Quelle bonne idee

5th May 1995 at 01:00
THE NEW OXFORD COMPANION TO LITERATURE IN FRENCH. Edited by Peter France. Clarendon Press, Oxford Pounds 30. 0 19 866125 8. Robin Buss welcomes a guide to French writing.

This intrinsically hideous erection," was how Sir Paul Harvey and Janet Heseltine's Oxford Companion to French Literature described the Eiffel Tower, in a rare departure from its usual stance of Olympian impartiality - or, perhaps, an equally rare flash of humour. Peter France's New Companion quotes the judgment in an article on "Eiffel, Gustave", cuts out the rather pedestrian description of "the erection" from its predecessor's "Tour Eiffel" and adds some new information on the Tower's place in literature and art. The renaming sensibly brings the entry back to where readers would probably first think of looking for it, under the word "Eiffel".

To a certain extent, in entries of this kind, the New Companion is self-consciously a continuation of the old, and should provide users with a replacement for that invaluable work. Down to the second-hand booksellers, then, with the battered copy of Harvey and Heseltine, except for professional pedants who delight in comparing old with new, to find whose stock has risen or fallen, and which writers and genres are in or out.

The Companion of 1959 was updated in 1976 as the Concise Oxford Dictionary of French Literature (edited by Joyce M H Reid), and the major changes between the three dates are not hard to spot. The retitling itself suggests the most important of them: the field is now the whole Francophone world, not l'Hexagone. There are also important articles on movements (the Nouveau Roman, Structuralism, Feminism and so on), a species of entry that was less prominent in the former Companion, and not only because many of the topics postdate it.

For example, Harvey and Heseltine's one-and-a-half columns on "Marx, Karl" have given way to two-and-a-half columns on "Marxism in France", bristling with cross-references to "Socialism and Communism", "Psychoanalysis", "Linguistic Theory", "Anthropology", "Existentialism", "May 1968" and so on. Of these, only "Existentialism" featured in the 1959 Companion - as a warning that the coming second half of the 20th Century would be a great age of theory, especially in France.

One result of all these changes has been to shift the balance towards the modern, and consequently to undermine some of the book's assumption of timeless authority. It is quite probable that the essays on "Feminism" and "Gay and Lesbian Writing" will need revision for the next edition; and who can tell if Georges Ngal, Amina Said and other modern Francophone writers will still be thought worthy of inclusion then? This, surely, is the fundamental change of the past 46 years. Today, as Antoine Compagnon says in his article on "Literary History", one can no longer "take for granted the canon of great works handed down by tradition", and there is not even agreement on what constitutes "literarity" and what is meant by a "literary" work. Indeed, one sign of the abandonment, since the days of Harvey and Heseltine, of any stance of impartial authority is the fact that all the articles are now signed. There is no longer the pretence that the judgments contained within them have been delivered ex cathedra by the entire French-teaching Establishment.

Of course, this makes it more, not less valuable. There are some inevitable omissions and concessions to fashion: why does Agn s Varda rate a separate entry, when Louis Malle, a film director with more literary connections, is only mentioned under "Cinema"? But this is all part of an argument that we are invited to join.

The New Oxford Companion will perform for whole generations of users the same service as its predecessor, as an important work of reference in its field (though more of them, perhaps, will be turning to French-language sources for much of this kind of information). It will also, even more than its predecessors, inspire readers to browse through its pages, at times admiring the perspicacity of its contributors, and at others taking issue with their judgments. In a year or two, we may well be wondering how we ever did without it.

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