‘This is Not a Story’ by Denis Diderot, translated by P. N. Furbank

The first is Denis Diderot’s ‘Ceci n’est pas un conte’. Although in one sense it succeeds in nullifying its own title, ‘Ceci n’est pas un conte’ does come short of the definition of a short story on a number of counts. It is not one tale but two contrasting tales with a scene-setting scenario that is part of neither. It opens with the narrator stating that in any scenario of story-telling, there must be a listener or interlocutor. Diderot (narrator) then stages a conversation with the one who is about to be his audience, concerning the reception of a story supposedly just heard by both of them. Only then does he launch into his twinned stories of a cruel woman and a good man, followed by one about a cruel man and a good woman. The listener frequently interrupts, and seems to know as much or more than the narrator about the characters, and to disagree with the narrator’s assessment of the rights and wrongs of their actions. Some of the characters are in fact historical persons. Diderot is rather staging the telling of short stories than actually telling one. His aim is to disturb and complicate both the form (which hardly existed) and the anticipated reader reaction. 

First published 1798, ed. Jacques-André Naigeon, translated as ‘This is not a story’ in This is Not a Story and Other Stories, OUP, 1993

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