- La Forme et le sens: nouvelles études sur le roman des Lumières
A reader unfamiliar with any of Pierre Hartmann's criticism might be disquieted to observe that this book is a collection of pieces that have nearly all been published already, some of them almost twenty years ago, and that they are now gathered under a title promising everything and nothing. The author himself actually appears to entertain a degree of scepticism about their 'coherence' when he asks in the Foreword just what kind of a whole these essays might now constitute (p. 9). But there is a strong, clear answer to be given on his behalf. It is that this is high-quality literary criticism, sustained by an ongoing interest in the relation between literary form and meaning. Hartmann often returns to questions of topicality, asking about the opportunities [End Page 485] made available by a given genre for the development of a particular theme. Concerning Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, for example, he suggests that there is a close link between the emergence of the polyphonic epistolary genre and the articulation of certain philosophical views (p. 121; cf. p. 41). Without referring to the substantial body of theoretical work on genre that is available in English and other languages, he produces a set of thematic readings that never fail to give a place to genre (see, for example, pp. 225, 265). For all their apparent ignorance of work published in English, the essays show sophisticated familiarity with francophone nouvelle critique of the kind practised by Spitzer, Richard, and others. Unlike Richard, for example, Hartmann typically begins his readings with a discrepancy or a paradox, proceeding to reveal thematic order and aesthetic purpose where they might have seemed at first blush to be absent. Subtlety here is not just an incidental quality of critical writing: it constitutes the very purpose of criticism. In keeping with this aim, Hartmann steers away from literary history — from studying the circumstances in which a text was conceived and produced — preferring to engage in what he calls 'purely literary' readings, that is, readings informed by other textual matter, including prefaces and the like (see, for instance, p. 60). It is fitting that the writers to whom he returns most often are novelists who could be said to trade in subtlety. Marivaux claims a strong place here, as does Crébillon fils. Indeed, Hartmann's criticism might itself be called libertine, if the particular kind of pleasure to which these readings invite us were to be understood in its refined mid-eighteenth-century sense. 'Libertine' understanding, as Hartmann practises it, dwells indulgently in the nuance of meaning and dances on the inflection of form.