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Le 'dire sans dire' et le dit: Etudes lafontainiennes II.

Le 'dire sans dire' et le dit: Etudes lafontainiennes II. By JURGEN GRIMM. (Biblio 17, 93) Tubingen, Paris, and Seattle, WA: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature. 1996. ix + 305 pp.

With these sixteen articles, Jurgen Grimm develops further the critical methodology that he deployed in Etudes lafontainiennes I (Biblio 17, 85, reviewed in MLR, 91 (1996), 724-25). Apart from two studies published some twenty years ago (and here translated from German into French), the bulk of the collection dates from the last five years and focuses particularly on the Contes of La Fontaine, though the Fables and some other poetic works of the fabulist are not forgotten.

Grimm here strikes out once more against his bete noire, a 'pure immanentism', as he styles it, which means that some critics limit themselves to a formalist interpretation of La Fontaine's work reduced by them to stylistic juggling with theme and variations. Such an approach tends to obscure questions of its original impact and reception by seventeenth-century readers and, above all, ignores its origins in the personal, social, and political contexts of that time. A combative paper directed against the structuralist analysis of H. Lindner offers us a very clear exposition of the issues. Grimm holds to the axiom 'nihil fit de nihilo': the only problem is to determine correctly what is the 'something' out of which the 'something' of La Fontaine's poetry is created.

A letter usually depends on contemporary reality for its essential material. The epitre en vers was adopted early on by La Fontaine. Grimm devotes three articles to this form rather neglected by other critics: he argues that at an early stage the poet exploited its ambiguity, which combines features of factual reportage and stylized narration and allows satirical implications, thus developing techniques for the later fables and contes. His main focus, however, in this volume is the conte. Not for him the La Fontaine merely versifying Boccaccio or simply decorating the erotic. He highlights through close analysis the biting anti-clerical satire of this 'auteur engage' who reflects the trend of opinion in the 1670s against ecclesiastical laxity and hypocrisy, but his interpretation of such contes as 'Les Freres de Catalogne' never veers towards a simplistic mode of allegorical explanation. La Fontaine's art of suggestion, of 'saying without saying', demonstrated in the contes, was fully deployed in his fables. Adding to the material in his first volume, Grimm shows how the fabulist appears as an author of the pre-Enlightenment alongside Fontenelle or Fenelon and, while his pessimism is often stressed by critics, La Fontaine's view of mankind included also more positive aspects. In welcome, though more peripheral, articles he studies the developing image of Alexander the Great in seventeenth-century France, revives a very weird dramatization of 'La Cigale et la Fourmi' (1772) by Restif de la Bretonne, and manages to give (at long last) a clear resume of Marino's Adone (1623). Throughout this collection, Grimm practises what he preaches: reading the text in depth and breadth. Moreover, far from closing the debate with an ipse dixit, he constantly suggests new lines of research and challenges the reader's assumptions about that most subtle of authors, La Fontaine.


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Author:Allott, Terence
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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