Turnell is a good critic, albeit he seems he have been of the party of Leavis, which can be both a curse and a blessing.
The title of this book is misleading. As Turnell says in the introduction, he doesn't intend to write "a history of the French novel", rather selected studies of famous French novelists. Why then didn't he call the book SOME FRENCH NOVELISTS?
He argues that Stendhal is the greatest of them, and that CHARTREUSE is the greatest novel. While I'd never argue against Stendhal's greatness, I think Proust is his superior, and if there's superfluity in his enormous novel, the CHARTREUSE has a markedly huddled conclusion, apparently the result of the publisher's pressure on Beyle.
It's impossible to agree with Turnell's dismissal of Balzac and Zola as very great novelists, especially the latter, with the evidence of LA TERRE, GERMINAL, and L'ASSOMMOIR, a trio of masterpieces equal to almost any other 19th century novels.
I also think he underrates Flaubert and foolishly asserts the cliche about him that his style was superior to his content. Anyone who's read L'EDUCATION SENTIMENTAL and BOVARY can't take that argument seriously (even if Henry James, the master of technique over trivia did).
Still, a book well worth reading and arguing with, so I recommend it without qualification.
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