- Nouvelles françaises du dix-neuvième siècle. Anthologieby Allan H. Pasco
Clarity, concision, and elegance are hallmarks of the writings of Allan Pasco, whose immense critical output has made him a familiar figure to readers of nineteenth-century French literature. In the modestly expanded introduction to his 2015 anthology of nineteenth-century “nouvelles,” Pasco offers a succinct definition of the genre he aims to illuminate. Yet he sets out by arguing that genre definitions are useful to begin with. Only after the conventions of a genre are clearly set forth can a succeeding generation challenge and thereby reinvigorate them.
Pasco’s definition, which he calls “une formule […] ouverte à la controverse,” qualifies the “nouvelle” as “une courte fiction littéraire écrite en prose.” Its four components are more problematic, and it is these that Pasco elucidates in his opening essay.
Fiction, Pasco claims, creates a world whose existence is unverifiable. However, Pasco is more interested in the creation of something beautiful than in a world whose reality cannot be authenticated. Much of Pasco’s theory concerns readers’ reaction to the “nouvelle”: their capacity to pay attention, their appreciation of a story’s epigrammatic point. In return for their application in deciphering the text, they experience, Pasco says, the “intense effect” that the “nouvelle” is expected to produce.
The brevity of the “nouvelle” is perhaps the most crucial feature of this short fiction. Pasco wonders whether the “nouvelle” should not exceed a certain length. Yet he is less concerned with arbitrary limitations than with writers’ concentration of their material and their ability to maximize the response from a reader.
While Pasco’s remarks are firmly grounded in recent critical debate, they also turn to the history of the “nouvelle” and attribute its popularization in the nineteenth century to the growth of journalism and the reading public’s increasingly insatiable appetite for “toujours plus de feuillets divertissants.”
As in the anthology’s first edition, Pasco strikes a happy balance between canonical and lesser-known works. One finds long-celebrated texts (“Le Colonel Chabert,” “Carmen,” “Un cœur simple,” “Le Horla”) along with often neglected works by famous authors. There is a wealth of “nouvelles” by fin-de-siècle writers, notable texts by women, even a few surprises, such as three prose poems by Baudelaire (“Le vieux saltimbanque,” “Le joujou du pauvre” “La fausse monnaie”) as well as a tale for children (Daudet’s “Le chèvre de M. Seguin). Also extremely valuable are the short critical biographies and bibliographies that accompany the section on each author. There, as well as in the introduction, Pasco includes insightful capsule analyses of the “nouvelles” in question.
This critical apparatus makes the anthology an excellent and accessible volume for any advanced undergraduate or graduate class in nineteenth-century fiction. Pasco’s sure-footed definition of the “nouvelle” is welcome for the very reason that it will generate disagreement, the sign of a good genre definition. The “unité esthétique” that Pasco sees as a necessary constituent of the “nouvelle,” is it inherent in the work, imparted by the reader, discovered by the critic? Brief, pleasing, able to sustain readers’ interest in its subtle reasoning, Pasco’s volume shares the essential qualities of the genre it illuminates. [End Page 153]