Après Roland, le Déluge

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ONE HUNDRED GREAT FRENCH BOOKS: From the Middle Ages to the Present
By Lance Donaldson-Evans, faculty
Bluebridge, 2010. $15.95.

“On a rugged mountainside in the Pyrénées lies the dying knight Roland, the nephew of the great Charlemagne,”writes Lance Donaldson-Evans at the opening of One Hundred Great French Books. Though rooted in the oral tradition, The Song of Rolandwas finally committed to paper around 1095, and it forms the jumping-off point for Donaldson-Evans’s collection, which proceeds chronologically to introduce the general-interest reader to some of “the major achievements in French literature.”

Designed more as a series of appetizers than as a reference book, each entry gives a feel for the plot while also supplying a historical and cultural frame of reference, helping present-day readers better appreciate otherwise distant works. The Song of Roland was more than a war story, we learn—it was also a Christian epic with certain embedded moral lessons. Roland could have summoned reinforcements by blowing his horn, the Oliphant, but military hubris prevents him. When he confesses his pride, God admits his soul to heaven.

Some classics make an appearance, like Madame Bovary and The Count of Monte Cristo, but Donaldson-Evans, professor of Romance languages at Penn, doesn’t restrict himself to the canon. He includes writings by Descartes and de Tocqueville, as well as a few detective stories, a comic series, and the journal of Delacroix, the French painter. And it’s clear there was no shortage of material—the accurately named afterword is titled “And Fifty More.”

—Sean Whiteman LPS’11

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