Monday, September 16, 2019

French literature in "selfish dictionary" form

I present another beautiful literary artifact I brought back from France, a non-mint condition second-hand paperback of Charles Dantzig’s Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française (2005), his Selfish Dictionary of French Literature:

Or perhaps not Selfish but Egotistical.  Definitely not Personal, which is to warm and inviting for these 1,132 pages of jokes, aphorism, jabs, and criticism, although it all is truly personal in the sense that they are just his opinions.  The book is a paper brick of opinions.

Dantzig is a pure French literary professional, a poet, translator, critic, essayist, radio producer, and editor at the publisher that publishes his books.  He is right in the middle of things.  I have seen him described as iconoclastic, but I have doubts, and do not care.  I am interested in this book exactly because it comes out of the heart of the French literary world.  I know how American critics and American magazines jabber about books – the rise and fall of writers and issues and fashions – and I want to learn something about how things looked in France, from someone with a point of view.

Dantzig is wrapping up a seven-page entry on Jean-Paul Sartre:

During the 1970s, he was a god to adore, and I suffered a lot from him in high school.  Sartre here, Sartre there, interpreting “existence precedes essence.”  Sartre bis, Sartre ter, Sartre again, you make me do three rounds of Sartre, Sartre, Sartre!  Hell, it was Sartre.  He remained sacred for a long time: in 1991, I published an essay that contained a joke about him, not two, not three, one, very accessory to the rest and accompanied by another on the ignorant people who hated him, two lines out of two hundred pages, and the critic in Le Monde reproached me for them.

That one is more on the personal side.  Dantzig does not have such personal feelings about Maupassant or Molière.  He has insights, though.  In the entry on “Adjectives, Adverbs,” which he defends against so-called good-writing rules, he argues that “French, is one can take a shortcut, is a language of verbs” (11), an idea he explores throughout the book, for example in the entry on “Verbs”: “In effect, rather than a qualifier it is better to choose a verb that includes it” (1079).  I may return to this idea as I write about French literature.  Within my linguistic limits, I have become convinced Dantzig is right.  I have no idea whether this is an original idea or a commonplace.

Much of the Dictionary, of which I have read fifteen, maybe even twenty, percent, remains incomprehensible to me – awfully “inside,” awfully French – but that is much of what makes it so interesting.

The bulk of the entries in the Dictionary are for writers, and the essays are substantial, often six or seven pages.  But there are entries for books and techniques and concepts: Ideas; Idiosyncrasies; Ignorance; Images; Imagination; Impostors, just to pick some cognates from the letter I.  It is a little bit – it is more than a little bit – like Dantzig has taken his book blog and put it in a no-less-arbitrary alphabetical order.  Not to give anyone ideas.  You yourself have written 1,100 pages, haven’t you?  Or far more.  Oh yes, I would eagerly buy the book of your alphabetized blog, as soon as I found a used or perhaps remaindered copy.

Many non-French writers are pulled into the book in various ways, but it is still French literature bis, ter, and again.  But look, just now, for the rentrée littéraire, Dantzig has published a 1,248-page Selfish Dictionary of World Literature.  Follow him on Twitter to see which prizes the book has already won.


  1. Dantzig's thesis about verbs sounds like what I have always taken to be the aesthetic principle behind the hatred of adverbs by everybody from V.S. Naipaul to Elmore Leonard. Let the verbs do the work.

  2. Also, I yearn to read his book.

  3. Now that there is the World Literature book, a translated "best of" selection would not be crazy. The whole book, that is probably logistically crazy.

    Dantzig claims, and I think he's right, that French literally does not have as many verbs to work with. Some subtle effects are possible, different than English, and a nice torment, or challenge, to literary translators.

  4. I'm delighted to learn about Dantzig's just-published global lit version of this book, which I had not heard about and will almost undoubtedly pick it up while in France next month. What a prodigious writer, yet one who's almost always entertaining - provocative and sincere in equal measure, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes really quite moving. You've probably made it through more of the Dictionnaire égoïste than I have, but I still pull it down from the shelf once in a while to see what he has to say about some author or concept. In this way I've discovered that he omits a lot of French writers I'd like to have seen him cover, but perhaps he's put aside a few of those for his mondiale version.

  5. You are obviously less of a cheapskate than I am.

    Dantzig seems avoids not just anyone living, but anyone too recent, by who knows what standard. Maybe he does not want to offend his friends or colleagues, who may well have known these writers. Or maybe his opinions are not as set. Or maybe etc. etc.

    Anyway, Dumas, yes; Duras, no.

  6. Hell, it was Sartre.

    Surely "Hell was Sartre" (since this is a play on "Hell is other people").

  7. Sartre's line is "L'infer, c'est les autres" and Dantzig's is "L'infer, c'était Sartre." Both have that extra rhetorical emphasis so common in French ("Me, I am etc.").

    I suppose there is no arguing with the more famous version of the line. The translator does not want to obscure the reference.

    I was surprised to see that Paul Bowles, in his 1946 translation, went with "“Hell is just – other people." He wanted that extra emphasis. It is dramatic.

  8. AR(T) how did you like the Mauriac? Did you agree with Philippe Jaccottet's opinion: "Camus, Gide, Mauriac? They are mere writers of sentences (des phraseurs)."

  9. Odd to see Gide lumped in like that! I would never have thought of him as a mere phraseur.

  10. The Mauriac (The Desert of Love, 1925) seemed like simplified Proust, which was about right for me. Regular Proust is still too hard.

    The book had sentences but also characters and some extra meaning taken as a whole - you know, the novel was a novel. I do not understand Jaccottet's line as applied to any of those writers. Unless he meant something more like "blowhard," in which case, yeah, obviously, they're prominent French writers!