely presents his choices in chronological order, giving each book and author two pages of introduction and comment. By so doing he provides us with a lapidary history of France by way of the works that have helped to shape its culture. The first entry is “The Song of Roland,” a chivalric narrative poem written around 1095, possibly by a man named Turoldus; the last entry is “The Possibility of an Island” (2006) by Michel Houellebecq—an apt endpoint, given the novel’s futuristic subject, human cloning.
One Hundred Great French Books
By Lance Donaldson-Evans
BlueBridge, 224 pages, $15.95
Not that French history is everywhere evident among the “greats” on offer. As Mr. Donaldson-Evans concedes in his own introduction, he might have called his survey “One Hundred Great Books Written in French,” since it includes authors from Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland—and one from Ireland: Samuel Beckett (“Waiting for Godot”), whom Mr. Donaldson-Evans describes as “one of those rare authors who, like Vladimir Nabokov, have achieved literary renown for their work in two languages.” Mr. Donaldson-Evans’s survey itself is a bridge between two languages: He tells us that he decided, as a criterion of selection, that each of the books be available in English translation.
Its few limits aside, “One Hundred Great French Books” is an enjoyably subjective trawl through different literary genres, from novels and poetry to plays and short stories—and a great deal more. Mr. Donaldson-Evans includes François de Sales’s “An Introduction to the Devout Life” (1609), dubbed “the greatest Catholic self-help book ever”; René Descartes’s “Discourse on Method,” his philosophical treatise from 1637; Eugène Delacroix’s journal from 1893; Georges Simenon’s detective fiction (“Lock 14,” from 1931); the “Asterix” comic book series by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, which began appearing in 1959 and continues today; and Jean Renoir’s memoir, “My Life and My Films” (1974).
After more than 40 years of teaching French literature, Mr. Donaldson-Evans, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is expert at detecting the wider cultural effects that certain French books have had. He suggests that Edmond Dantès, the badly wronged and cunningly vengeful hero of Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte-Christo” (1844), “takes on almost mythical status,” becoming “in many ways the precursor of the modern superhero.” Chateaubriand’s largely autobiographical novella, “René” (1802), reminds Mr. Donaldson-Evans of modern-day Goths, “the spiritual descendants” of the novel’s main character, a figure consumed by “self-indulgent sadness.” He traces the bad-boy lineage of poets like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud—so-called poètes maudits (accursed poets)—back to François Villon, the 15th-century writer whose “Testament,” an autobiographical collection of poems, used acerbic irony to attack senior members of the French clergy.
With a characteristic mix of wit and erudition Mr. Donaldson-Evans ponders Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal” (1857), or “The Flowers of Evil”: “Although probably not popular with florists, the title of Baudelaire’s great collection of poetry is one of the most captivating in literature, juxtaposing as it does the negativity of evil with a term associated with love and beauty.” The title reveals “a new poetic vision in which things and people not normally considered beautiful become the object of the poetic gaze. Indeed, it is up to the poet to extract the beauty—the ‘flowers’—from ugliness and evil (one of Baudelaire’s poems is even devoted to roadkill).”
There is only one glaring omission in Mr. Donaldson-Evans’s selection and that is the most accursed and cursing of all French writers, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose lyrical, fulminating novels, especially “Journey to the End of the Night” (1932), have influenced writers like Günter Grass, Charles Bukowski and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the recent French Nobel Prize winner (whose novel “The Prospector” is included). Perhaps one day Mr. Donaldson-Evans can be persuaded to write a sequel: “One Hundred More.”
Mr. Grey is a reporter and literary critic living in Paris.
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