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

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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