- Guillaume Du Vair, Parlementaire et écrivain (1556-1621)
Guillaume du Vair stands near the head of a long line of writers to have benefited from the renewed attention that Marc Fumaroli brought to bear on preclassical French prose nearly thirty years ago. Where others had seen only a wasteland of circumstantial pieces, he discerned the contours of a literary landscape stretching between Montaigne and the Grands Moralistes. Recent collections and monographs have devoted themselves to Du Perron, Peiresc, Pasquier, the Pithou brothers, and many others. Du Vair at last joins their ranks thanks to this new collection, all the more welcome in that he associated his name more closely than any of these peers with the notion that not only should French poetry strive to attain an eloquence akin to that of the ancients (as had argued the preceding generation), but that French prose should as well. To what extent this reputation is deserved, or even reflected in his own practice, is a matter of some debate within these pages.
In Old Regime France, style always entailed a moral dimension, and Du Vair eagerly associated his rhetorical program with an ethical one. In so doing, he became one of the architects of that peculiar form of self-promotion that the following century would come to know as honnęteté, and that his peers saluted under the label of Neo-Stoicism. In a closely-argued essay Frédérc de Buzon examines Du Vair's originality — but also his relative philosophical superficiality — with respect to better-known Neo-Stoics such as Lipsius. Bruno Petey-Girard reaches much the same results in his examination of the stoical attitudes modeled in Du Vair's consolation pieces. For the most part, however, this collection focuses upon the historical contexts in which Du Vair moved and wrote. The best of these (Balsamo, Banderier, Descimon, and Magnien) not only identify the circumstantial motives of flattery, supplication, and self-advancement that infiltrated even private letters, as Banderier nicely demonstrates, but situate these proximate concerns within the wider social structures that underwrote the implicit discursive strategies.
Anne Sancier celebrates the traditional image of Du Vair as one of the leading [End Page 895] precursors in the evolution toward classical style, discerning in his writings the early observance of strict rules of antecedence that would come to characterize modern French prose. Similarly, Wolfgang Mecking finds Du Vair to have been a significant innovator in enriching French vocabulary. Michel Magnien, however, discovers a Du Vair curiously preoccupied with the preceding generation's controversies over Ciceronianism; if his contribution, a Neo-Latin invective against Cicero written in high Ciceronian style, proves far more creative than those of the 1550s and the 1560s, the piece nonetheless places him far out-of-step with his more forward-looking colleagues. In a similar vein, Jean Balsamo furnishes an unknown letter which displays, among more familiar clichés of the consolation letter, a striking conceit to gunpowder, thus complementing Ullrich Langer's 1986 article "Gunpowder as Transgressive Invention in Ronsard." Alluding to a study of artillery by Fleurance Rivault, an intermediary between the aggrieved widow and rival panegyrists Malherbe and Peiresc, Du Vair positions himself within a network of writers bent on forging a new courtly style — but not where one has come to expect him: he appears here closer to the discredited Desportes than to Malherbe, champion of classical simplicity.
Julien Gœury suggests that Du Perron exercised a far greater influence over developing literary style, and over Du Vair's own writing, a point which Banderier confirms. Other contributions also tend to puncture Du Vair's self-perpetuated myth of the serene political man of letters; Wolfgang Kaiser argues that he wielded minimal power, and demonstrated even less familiarity, over politics in his jurisdiction of Provence. Du Vair fares hardly better in Alexandre Tarrięte's study of his quarrel with d...