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  • Avant le roman: l’allégorie et l’émergence de la narration française au 16èmesiècle
  • Timothy Chesters
Avant le roman: l’allégorie et l’émergence de la narration française au 16èmesiècle. By Mawy Bouchard. (Faux titre, 280). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. 369 pp. Pb €74.00; $104.00.

Mawy Bouchard’s Avant le roman examines changing attitudes to the legitimacy and function of extended vernacular narrative, especially allegory, in sixteenth-century France. She begins polemically, by denouncing much recent genre theory (particularly that inspired by Hans Robert Jauss) as anachronistic when applied to her period of study. In common with the nineteenth-century literary aesthetics from which it is descended, today’s concept of genre — and notably that of ‘le roman’ — tends towards solipsism when dealing with earlier periods, conveniently positing a genealogy whose culmination is itself. Rejecting this so-called ‘presentist’ approach, whose guiding star is still ‘le Beau’, Bouchard argues that sixteenth-century writers conceived of ‘la narration en romant’ quite differently: in relation to ‘le Vrai’. Through a series of readings of major authors (including Lemaire de Belges, Jean Marot, Rabelais, Hélisenne de Crenne, Ronsard, and d’Aubigné), she argues that central to sixteenth-century reflections on the topic was a competition between three models of relationship between the written word and divine truth: ‘iconophile’ (promoted by Erasmus, Budé, and Rabelais), ‘iconoclaste’ (the view of the Judaic tradition, and inherited by Calvin), and ‘idolâtre’ (Ronsard and, loosely speaking, the pagan revival). In the end the idolaters win. For Ronsard and the neo-Aristotelian poetics that succeeded him into the seventeenth century, the function of writing is no longer bound to ‘le Vrai’ (scriptural truth, whether Erasmus’s or Calvin’s), or even ‘la vérité’ (civic, political, or moral) so prized in the late sixteenth-century revival of history, but the merely ‘vraisemblable’ — the word itself now idolized as truth, with no need of correspondence to anything beyond it. Bouchard’s tripartite model is powerful and helps to refine and extend a number of theses long cherished by seiziémistes: for example, the rise of the vernacular, the waning of allegory (and the problem of Rabelais’s still contentious Gargantua prologue), or the transition between a courtly reading culture and that of the noblesse de robe. Of course, there is more to be said. No mention is made of the fortunes of shorter narrative forms in the vernacular, for instance in the Heptameron of the iconophiliac Marguerite de Navarre; the persistence of a strong Neoplatonist current in courtly entertainments, and in Baïf ’s academy, must complicate Bouchard’s tension between ‘iconophiles’ and ‘idolâtres’; it would also be interesting to know where Du Bartas’s La Sepmaine might fit within her scheme. But even within Bouchard’s more restricted compass, there is still room for surprises. Her emphasis on allegory allows her to argue for a rich, if [End Page 340] short-lived, ‘dantesque’ Renaissance; and the final chapter’s repositioning of d’Aubigné’s Les Tragiques as iconophilia’s last gasp is provocative, even moving. One senses that, like other ‘theo-literary’ critics such as Screech and Defaux, Bouchard regrets the shift away from the convictions of an Erasmus or a Calvin, and the refusal of transcendence in Ronsard’s new, autonomous poetics. Others will disagree but still profit from this illuminating study.

Timothy Chesters
Royal Holloway, University of London


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