Martin Turnell’s The Rise of the French Novel is a successor to his highly praised earlier books, The Novel in France (1951) and The Art of French Fiction (1959). His aim now, however, is somewhat different, as can be seen from the title. It is well known that the reputations of many writers, novelists especially, diminish for a period following their deaths. Although in the eighteenth century Marivaux, Crébillon fils, and Rousseau all enjoyed a great deal of popularity during their lifetimes, it is only recently that they have been subject to truly searching studies. Yet they remain little read in English-speaking countries. Turnell emphasizes that in spite of the hostility of French critics and the fact that the novel did not reach its supremacy even in France until the nineteenth century, the beginning of its great rise was indeed with such writers as these. Their strong influence led such nineteenth-century novelists as Stendhal and Flaubert to all kinds of changes related to style, the enormous increase in the range of subject matter, and the marked development of language. Flaubert is the most striking example. It was pointed out some time ago by Eisenstein that Madame Bovary anticipates cinematic technique. One of Turnell’s most interesting chapters explores the connections between the novel and film in general, and Madame Bovary in particular. In our own time, two of the most popular French novelists in both the United States and England are Alain-Fournier and Radiguet. They are given enthusiastic appreciations in Turnell’s thoughtful book.
“This is a book about dramatic experience,” declares Martin Turnell in his introduction to this, the latest in his distinguished series of studies in French literature. The author of The Art of French Fiction, Baudelaire: A Stusy of his Poetry, The Classical Moment, and The Novel in France now turns to the work of Jean Racine, insisting that the true test of France’s greatest tragic playwright remains the continuing effectiveness of the theatre itself. For above all, “the plays must be studied as dramatic and not literary works. Racine’s tragedies are pure drama in the sense in which we are accustomed to speaking of ’pure poetry.’” Beginning with a general “Approach to Racine,” Turnell next considers each of the eleven plays, emphasizing their distinctive features, analyzing their structures, and pointing up the relevance of subject matter—the preoccupation with despotism, for example—for our time. Special attention is given as well to the great tirades, the poetry and imagery, while a final chapter discusses versification and language. Thus, if as Francois Mauriac has suggested, of all French authors Racine has become one of the least accessible, then Turnell’s book surely helps bridge the gap between modern sensibility and the classic world of 17th-century France.