Literature and Its Theorists

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In the course of wide-ranging and erudite literary investigations, Tzvetan Todorov has manifested a rare breadth of learning and judgment, discerning similarities among authors and works from a number of periods and backgrounds. This eclectic conception of form and content has been recaptured as well by the application of schematic criteria which have permitted the advancement of some highly original and yet cogent interpretations. Along the way, Todorov has evinced a lively interest in the problems and possibilities opened by critical studies from various stances. He has espoused a generally structuralist view of poetics and literary frameworks, but at times his broader inclinations have proved to be both disarming and fascinating. Literature and Its Theorists: A Personal View of Twentieth-Century Criticism serves to demonstrate the more expansive elements of Todorov’s thought, rather than the more narrowly scientific contours of his ideas.

In selecting representative twentieth century thinkers, Todorov’s intention has been at once both to illuminate significant conceptual issues and to suggest intellectual points of contact among well-known figures; the writers discussed here include several Russian theorists, four who have written primarily in French, two German writers who are not theorists per se, and two critics who have become recognized through English-language publications. In addition to dealing with varying interpretations of criticism’s functions and tasks, this work considers means by which several writers of fiction arrived at their own positions on major literary controversies. Although in some places Todorov’s writing may appear abstruse, opaque, and given to digressions, there are also some bold and revealing statements of his judgment and values; personal comments further enliven some passages. Some parts of the work are composed in a formal, rather elaborate manner, while other portions are in a brisk and somewhat offhand style. One chapter is composed largely of an exchange of letters, with Todorov’s commentary, and another consists primarily of a conversation with one of his subjects.

Despite some unevenness and a tendency toward arbitrary turns in his choice of topics, the work gives ample expression to Todorov’s literary and moral convictions. He maintains that in the modern world serious reading, particularly the study of works about literature, is pursued by a relatively small portion of the population; therefore, he aims to present his criticism of critical theory in a manner that will engage the reader. Todorov’s own conception of meaning quite forthrightly involves the effort to avoid nihilism while upholding a standpoint that is compatible with atheism; at some junctures he expresses a discomfort with Marxist thought where it has imposed constraints on literary values. Other recurrent issues are posed in terms of otherness, or efforts through literature to comprehend moral differences separating individuals and groups.

After a prefatory opening chapter, Todorov begins his study of twentieth century criticism with a chapter on Russian Formalism. The Formalist movement flourished in the period between World War I and the late 1920’s, when it was stifled by Stalinist repression. Not until the 1960’s did the writings of most of the leading Formalists become widely known in the West; Todorov, who translated important Formalist texts into French, played a significant part in giving their ideas currency.

Todorov briefly traces the evolution of his own attitude toward the Formalists, from the “astonishment” of discovery to the more detached and somewhat skeptical perspective from which he now views their works. The bulk of the chapter centers on the key Formalist concept of “poetic language”: the notion that the language of poetry (and, to a certain extent, of artistic prose) differs from ordinary language in that the latter is self-effacing (ordinary language serves a communicative purpose but does not draw attention to itself) while the former “is its own end, and no longer a means.” Discussing the contradictory development of this concept in the works of such leading Formalists as Roman Jakobson, Viktor Shklovskij, Boris Èjxenbaum, and Juri Tynjanov, Todorov suggests that the doctrine of the autonomous or “autotelic” nature of poetic language is untenable.

In the next chapter, Todorov examines the critical precepts of two creative writers who were linked by their interest in the possibilities of the epic for the modern age: Alfred Döblin and Bertolt Brecht. Döblin, the prominent German writer, was celebrated particularly for the epic qualities of his major writings; he composed rather general critical studies which were meant to distinguish the novel from narrative fiction of the sort his works exemplified. Döblin’s claims, however, may not be entirely persuasive; in Todorov’s view his ideal of exemplary characters and situations may have yielded a false antinomy of individualism and collectivism. Another view of the epic was applied to the theater by Brecht; though he tended to associate this conception with Döblin, with outwardly similar consequences, Brecht maintained that drama was a more suitable genre for the realization of ideological purposes. Instead of urging that audiences and readers should identify with stage characters, Brecht proposed that devices promoting effects of alienation or estrangement should be employed to produce a sense of subjective distance. Thus, there would be no preoccupation with individual, as against dogmatic, problems. Nevertheless, even with the resolution of political controversies in a manner that appeared preordained and inflexible, Brecht’s stage works demonstrated creative skill and adeptness on a higher level; indeed, Todorov maintains that in his plays Brecht was able to avoid the...

(The entire section is 2391 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Choice. XXV, July, 1988, p. 1690.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 10, 1988, p. 30.