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

Lyons’ ‘A Very Short Introduction to French Literature’ explores chronologically how French authors have used protagonists in their plays, poems, novels and screenplays to reflect changing social ideologies and practices, from medieval literature and the growing sense of political unrest in Beaumarchais’ ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ through to Michel Houellebecq’s commentary on the decline of modern-day religion and the rise of consumerism in ‘Atomised’.

The author also provides some insightful commentary on the French nation’s struggle to define its own sense of identity through its literature. For example, Joachim du Bellay, Renaissance author and proponent of the French language, is said to be heavily inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. In his greatest work ‘The Regrets’, the protagonist is reminiscent of none other than Odysseus. Is it therefore impossible to be original and to have a truly unique identity, not just as a nation but also as individuals? Can we truly escape the influence of those who have come before us? As such this complex and deep-rooted struggle has spanned several centuries and is also prevalent in modern French literature. In Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Swan’, the protagonist is described as a ‘stroller’ or ‘un flâneur’ (a poetic persona for Baudelaire himself). The ‘flâneur’ and Baudelaire both lament the loss of Paris’ medieval beauty amidst colossal industrial changes that threaten to destroy its unique identity.

Overall, Lyons’ introduction to French literature poses plenty of fascinating questions, uncovers the role of protagonist as social commentator and influencer and exposes the complicated relationship between the French and their identity. I would recommend it to anyone with a passion for the Francophone world, for literature in general and for questioning the world and how we view it.

Something I agreed with in this book was...

The strong Italian influence on French society during the Renaissance being both a source of emulation and of anxiety for the French. The cultural vitality of Italy at the time – hugely inspired in itself by the significant and long-lasting impact of Greco-Roman antiquity – would definitely have been admired and appreciated. However, the Italian War of 1494 represents to me a desire by the French to hold onto and celebrate their own cultural identity and not let it be overshadowed by Italian influences.

Something I disagreed with in this book was...

The author’s statement that as modern readers, we would view 17th century France as a repressive society for valuing politeness, moderation and discretion. Valuing a sense of self-censorship is hugely different to enforcing censorship on the rest of society – which is repressive – and was sensible, especially considering the volatile nature of the wars between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century.

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

The significant shift in French attitudes towards the artificiality and corruption permeating French urban life between the 17th and 18th centuries, influenced by Jean de la Bruyère’s essay ‘The Characters’ and later reflected in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s essay ‘Letter to M. D'Alembert on Spectacles’.