Albert Thibaudet came to my attention first when I was writing about Charles Maurras. Thibaudet’s book from the 1920s on Maurras remains, I think, the best discussion of his ideas, ideology, and style (if you don’t mind keeping such things separate). I’ve been flipping through an English translation of Thibaudet’s history of French literature, subtitled “from 1795 to our era.” It was put together after his death by Léon Bopp and Jean Paulhan from, apparently, a nearly-complete manuscript. Originally published in 1938, the translation is from 1967. It is very much ‘light’ history, 130 years of literature in about 500 pages. Thibaudet is not, I gather, a profound thinker, but in my experience—bourn out by this book—he is a sensitive reader and critic; his opinions are always worth hearing. A few sections into the book, I became very sorry to be reading in English and not French—it has the feel of a quick translation, though this is perhaps because it is unfinished.
I like the positional and evaluative aims of the book. What is meant by positional? Thibaudet has arranged things by generations (1789, 1820, 1850, 1885, 1914). The meaning of each writer, each text, each school, comes in part from its position within the generation and between generations. Thus, the generation of 1789 is dominated by the revolution as event, which is itself ‘processed’ (my word, Thibaudet wouldn’t be so mechanical) by three dominant personalities, Napoleon, Chateaubriand, and Mme De Staël. The 1820 generation, for instance, takes Napoleon as a problem or model: Balzac is said to have regarded himself as the Napoleon of the novel, thus positioning himself vis-à-vis his predecessors, dominating the novel of his own period, and then becoming himself an aspiration for the next generation.
I hope that I find, rather than read into this, a model essentially similar to the one infinitely more rigorously applied by Randall Collins. Thibaudet, quite in opposition to Collins, is perfectly comfortable assigning these values retrospectively. I do not think this is a fundamental difference.
Thibaudet can be assign retrospective positional value because he his evaluative. Which third of Chateaubriand’s Génie du christianisme is still living? What, really, is praise- or blameworthy in Salammbô? Such are questions he is willing to answer. He is supple enough, though to distinguish between books important in their time but dead now, books popular in their time but dead now, lost classics, ‘revivals,’ this sort of thing. He constantly snipes at Brunetière (who excluded the letters of Mme de Sevigny from his manual of literature because they were not published until long after being composed, and therefore could not figure in the organic growth of genre).
Some books are simply, today, ‘unreadable.’ This is not a category of contemporary academic criticism. One may, possibly, say that a book is boring or useless, but this is not at all the same thing. I suppose ‘relevance’ is still a category, but this also is different. To say that something is readable or not is to make a judgment based on a certain kind of reader, who exists in a certain reasonably well-defined context and tradition. I get the sense, and I want to be more careful about generalizations than I sometimes am, that academic criticism functions in a basically ‘scientistic’ paradigm. That is, it tries to establish what is so, what isn’t so, what ‘operates’ and what does not. It still wants to find things. Thibaudet is, on the other hand, evaluative, which is to say normative, and explicitly so. Academic criticism, I think, accomplishes the same sort of normative evaluation, but at what could be called a meta-level. That is, rather than an individual academic taking it as their task to say what is and isn’t intrinsically worth reading, disciplines as a whole, the social-intellectual structures of academic life, make these decisions. There’s lots of fuzziness in that formulation, and I’m concerned that it’s re-inventing the wheel somehow. I don’t want to make what sounds to me now to be a banal foucauldian point about social production of truth.
At any rate, here is an example of Thibaudet’s style, slightly glossed, that I wish I had in French. He is speaking of the generation of 1914, by which he means those who were about 20 in that year.
“This venturesome young generation that spoke languages, that had turned to sports, that had left home for pleasure and for the conquest of the planet abruptly found itself blockaded by the war. When fish are taken from great depths, they come to the surface with organs that have burst because of decompression. It was in this state of inner revolution that this generation entered on its third decade. The first generation whose adolescence had been deprived of traditional humanism [by the school reforms of 1902] was further deprived, by its youth, of traditional humanity.”