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  • Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptaméron and Early Modern Culture
  • Dora E. Polachek
Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptaméron and Early Modern Culture, edited by John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley; xii & 296 pp. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, $36.95.

What a difference a decade can make. In 1983 H. P. Clive’s slim Marguerite de Navarre: An Annotated Bibliography made pointedly clear the marginal position of this author in the French Renaissance literary canon, and the relative obscurity of her Heptaméron (there were less than 200 entries dealing with her unfinished collection of stories that first appeared in 1558). The 500th anniversary of Marguerite’s birth in 1992 brought with it a remarkable outpouring of reflections on this neglected masterpiece. Critical Tales ranks among the best of such undertakings. Eclectic in its approach, the volume comprises fifteen articles by scholars whose analyses advance the reader’s appreciation of the Heptaméron in all “its inexhaustible complexity” (p. 279).

As complex as Marguerite’s tales may be, Lyons and McKinley have done an admirable job making their volume’s contents as accessible as possible to the growing number of scholars interested in the work both as text and as important artifact in the history of the evolution of narrative. All the articles are in English (with three translated from French). Citations from the Heptaméron appear in French, but for each, the editors include the corresponding page numbers in the most accessible English translation. In addition to a selected bibliography, the volume provides a useful index.

The volume’s introduction presents the dominant issues, as well as a sketch of each article’s vantage point. The editors then divide the book into three sections: “Generic Transformations and Graphic Transgressions” (with articles by Robert D. Cottrell, Hope Glidden, Marcel Tetel, Donald Stone, and Tom Conley); “Narrative Systems and Structures” (with articles by Michel Jeanneret, Cathleen M. Bauschatz, François Cornilliat and Ullrich Langer, McKinley herself, Philippe de Lajarte, and André Tournon); “Character and Community” (with articles by Daniel Russell, François Rigolot, Paula Sommers, and Edwin M. Duval). The epilogue that follows, by virtue of its length and quality, could easily be considered the sixteenth article in the collection. It shows how these heterogeneous pieces relate to issues of narrative and narrative theory.

Just how radical an upheaval did the Reformation cause? The contributions bear witness to the major changes in ways of thinking and writing that played themselves out even in secular texts. The theological tensions caused by the evangelical movement are evident in all three sections of the volume, and the introduction will lead readers to the relevant essays. Among them, Rigolot’s striking allegorical reading of novella 32 in terms of “The Magadelen Controversy” (i.e., was she really one person or a conflation of three different women?) demonstrates why the discoveries of the intellectually driven philological projects of such humanists as Lefèvre d’Etaples posed such pragmatic [End Page 392] quagmires for the late medieval church. Another piece likely to cause discussion is Duval’s “Et puis, quelles nouvelles?” His lexical findings on the Renaissance meaning of nouvelle lead him to conclude that the ten characters assembled at Saint-Serrance “do no tell tales” but rather “report news” (p. 245). For Duval the evangelical resonances of the “Good News” highlight the fundamental philosophical dilemma in the discussions of the frame story characters: how to reconcile living in the world of news while still abiding to the Word of the Good News.

For articles more specifically on narrative theory, readers will benefit from the epilogue by using its insights and directional signs to locate those essays particularly relevant to their interests. Among these, two focus on the interplay between the revolution in printing and narrative strategies. In “Modular Narrative and the Crisis of Interpretation,” Jeanneret shows how the short tale structure of the Heptaméron was part of an important Renaissance trend favoring creation of “modules,” defined as moveable segments of discourse that could be reassembled and put to other uses, while at the same time allowing for the intercalation of commentary. In his “The Graphics of...

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