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Tzvetan Todorov

(b. 1939)


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(1939–)

Bulgarianliterary theorist and one of the key disseminators of Russian Formalism. Born in Sofia, Todorov completed his undergraduate degree there and then like Julia Kristeva he moved to Paris to undertake postgraduate work. In spite of an initially frosty reception at the Sorbonne, where he was told literary theory was not done, he persevered and eventually met Roland Barthes and in him found a receptive master. He completed his doctorate under Barthes at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in 1966. Todorov's principal interest in his early work was in the formal properties of narrative (his work is in this regard congruent to that of Genette and Greimas), specifically its syntax, or the rules of combination. He distinguished between propositions and sequences, showing that for every proposition (an action performed by an agent, e.g. the hero goes on a quest) there is a limited number of things that can happen (either the hero succeeds or he doesn't). These propositions are the basic building blocks of all narrative, as most creative writing schools now instruct. Todorov utilized this insight to great effect in his book on uncanny literature, Translated as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1973), which is still used as the standard point of reference in genre studies. In contrast to his colleague Genette, for instance, Todorov's work continued to progress and develop beyond its structuralist beginnings and engage topics other than the purely formalist. He has tackled the ethical and moral issues arising from colonialism (The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (1982), racism (On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought (1989), and the Holocaust (Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (1999).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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