How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn Yalom was an enjoyable read. She attempts to substantiate her claim that the concept of romantic love is a creation of French writers, starting with poetic epics in the 12th century about knights and their lady loves. I found her claim not really substantiated but that does not stop the work from being of interest to those quite into French literature.
As I know very little, ok nothing, about medieval French literature I did find her chapters on this kind of a slog through. My thoughts as I read was that surely the reading matter mocked in Don Quixote testifies to romantic literature in Spain and that the Decameron shows the same is true of Italy. Is there not romantic love all through Shakespeare?
I have read a few plays by Moliere and I am not sure his comedies of mistaken identity are quite romances.
Yalom does talk a good bit about the treatment of the idea of "The Sentimental Education", the initiation into sex of a young man by an older woman, often a near relative. Is this something that actually was a normal occurrence in France in the 18th and 19th century? Socially History wise, Yalom deals only with the upper crust in French society. She occasionally makes generalizations about French society, comparisons to America. I would speculate her life experiences are largely with wealthy, very educated people.
Her discussion of Rousseau's sentimental education was interesting.
Her observations on Stendhal's The Red and the Black seemed really acute. She talks about the romantic events portrayed. I must say she answered the question for me of "what is so great about Stendhal?"
Of course Balzac must have a central part in any history of love in French literature
(I am currently about 90% through a read through of The Comedie Humaine) and Zola as well. I think Yalom missed something important in both these writers. Their fixation on virginal pure young girls. Once a woman has sex, she becomes corrupt and a potential danger. Yalom also says that Zola writes about the lower levels of society, true of course but about half twenty novels of the Rougon Macquart cycle involve the rich or upper middle class.
I enjoyed her treatment of Flaubert, focused on Madame Bovary, and profited from it. She helped me see what a supreme work of art he produced. She states, correctly of course, that Emma Bovary was partially led to adultery by the books she read. She details her two romances but she does not mention what seems to be Flaubert' very humorously done suggestion she also slept with a neighborhood farm book. I see this as very important. I did really enjoy Yalam's account of her own changing attitude toward Emma as she herself matured from young college student to wife and mother. This was extremely well done.
She next proceeds to Proust, who she loves and knows very well. From here she proceeds to the Existentialists, Marguerite Duras, focusing largely on the lover, concluding with some contemporary writers.
Yalam lets us see the big role of infidelity in French literature. In her concluding remarks she generalized her comparisons of French and American society.
This is an interesting book, maybe one only those really into French literature will want to read and I am sure they will find fault with some of her remarks. That being said I am glad I read it. If you have not read the basic texts you may be bored at times.
I was given a review copy. The style and manner are friendly.
From the author's website
Marilyn Yalom grew up in Washington D.C. and was educated at Wellesley College, the Sorbonne, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She has been married to the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom for fifty years and is the mother of four children and the grandmother of five. She has been a professor of French and comparative literature, director of an institute for research on women, a popular speaker on the lecture circuit, and the author of numerous books and articles on literature and women's history.
Her books have been translated into 20 languages. In 1991 she was decorated as an Officier des Palmes Académiques by the French Government.
Books by Marilyn Yalom include Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness (out of print), Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory (1993), A History of the Breast (1997), A History of the Wife (2001), Birth of the Chess Queen (2004), The American Resting Place (2008) and How the French Invented Love: 900 Years of Passion and Romance (2012).