An introduction to nineteenth-century French literature by Tim Farrant

By Tim Farrant

Everyone understands whatever of nineteenth-century France - or do they? "Les Miserables", "The girl of the Camelias" and "The 3 Musketeers", "Balzac" and "Jules Verne" reside within the renowned cognizance as enduring human records and cultural icons. but, the French 19th century used to be much more dynamic than the stereotype indicates. This intriguing new creation takes the literature of the interval either as a window on prior and current mindsets and as an item of fascination in its personal correct. starting with background, the century's greatest challenge and power, it appears to be like at narrative responses to historic, political and social event, ahead of devoting crucial chapters to poetry, drama and novels - all genres the century notably reinvented. It then explores a number of modernities, methods nineteenth-century writing and mentalities look ahead to our personal, prior to turning to marginalities - matters and voices the canon normally forgot. No style used to be left unchanged through the 19th century. This booklet may also help to find them anew.

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I can see the glints of a dawn whose sun I shall not see rise. It remains for me only to sit on the edge of my grave; after which I shall descend boldly, crucifix in hand, to eternity’. Chateaubriand reveals life-writing’s fundamental nature: one does not write about one’s life, one writes it. Autobiography is less self-recording than self-creation, for the reader has no access to any reality other than that of the words on the page. Stendhal’s Vie de Henry Brulard (1835), the summit of his autobiographical work, explores this idea to the full.

2. Memoirs and autobiographies The nineteenth century, a period of turbulent history, was an age of great memoirs and autobiographies. Nearly all its major figures left memoirs, from Napoleon (Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, 1822-3, dictated to his secretary, Las Cases) and Talleyrand, to the Revolution’s chief executioner, Sanson (whose memoirs were published, partly ghosted by Balzac, in 1830) or Vidocq, the archsupergrass of his time, or the condemned murderer Pierre-François Lacenaire (1836), to writers like Dumas.

The result is to present the writer as both extraordinary, yet of no account; exceptional, yet also typical. Chateaubriand, in his Mémoires, becomes emblematically singular; like the protagonists of his (or other) first-person narratives, René or Adolphe, he becomes a means by which ordinary readers, nobodies, can identify with a great man, by which failures can understand the emptiness of success. The ironies are carefully controlled, by both attentive (re-)writing (as the Mémoires de ma vie became the Mémoires d’outre-tombe), and by the way in which potentially negative points (admissions of inadequacy) are balanced by accompanying virtues, giving an impression of integrity that it is hard to doubt.

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