Colin Nettelbeck reviews 'A History of Modern French Literature: From the sixteenth century to the twentieth century' edited by Christopher Prendergast

Colin Nettelbeck reviews 'A History of Modern French Literature: From the sixteenth century to the twentieth century' edited by Christopher Prendergast

A History of Modern French Literature: From the sixteenth century to the twentieth century

edited by Christopher Prendergast

Princeton University Press (Footprint), $98 hb, 736 pp, 9780691157726

On the acknowledgments page of this vast compendium, Christopher Prendergast describes the creation of the work as an ‘arduous task’ and the book itself as an ‘unwieldy vessel’. One can sympathise with the difficulty of presenting as a history of five centuries of French literature what would more accurately be described as a chronological anthology of essays by more than thirty different scholars; but few historians would accept Prendergast’s introductory affirmation that his ‘collection of glimpses, angled and partial snapshots ... is all history can ever be’.

A second introduction, by David Coward, provides a firmer historical context for the essay collection, tracing the development of French cultural distinctiveness across time: the gradual spread of the hegemony of the French language; the rise of the ‘author’ and the ‘intellectual’; and the evolution of readership from a tiny percentage of literate upper-class people to a mass audience. Coward outlines the complexities associated with the arrival of the printing press and the impact of various censorship regimes, and offers a history of literary criticism and an analysis of how French literature today, like any other, faces the challenges of the digital age. He does indeed provide what Prendergast calls ‘the arc of a story centred on the nexus of language, nation and modernity’.

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Colin Nettelbeck

Colin Nettelbeck

Colin Nettelbeck is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne, where he held the A.R. Chisholm Chair of French. He taught previously at the University of California (Berkeley) and Monash University. He has written extensively about twentieth-century and contemporary French literature, cinema, and cultural history, with special focus on the French experience of World War II. His most recent book is Dancing with de Beauvoir: Jazz and the French, published by Melbourne University Press in 2004. His essay ‘Kneecapper: a Trip to Happiness’ (published in the Autumn 2011 Meanjin Quarterly) was shortlisted for the 2010 Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay. He was awarded second prize in the 2012 Calibre Prize for ‘Now They’ve Gone’.

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