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Hollier cover

Denis Hollier’s collective work A New History of French Literature (1989)  has a conventional-sounding title, but is anything but conventional in its arrangement. Instead of a chronological narrative, which is what the title suggests, or an A to Z listing of people and movements, which is how most introductory guides are structured, it comprises some 200 essays, each around 2,800 words, each typically written by a different specialist, based around a significant date in French literary history. Each date is a peg from which is hung a relevant event in the life of a writer or writers. Some of these dates are meaningful (such as 9 December, 1905, the law that separated Church and State); others are pretty spurious (27 September 1985, the 5,000th programme of Bernard Pivot’s “Apostrophes” TV chat show of interviews with writers – which could equally have been the year of the first episode, or the 100th). Nonetheless, a date order is intriguing and in this book certainly valid. What advantages does this arrangement bring? Or is it just a pain, since the reader has to start by looking most things up in the index before they start reading?

There are several advantages, and this is clearly a credit to the editor and to his team for pulling it off. First, there is no longer any canonical reference to a writer (“Shakespeare, William, born nnnn, died nnnn”). This paradoxically enables the text to contain multiple viewpoints. Hence two separate essays consider Stendhal, once in the context of romanticism, once as an intriguing study of La Chartreuse de Parme as one of a number of contemporary literary depictions of a beautiful male.The format does not attempt to provide an exhaustive coverage of the canon of major French writers, but to provide fresh and unexpected insights into some of those writers and thinkers. Thus, an essay entitled “1782: the First Part of Rousseau’s Confessions is published in Geneva”  shows the extent to which Rousseau, despite claiming originality for his work, modelled what he wrote on St Augustine’s Confessions. Clearly the book doesn’t limit itself exclusively to French literature, and nor does it limit itself to specifically literary history. The essay on 18 Brumaire (10 October 1799) describes Napoleon’s seizure of power and its relationship to major literary events of that period. In this way the chronological format enables literature to be placed in a historical and political context more effectively than the A to Z format.

Another significant advantage of the chronological essay is that it overcomes another limitation of the Wikipedia approach. Wikipedia, by choosing an alphabetical arrangement, is thereby obliged to provide entries of a length commensurate with their relative importance (the entry for, say,  Shakespeare should be longer than the entry for Walter Scott, reflecting their respective status in the literary canon). Wikipedia fails this test spectacularly; in the case of the Hollier history, the problem does not readlly arise, because the essay-based format removes the need to provide any such comparison or balance.

Which is best, essays or alphabetical? If the writing is good enough, both have a place. In fact it would be possible for the two to complement each other. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Hollier format is that it achieves something that Wikipedia does not, and could not do: a series of essays providing not so much primary research as interesting and often unexpected views on a subject that throws light on a single writer or group of writers. If Wikipedia ever created a wholly reliable, accurate and balanced coverage of French writers, the Hollier New History of French Literature would still be essential reading alongside it.  My verdict? It scores 9/10 for browsing: open it at any page and the reader is confronted with an original insight or treatment. Usability as a reference book, perhaps only 6/10, because it isn’t easy to find dates or major titles from it. But for inspiration, it scores close to maximum. After each essay, the reader is sent off to find out more about a writer, or book, or event: which is what such a book is really for.