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This item is taken from PN Review 22, Volume 8 Number 2, November - December 1981.

ATTENTION has twice been drawn, in PNR, to the diminishing number of translations from French into English published in recent years-we speak of literary works, of course, not of E.E.C. regulations. Could it be that so many people now know French so well, that there is no need for translations? That is hardly likely to be the whole reason, in spite of the crowds now crossing the Channel each year for their holidays. One reason must be the competition from a multiplicity of other languages, the pressure for such variety being naturally strong in our sort of world. Another reason-more worrying-must be the advantage enjoyed by sources which are politically preponderant. American works are not usually thought to be in need of translation, even by those most ardent to prove the existence of a separate transatlantic literature. Russian authors, whether expatriate or not, benefit from the fearsome prestige of the U.S.S.R. and the acceptability to the media of anything which relates to it.

The literature of France has a special connection with our own, and for the English reader to cold-shoulder it is to lose something of his own past, and so of his own present. The fact that Norman-French was, so to speak, spliced into English would of itself give subsequent French literature a special claim to our attention, but this fact of history is only a beginning. From Chaucer and Gower onwards English verse has been deeply indebted to French sources. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries France had political advantages of the kind which now operate so powerfully in other directions, and these influences were hardly exhausted by the first half of the twentieth century. Happily France was not only a great power, but 'mère des arts . . . et des loix' as well as 'des armes', as du Bellay's famous sonnet has it. The French language carried a civilizing influence from St Petersburg to Dublin, and was not least in those places where, as in England, it aroused a strong critical response from the more local tradition. French carried with it the elegance and seriousness of the classical tradition, and Paris had in a sense succeeded Rome as the capital of Europe.

All this must seem remote now. And, as for literary influences, it is long since much has been heard here of anybody before Baudelaire. The last major writers in English whose work implies any general knowledge of French literature were two Americans, Eliot and Pound. It happens, however, that Pound, while allowing something to French prose of the eighteenth century, was apt to speak with contempt of the seventeenth century, and indeed as if there was nothing much worth reading between Villon and Flaubert-which served well enough for the point he was trying to make against Anglo-Saxondom. Eliot's sympathies certainly went further, so far that he put Racine among his favourite authors, but the overt French influences on his work were from the age of Baudelaire and after. The British poets who, since then, have been prestigious for any considerable public, have rather turned away from France. To Auden and Spender Germany probably mattered more, and that for social and political rather than literary reasons. Since the war we have had a claim to return to the English tradition, even if that means taking Hull for an intellectual capital. None of the more recent developments has done much to encourage readers in this country to explore the further reaches of French literature.

Yet, leaving aside the desperate need for a little more of that astringency by which the older French literature is abundantly characterised, there is immense pleasure to be found there. Political prejudice goes so far in our time that the mere notion that anything good could be found in the century of Louis XIV is probably regarded as suspect by some. But, as all real readers know, the pleasures as well as the other benefits of literature include that of finding oneself in a society remote from our own, yet with enough in common to make comparisons illuminating. How does the animal man-to say nothing of the animal woman-behave and think in this world so far from our preconceptions, and the ideas we attribute to our experience? We have to learn to think a little like such strangers, in order to know what our own thinking is like. It is not that anyone in his senses thinks of resuscitating a past world, but that a critical intelligence, whether of literature or society, cannot be developed without a wide range of comparisons. We may not, like Saint-Simon, be endlessly exercised about the degree of precedence enjoyed by dukes, but his worries, so incisively presented in the Mémoires, can sharpen our view of certain phenomena in our society called democratic. Certainly his record, so closely observed and often so intimate, of the way matters great and small were decided by the king or by the influential men and women about him, and the devices by which they attained and extended their influence, has a bearing on the proceedings of our world which is supposed to be run so differently. Nor is it unrewarding to consider the inconveniences suffered by the great, and they were considerable. Saint-Simon notes them all, even to the sufferings of great ladies having to travel in a coach with the king when positively bursting with the need for the most elementary reliefs.

Of course the age of Louis XIV is full of hypocrisies, not least those of the king himself, but then our own age is not free of them and there is probably not much to choose between public compulsions and pretences to propriety and public compulsions and pretences to frankness, as far as the amount of torturing, twisting and evasion involved, is concerned. The moralists of despotic times, from La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld to Vauvenargues, certainly saw as much of the world as any writers of our own times, and we are missing a great deal if we do not digest a little of their relevance to the twentieth century, as we are missing a great deal, both in terms of observation and of style, if we think the Fables of La Fontaine negligible. The list of delectable reading-matter is endless. And if there is a predominance of books by men relatively well-placed in the world- which means also relatively ill-placed-there is also a rich pamphlet literature which reflects the streets of Paris. Moreover unexpected sources-such as the Mémoires of Madame de Sévigné's cousin and correspondent, Roger de Rabutin, comte de Bussy-will give a sudden picture of a domestic interior, with the fire smoking in a rarely-used chimney, which may be set beside those from the early nineteenth century we get from Maurice and Eugenie de Guérin. Bussy too gives a marvellously vivid account of the distresses of imprisonment in the Bastille and a ruined career.

There are these pleasures of insights into a different society, which are also means of an insight into our own. But the predominant importance of French literature comes to us from the fact that it is a great literature which has run for centuries parallel with our own. There are instructuve cross-references at various periods, so that, for example, the English literature of the Restoration and the Augustan period cannot be clearly seen without some knowledge of the French. And the qualities of the French language are such as to throw continuous light on the qualities and defects of our own, which is not to say that French has not its own ways of running to seed.

The moral? Should an editorial have one? It was the intention this time to resist the temptations of the genre-to point to the pleasures of what is rather than to any shadowy obligations or to what, it could be made out, ought to be. Anyhow one may say that to have the freedom of several centuries, in any literature, is rewarding in a way that a miscellaneous acquaintance with the latest translations from several parts of the globe cannot be-which is not in the least to discourage miscelianeous reading but merely to give it a subordinate place. And with our own literature, it is after all only those who have gone from contemporary reading matter to make themselves at home in other centuries who can have any sharp perception of the way in which the English language is being used at the present time.

This item is taken from PN Review 22, Volume 8 Number 2, November - December 1981.

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