French Literature: A Beginner’s Guide by Carol Clark (review)
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French Literature: A Beginner’s Guide. By Carol Clark. (Oneworld Beginner’s Guides.) Oxford: Oneworld, 2012. vi + 217 pp., ill.

In the introduction to her comprehensive and highly readable survey of French literature across the centuries Carol Clark posits her overarching objectives: to ‘help readers with little experience of French literature to find some books they will want to read’ (p. 3); to bring to their attention some of France’s ‘most admired’ writers (p. 2); to point the way to exemplary texts that will give pleasure as well as an appreciation of their place in what she claims is ‘the longest-lived and richest of all European literatures apart from English’ (p. 1). Such is the scope of a study that embraces, in seven chapters, a cross-section of writers and literary genres (novels, drama, poetry, film), traced as enduringly representative of discrete historical eras, changing readerships, and defining aesthetic trends. The concept, admittedly vast, could have lead to generalizations and simplifications. This is not the case: Clark has produced an entertaining, erudite, and cogently argued presentation of writings as they were conceived and received in their time; she also considers why they deserve re-evaluation and how they might be enjoyably and discerningly read today. Thus is the reader initiated into the classic and the modern as the book moves sweepingly, but never dully, from early Villon and Rabelais to existentialist Sartre and Camus. Following a brief account of texts of the Middle Ages, chapters range through the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, with the most expansive critical analysis devoted to the last two. New readers may recognize the names of the more universally famous authors discussed, among them Molière, Balzac, Hugo, La Fontaine, and Maupassant. Other authors, those less widely read outside France, are judged to be landmark figures, for example Diderot, Apollinaire, Gide, Proust, Lautréamont, and Rimbaud. The chapters are similarly arranged: broadly, authors are situated in the historical, political, and social circumstances in which they wrote and with reference to the contemporary literary movements that they helped to shape; specifically, biographical information is complemented by an analysis of a work’s distinctive themes and style. But it is the interspersion throughout of exemplary extracts, given in French and translated by Clark in elegantly accurate English, that truly brings her observations and appraisals to life. Here, indeed, the book offers a foretaste of works that readers might be encouraged to pursue in full. Clark has done well to address so many writers without her guide seeming crowded or her remarks sounding glib, although, in light of the burgeoning of women writers in the twentieth century, it is regrettable that few of these—Simone de Beauvoir is an exception—are treated in detail. Sadly, mention of Colette, one of France’s greatest feminine lyrical writers, is absent. But much has been achieved: eschewing critical heavy-handedness, Clark evinces her passion for literature and command of her subject with a lightness of touch that delights. Given its systematic layout, the book can be dipped into or read in its entirety; it could also be used profitably by teachers for reference or as an educational tool. [End Page 426]

Rosemary Lancaster
University of Western Australia
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