Lauren Lownes (King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls) reviews John D. Lyons's 'A Very Short Introduction to French Literature'

A Very Short Introduction to French Literature by John D. Lyons is a great book with which to start your exploration into French literature. This whistle-stop tour of many different literary periods takes you from the early French heroes (with accompanying extracts written in early French, which were fascinating as you can see how the language has developed over time), through the 1789 revolution, and all to way to the 20th Century where the impact of the wars were explored in a lot of detail. Along this journey through French literary history, Lyons gives plenty of examples of authors, novels, poems, and plays which facilitate further exploration of any topic you find interesting, making it the sort of book you come back to again and again in order to navigate through French literature. 

The context described in each new period allows you to understand the reasons for new directions that literature took, and the structure of the book also allows you to see how new styles or fashions of literature have been influenced by those that came before. Furthermore, I really enjoyed the links created between literature in the 20th Century and le septième art, being such an important part of French culture. Overall, literature in this book is considered and discussed as a part of life, reflecting and influencing it, rather than a completely separate entity. 

The constant quotes, poems, photos from plays, and the photo of Stéphane Mallarmé’s somewhat Rupi Kaur-esque poem Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard were the aspects of this book that I enjoyed the most, as they enabled a more deep and personal look into French literature in a way that wasn’t overwhelming. 

In conclusion, this short book is the perfect place to start when exploring French literature: simple and accessible, but comprehensive. 

Something I agreed with in this book was…

The complicated nature of the terms ‘French’ and ‘francophone’, which separated writers from France and writers from former French colonies. Over time, these borders have become more complicated and what was once a recognition of unique writers outside of France has now become a form of separation. 

Something I disagreed with in this book was...

The hopeful look towards the French ‘différence’ as a saviour from the sameness of English and American media. It’s true that France has often been seen as a force of resistance to this, but this may only be true in the Western sphere. In terms of an alternative to English media, I would say that South American and East Asian cultures are more popular than French. 

Something I learnt from reading this book that I didn't know about this subject before was…

Samuel Beckett’s play ‘En Attendant Godot’. Not only is Beckett an interesting writer, publishing both in English and French throughout his life, but this play is the text that interested me the most out of all mentioned in this book. The mundane setting and dialogue create a truly confusing and fascinating performance - one that is rich in interpretations and yet has very little obvious meaning.