Ideas in Seventeenth Century France by E J. Kearns; Aspects of Seventeenth-Century Drama and Thought by Robert McBride; Mallarmé's Un coup de Dés jamais n'abolira le Hasard by Mitsou Ronat (ed); Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau (trans by Barbara Wright & John Calder); The Streets of Paris by Nicholas Breach - review by Henry Phillips, Glenda George, George Craig, David Coward

Henry Phillips, Glenda George, George Craig, David Coward

French Books in Brief

  • E J. Kearns, 
  • Robert McBride, 
  • Mitsou Ronat (ed), 
  • Raymond Queneau (trans by Barbara Wright & John Calder), 
  • Nicholas Breach

Ideas in Seventeenth Century France

By E J. Kearns

Manchester University Press £11.50 order from our bookshop

Dr. Kearns's book is intended as an introduction to the mental climate of seventeenth century France as it evolved under the influence of the new science of Bacon, Galileo, Descartes et al., and essentially deals with six major thinkers of the period (Descartes, Pascal, Bossuet, Fenelon, Bayle and Fontanelle). In many respects the book succeeds in making us want to know more. I particularly liked the sections on Descartes as a scientist and the idea of intuition in Descartes and Pascal. The whole chapter on Fontanelle, who probably does not figure greatly in most students' horizons, is stimulating indeed. Undoubtedly, for those unacquainted with the subject, many new and interesting facts and ideas will emerge.

But even as an introduction the book could have been more effective, had a different approach been adopted. When dealing with ideas, concentration on individuals has its drawbacks. In the first place, the introductory chapter, surveying, as it does in this case, the whole of the seventeenth-century, is too schematic. Key terms such as 'Descartes' mechanistic cosmology' mean little until you reach the actual discussion on Descartes. Or, in the case of those key terms which are explained early on, one needs constant reminders later. In the second place, one is offered a rather piecemeal view of the whole situation. It would perhaps have been more interesting to see more direct comparisons of thinkers' ideas, how they come together, how they differ. With each author treated individually, one often has to reconstruct by deduction the changes that have occurred during the period concerned. An approach through the idea of authority in the diverse fields of human thought might have been more appropriate as an organising principle. As it stands the book is overambitious, and Bossuet and Bayle suffer from rather summary treatment.

On matters of detail, one is a little perturbed at Pascal's reliance on authority in · religious matters being described as a 'desperate stance' (nothing, incidentally, on Pascal's two infinities or on the discoveries of science as a second revelation), and at classicism being several times equated with the golden mean. The Bibliography is excellent for those, both initiated and uninitiated, who wish to venture further into the subject.

Aspects of Seventeenth-Century Drama and Thought

By Robert McBride

The Macmillan Press 190pp £10 order from our bookshop

Dr. McBride sets out to suggest that, in the works of the major dramatists and thinkers of the seventeenth century, there may be a common principle underlying their different visions of the world, which is most comprehensively covered by the term paradox. The author further wishes to demonstrate that behind the traditional view of seventeenth-century literature as embodying a sense of clarity and order there is an implicit tension between content and form which reflects a dynamic and complex vision rather than a static formal one.

As to the latter intention, the criticism of the last two decades, especially in France and the United States, has made the point more than adequately. In the case of the former intention it could be argued that Dr. McBride has narrowed his field too much to say anything meaningful beyond the fact that several authors in the century use paradox as a formal device. A more interesting task would have been to attempt to discover whether seventeenth century authors use paradox in any special way. The use of paradox by seven authors in any one period does not necessarily demonstrate a common principle. Paradox is not, after all, unique to the seventeenth century. Dr. McBride narrows his field of vision even further by choosing only three tragedies each of Corneille and Racine, and two comedies of Moliere. Paradox cannot be deduced from such a limited sample as an overriding principle in these authors in the same way that paradox, as Dr. McBride rightly points out, dominates the Pensées, that is to say a whole system of thought. Furthermore, does La Rochefoucauld choose paradox for any special reason other than that it is often embodied in the very nature of the epigram? The partiality of the authors chosen and of the selection of their works does not constitute a substantial argument.

It is disappointing too that Dr. McBride does not seem to elucidate in the subsequent chapters the idea mentioned in his preface of there being a tension between form and content in the authors he has chosen. In any case, the isolation of paradox alone would not lead us very far. What about Phèdre, at the same time the most passionate and the most formally pleasing of Racine's tragedies?

What of the book, then, as a series of essays on the use of paradox by major dramatists and thinkers of the seventeenth-century? The most interesting chapter is that on Corneille which offers a timely, if not entirely convincing, challenge to the views of Bénichou and Nadal on Heroism in Corneille's theatre. The essay on the raisonneur in Molière is a good mise au point of the problem and Dr McBride gives us a thorough account of Pascal's use of paradox in the Pensées. However, the close textual analysis tends at times to be over descriptive; the author restates much that is obvious before an original point emerges, and offers little that is radically new (why, incidentally, is no mention at all made of Jonathan Culler's article on paradox in the Maximes, in Modern Language Review, January 1973.

For the student of literature uninitiated in the works of these authors Dr. McBride's book contains useful introductions to the subject. But a little more attention to historical perspective and formal problems would have made it much more than useful.


Mallarmé's Un coup de Dés jamais n'abolira le Hasard

By Mitsou Ronat (ed)

D'Atelier 28pp order from our bookshop

Just a year ago, Mitsou Ronat, the French linguist, made a "discovery" in the Mallarmé poem "Un coup de Dés jamais n'abolira le Hasard". Just like a picture suddenly spotted in the design of a carpet (one of the images Ronat uses to describe her revelation) Ronat saw the numeric basis underlying the text. Following this, and conscious that for some 80 years publishers had blatantly ignored Mallarmé's own directions as to the printing of the text, Ronat set out to publish the text for the first time in the form the author had envisaged. The result is a huge and beautiful book/folder containing one book of her poem itself, and another with essays and readings by Ronat and her associates in Paris like Jean Pierre Faye and Jacques Roubaud (both of Change), and foreign exiles like Rudolfo Hinostroza (Peru) & Tibor Papp (Hungary). Respecting Mallarmé's initial calculations, the format acknowledges openly the process by which the text was written, giving that process equal hommage with the result of the process: the poem itself. In the essays another process is discussed: the process by which this version came into being. And speculation as to why not only were Mallarmé's wishes ignored, but why no one had before given any credence or thought to the possibility that Mallarmé constructed his poem in a mathematical manner. Surely the image of a dice throw in the title itself should have opened the way to a fuller realisation before now?

Exercises in Style

By Raymond Queneau (trans by Barbara Wright & John Calder)

John Calder 197pp £5.95 order from our bookshop

Raymond Queneau was humane, diffident and marvellously funny; and the despair of critics. The less than enthusiastic saw him as, intolerably, both wayward and subtle: as irresponsible. Admirers agonise still over how to present a "both/and" writer to readers conditioned by "either/or"; and to do so without falling into portentousness.

The main reason why this is so -and why critics might, for once, be widely representative - is that wherever you open his work you come, almost at once, across the notion and the practice of game. And that is something we have deeply divided feelings about. Games are, after all, what bring together babies, Wittgenstein, Max Boyce, Bobby Fischer, lovers, D. W. Winnicott, Geoff Hunt, compelled public schoolboys, Hermann Kahn and Eddie Waring. But if these and their like combine to warn us off quick assumptions about seriousness and triviality in general, they seem less influential in literary matters. Game is, indeed, allowable in literature; but on certain shadowy conditions. Characters, of course, can get up to anything. But authors? Well, provided they take their writing seriously. Or us seriously. Or something seriously. Above all, they mustn't be enjoying themselves. That is...

It is far from clear. Where such provisos (suspiciously non-literary, even when more respectably phrased) come from, or where they are going. But, delightfully, unaggressively, Queneau writes as if he'd barely heard of them. He writes from the innocence of an exceptionally gifted man: poet, mathematician, linguist, novelist. In a novel published in the early 30s, when most of the future nouveaux romanciers were learning to read, there is a moment when a writer figure, idly fantasising in a café about the lives of passers-by, is asked if he is indeed a writer. "No", he answers, "a character". And if the joke has gone on echoing in his work, so too have the less obvious elements of the exchange.

His Exercises de style, first published in 1947 and now issued in Barbara Wright's translation, offers itself as a caricaturally clear illustration of all this: ninety-nine brief presentings of a double encounter witnessed on and from a bus. But, as about the man in the cafe, we mustn't assume too much about the man in the Paris omnibus or his language games: this is not the arrogant display of virtuoso powers. Rather the little scene becomes a possible world: now the ground of voices (choleric, bewildered, vain, indifferent, timid); now that of combinatory skills (from Spoonerisms and school Latin to prosodic experiment and permutations). And it moves readers from discriminatory smiles through belly laughs to the detective's frown; and back again. Forever underpinning the manifold text is a disarming "Now I wonder ... "

Barbara Wright has taken on an impossible task. "Le Canard enchaîné" is a cut above "Private Eye", but the latter is immediately acceptable in ways that a direct translation of the "Canard" would not be. Exercises in Style would work as a whole only if it were an English equivalent, voices and all. As it is, she is brave and thoughtful; very good on the ingenuities, less so (even on occasion wrong) on the voices. And she has enjoyed herself; there are even a few grace notes of her own.


The Streets of Paris

By Nicholas Breach

Duckworth 160pp £7.50 order from our bookshop

Restif de La Bretonne roamed Paris by night, peeping, interfering and complaining about signs like 'Bains de Dames publiques'. Professor Cobb, though 'La Lampe rationnel' earns a disapproving sic, is more discreet. 'This is a book about thresholds', he declares, and he stays this side of gates, curtains, shutters and railings. It is out of memories, Queneau and Simenon that he supplies the life which goes on behind the peeling stucco. For the tour on which he leads us proves to be a sentimental journey.

Any picture of Paris which omits Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower is welcome, and this book is a delight. Nicholas Breach's sober images, their black and white artfully heightened by Professor Cobb's taste for local colour, provide a fascinating record of a Paris which is fast disappearing under the concrete. Photographed in October, this is an autumn book, an elegiac celebration of independent petit bourgeois quirkiness, of the Paris of the twenties and thirties behind which the Paris of Balzac can still be felt. It is a book of remnants, relics and reminders, a nostalgic retour en arrière which fits sturdily into the slot between change and decay.

Professor Cobb's streets, already nibbled at by hungry planners, have yet to be discovered by tourists, modish intellectuals and the new meritocracy, though the Portuguese, Tunisians and Algerians have moved in. Bulldozers, pizzerias and discos are disrupting the last pockets of the capital's quiet provincialism. It is regrettable, and Professor Cobb in this eloquent picture book, regrets it.

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