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French Forum 27.3 (2002) 121-123
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Gerald Prince. Guide du roman de langue française (1901-1950). New York: University Press of America, 2002.
Bearing a closer resemblance to Michelin's gastronomic Guide rouge than to traditional textbooks of French literature, Guide du roman de langue française deftly documents the diversity of French-language fiction while treating the literary tourist to an enticing buffet of classic and off-the-beaten-track reading choices. Like Michelin's famous publication, this first volume of Prince's guidebook (volume 2 will cover the 1951-2000 period) is packed with essential information and confident but potentially controversial judgments. Prince's efficient, sometimes enumerative style pays homage to the Michelin model, as does his rating scale based on a system of stars. He even closes each entry [End Page 121] with a brief list of characteristic culinary items. Thus for Proust we find the expected "vin d'Asti," "petite madeleine," "asperges" and a few others (75); René Maran's Batouala features exotic offerings such as "gâteau de manioc, grillade de chenilles et oeufs de caïman" (108); and a Goncourt prizewinner includes "hérisson bouilli" (139). Even the absence of food may be telling: "On ne mange pas beaucoup dans La Porte étroite" (55).
To be useful, a guidebook must be clear, logically organized, comprehensive (or at least rationally selective), and authoritative. Guide du roman de langue française easily measures up to these criteria. The 471 novels reviewed are grouped by year of publication; within each year they are listed alphabetically by title. Following the title are the author's name or pseudonym, dates of birth and death, place of birth, titles of other significant works, and relevant miscellaneous information (e.g., film or stage versions). The volume closes with an index of titles and an index of all writers, film directors, and stage directors mentioned in the entries.
Is there any arbitrariness in the choice of titles? Yes, inevitably. Prince does attend to the obligatory canonical works (the page-and-a-half entry on Proust is superb, 74-75), but his choice of "minor" novels—intended to reflect a broad spectrum of regions, genres, styles, and trends—is open to the quibbles that divide historians and delight literary snobs. Like a gourmet drawn to doughnuts, Prince discourses eloquently on subtle gradations of quality without eschewing items at the low end. Indeed, over 60 percent of his entries receive only one star or no star, while a mere six novels earn his maximum rating of five stars (Du côté de chez Swann, Les Faux-Monnayeurs, Voyage au bout de la nuit, La Condition humaine, La Nausée, and a novel distinguished by having "l'incipit [ . . .] le plus célèbre de la littérature romanesque française du vingtième siècle" ). A hard grader, Professor Prince accords overall ratings with an average of just 1.27. The twenty-eight Goncourt prizewinners he scores fare even worse, with an average mark of 1.18. Prince, the author of many influential narratological studies, is not immune to the appeal of a well-told story ("Romain Gary est un excellent conteur" 262), but he clearly has higher regard than the Goncourt committee for stylish narrative qualities. His use of the terms "lisible" or "lisibilité" may betoken faint praise: "[n]arration traditionnelle, évocations réalistes [ . . .], cynisme sans imprévu, lisibilité: [End Page 122] l'ouvrage méritait le Goncourt et l'obtint" (287, on Maurice Druon's Les Grandes Familles). Still, innovations are not all equally palatable. After listing the salient features of Sarraute's Portrait d'un inconnu (two stars), Prince cautions: "A consommer par petites doses" (289). Thematically, his judgments betray a nostalgia for "ceux qui, durant les années trente et quarante, ont mis l'être humain et son existence en procès" (267).
Thanks to effective writing and to his vast experience with twentieth-century French fiction, Prince invests his guidebook with an authoritative voice. Shunning the disembodied prose typical of many reference books, he personalizes his discourse...