Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017) was an influential literary theorist, historian of ideas, and cultural and political analyst and commentator who published over 40 books in his lifetime. Born in Bulgaria, he lived and worked in France, and wrote in French, for most of his adult life. He first emerged in the 1960s as a formidable practitioner of formalist and structuralist literary theory and analysis, but from the early 1980s his work began to broaden out to explore a wide range of concerns that would eventually include literature, painting, colonialist discourse, the Enlightenment, totalitarianism, the Gulag, the Holocaust, the perception and construction of the “other”, and European identity. His explorations were increasingly cast in the form of le récit exemplaire, the exemplary narrative, which mixed abstract analysis with an absorbing nonfictional story or assemblage of stories. A lucid, humane and thoughtful writer, Todorov offered a model of engagement with literature, culture, history, ideas, theory, metatheory and politics that combined commitment and calmness, passion and philosophy.
Todorov, the son of Todor Todorov Borov and Haritina (Peeva) Todorova, was born on 1 March 1939 in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. His father was a university professor and the first director of the National Library of Bulgaria and then of a documentation institute; his mother was a librarian. In 1947, Bulgaria became a one-party communist state, and remained so until the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite Eastern bloc countries at the end of the 1980s. Todorov witnessed the difficulties that befell his father under a communist regime and in his own adolescence, like others of his generation, he adopted, in relation to political matters, an attitude of fatalistic detachment that, for some time, carried over into his life and writing in the West.
At the University of Sofia, where Todorov took a philology degree, he had to study literary theory, but of an ideologically rigid kind based on two ideas: “narodnost” (“the spirit of the people”), evident in most writers; and “partijnost” (‘the spirit of the party”), which only the best evinced (Todorov 1988, 159). Criticism consisted in assessing how far writers showed the two “spirits”. After gaining his MA in Philology, he went to Paris in 1963, at the age of 24, to pursue a doctorate. The Sorbonne did not welcome literary theory at that time; but Todorov found a supervisor who would become one of the leading figures in the revolution in the study of literature and culture that would spread from Paris to the rest of Europe and the USA: Roland Barthes (1915-80).
Todorov completed his doctorate in 1966 and it was published as Littérature et signification [Literature and Meaning] in 1967. As he was not a French citizen, he could only find an academic post in Paris at the CNRS (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique). This had the advantage, however, of giving him considerable freedom to research and write without having to teach. He would acquire French citizenship in 1973; but, except for temporary academic posts in the USA and elsewhere outside France, he stayed at the CNRS throughout his professional life, serving as Director of its Centre for Research into Arts and Language from 1983 to 1987. Todorov was twice married, first, from 1971-80, to the anthropologist Martine van Woerkens, with whom he had a son, Boris, and then, from 1981-2014, to Nancy Huston (b. 1953), a Canadian novelist writing in French, with whom he had a daughter, Léa, and a son, Sacha.
In 1970, Todorov, Gérard Genette (b. 1930) and Hélène Cixous (b. 1937) co-founded the journal Poétique, which proved an influential forum for formalist and structuralist literary theory and analysis. In the same year, Todorov published his Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970; trans. as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre), which laid the foundation for the study of the fantastic in literature and which, although inevitably much contested and debated, remains essential reading for anyone approaching the topic. Todorov saw the distinguishing feature of fantastic literature as “l’hésitation” – the hesitation it produces, on the part of the reader and possibly of characters within the fiction, “between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described” (Todorov 1973, 33). To leave the interzone of hesitancy, to opt for either explanation, is to cross the frontier from the fantastic to an adjacent genre: the uncanny, if one opts for a natural explanation; the marvellous, if one opts for a supernatural explanation.
Todorov followed Introduction à la littérature fantastique with other books deploying structuralist approaches such as Poétique de la prose (1971; trans. as The Poetics of Prose, 1977) and Symbolisme et Interprétation (1978; trans. as Symbolism and Interpretation, 1982). Todorov also used his familiarity with Russian language and culture to seek out, sometimes with difficulty, bodies of critical and theoretical writing that were then largely unknown in the West and which he translated into French. One of these bodies of work consisted of Russian Formalist texts, by writers such as Viktor Shklovski (1893-1984), Yuri Tynianov (1894-1943) and Boris Eichenbaum (1886-1959). Todorov published a selection of this work in the book Théorie de la littérature. Textes des formalistes russes réunis (1966), with a preface by Roman Jakobson (1896-1982). The other body of writing was by the Russian critic and theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) and Todorov played an important part in bringing this to a Western audience, especially in his book Mikhail Bakhtine: Le principe dialogique (1981; trans. as Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Principle). Todorov was especially drawn to Bakhtin’s ‘dialogic principle’, to a preference for contesting voices, rather than a single dominating voice, in narrative and argument.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Todorov, following the pragmatic policy of detachment he had adopted as a youth in communist Bulgaria, largely eschewed public involvement in social and political issues, and adhered firmly to the structuralist focus on synchrony, the analysis of phenomena abstracted from their historical contexts, rather than diachrony, the study of phenomena as they emerged, changed and developed in historical time. But two encounters with emigrés in England interrupted his pragmatic slumber. Meeting author Arthur Koestler (1905-83) in London, Todorov outlined the detached fatalism he had adopted under communism as if it were “a position of lucidity and wisdom”, but met with a response from Koestler of “politeness, firmness, astonishment, and total disagreement”. This made Todorov feel that Koestler’s “very existence”, as one who had refused “a fatalist attitude”, proved Todorov’s position false (Todorov 1988, 156). Meeting historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) in Oxford, Todorov was struck by Berlin’s suggestion, in informal conversation after Todorov had lectured on Henry James (1843-1916) and the structuralist analysis of narrative, that he should not only look at narrative structures but also at the development of ideas such as nineteenth-century nihilism and liberalism. These two encounters made Todorov aware of “the arbitrary nature of [his] own position’ (Todorov 1988, 157). He took from Koestler the lesson that “there were no ‘objective’ reasons to choose to give up the exercise of freedom”; he took from Berlin the lesson that “literature is not made up of structures alone but also of ideas and history” (Todorov 1988, 157).
Todorov’s concern with ideas and history deepened while delivering a lecture series in Mexico and encountering the writing of the earliest conquistadors on the conquest of South America, which provided a “dazzling example of discovery – and ignorance – of the other” (Todorov 1988, 159). This led to three years of intensive reading and research which bore fruit in La Conquête de l’Amérique: la question de l’autre (1982; trans. as The Conquest of America: the Question of the Other, 1984). The book’s concern with the perception and discursive construction of the “other” was one that Todorov would pursue, in various past and present contexts, in much of his later work.
La Conquête de l’Amérique took the form of a récit exemplaire, like the fascinating book that followed two years later, Critique de la critique: Un roman d’un apprentissage (1984; trans. as Literature and its Theorists: A Personal View of Twentieth-Century Criticism, 1988). Todorov calls this book an unfinished “Bildungsroman, a novel of apprenticeship” (Todorov 1988, 9) – the last phrase also occurs in the original subtitle. Critique de la critique is not a novel in a fictional sense – insofar as we can assign it to a traditional genre, it would be that of intellectual autobiography – but it does contain fascinating dramatized anecdotes which bear a more general significance, such as the encounters with Arthur Koestler and Isaiah Berlin mentioned above.
In Critique de la critique, Todorov addresses, sometimes through commentary on their texts, sometimes through letters or transcribed conversation, a range of writers with whose critical and theoretical work his own had been in dialogue: the Russian Formalists and Bakhtin; Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956); Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) and Barthes; Northrop Frye (1912-91), with whom he took issue in Introduction à la littérature fantastique; the English critic and literary historian Ian Watt (1917-99), most famous for his book on the emergence of realist fiction in the eighteenth century, The Rise of the Novel (1957); and Paul Benichou (1908-2001), best known for his works of literary, cultural and social history such as Morales de la grand siècle (1948; trans. as Man and Ethics, 1971) and Le Sacre de l’écrivain (1973; trans. as The Consecration of the Writer, 1999).
Critique de la critique gives a sense of the range of Todorov’s interests in criticism and theory and his differences with other critical positions; he was especially uneasy about what he saw as the nihilism and relativism of post-structuralism, taking his distance from the later Barthes in this respect, and he affirmed his dedication, in the wake of Bakhtin, to a dialogic form of criticism, for which he saw “favorable conditions” in the early 1980s; he outlines these conditions in a way that, as he acknowledges, deliberately mixes “the proximate and the remote, the fundamental and the derived, the trivial and the sublime” (Todorov 1988, 168) but which, making adjustments for such developments as the spread of social media, still has some validity in the second decade of the twenty-first century:
the current absence of any unanimously accepted doctrine; our increased familiarity with cultures other than our own, thanks to mass media and charter flights; the acceptance of decolonization, at least on the ideological level; an unprecedented development of technology; the new type of massacre that the mid-twentieth century has known; the rebirth (birth?) of the struggle for human rights[; and] the contemporary transformations of literature itself [as it] openly assumes its own heterogeneity, that it is at once fiction and pamphlet, history and philosophy, poetry and science. (Todorov 1988, 168)
There was one condition, however, absent from Todorov’s horizon in the early 1980s – and from the horizons of most other people. Few would then have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the East European communist bloc that included Todorov’s native country, Bulgaria. The breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989 broke a barrier in Todorov’s own mind that had hitherto blocked him from tackling the topic of totalitarianism, and he began to address it in his work. In Au nom du peuple: témoignages sur les camps communistes (1992; trans. as Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria, 1999), he compiled and introduced a series of testimonies from the communist labour camps in his native country. L’expérience totalitaire (2011; trans. as The Totalitarian Experience, 2011), distilled his reflections since 1992 on the lives of specific individuals under totalitarianism and on significant episodes and issues relating to it.
Totalitarianism was one of the many topics that Todorov would pursue from the 1990s into the twenty-first century, entering into areas that he had not previously explored in writing. For example, as well as tackling the communist camps, he turned, in Face à l'extrême (1991; trans. as Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, 1996), to the Nazi concentration camps, challenging what he saw as a widespread view that moral life had collapsed among the prisoners in these camps. He contended, instead, that the morality which helped those held there to survive involved co-operation and provided the basis for an everyday morality in our own time. He journeyed into a painful aspect of recent French history in Une tragédie française: été 44, scènes de guerre civile (1994; trans. in 1996 as A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer 1944), which reconstructed, in the manner of a classic tragedy, an obscure episode of the internecine conflict between French partisans and collaborators in and after World War Two. In La Fragilité du bien: Le sauvetage des juifs bulgares (1999; trans. as The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust, 2003), he again turned to his native country, addressing the question of why Bulgaria, like Denmark, tried neither to kill nor deport its Jewish population in World War Two. In a text that includes contemporary and retrospective documents translated from the Bulgarian for the first time, Todorov traces how a rare combination of forces – civil society, the Church, political parties and parliamentary action – contributed to the survival of Bulgaria’s Jews and affirms that it shows both the fragility and possibility of doing good. Evil spreads easily in public life but good, which depends on unusual concatenations of circumstances, is uncommon and frail – but not impossible.
Good could also, however, pose a risk. As Todorov said in a conversation in the newspaper Le Monde (30 Dec 2016) with the neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik (b. 1937): “La tentation du Bien me semble […] beaucoup plus dangereuse que la tentation du Mal” [“The temptation of goodness seems to me […] much more dangerous than the temptation of evil”] (text available at webpage address in “Works cited” list below). In Mémoire du mal, Tentation du bien: enquête sur le siècle (2000; trans. as Hope and Memory: Reflections on the Twentieth Century), he argued that “la tentation du bien” [“the temptation of good] could lead to oppression, whether in utopian political projects such as communism or in violent interventions, for example through aerial bombing, which supposedly aimed to improve matters in another country. He would carry this analysis into the twenty-first century and into his criticisms of such ventures as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
L’esprit des Lumières (2007; trans. as In Defence of the Enlightenment, 2009), takes a journey back to the progressive ideas of the eighteenth century but relates them to the present, putting the case that Enlightenment values still provide, after the horrors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the end of Utopian dreams, an intellectual and moral basis for common human life. In Les ennemis intimes de la démocratie (2012; trans. as The Inner Enemies of Democracy, 2014), Todorov itemized three components of democracy – the people, liberty and progress - and contended that, if any one of this trio breaks its bonds with the other two, thus eluding attempts to check it and presenting itself as a unique principle, it can turn into one of the three intimate foes of democracy: “the people” becomes populism; “liberty” becomes ultraliberalism; and “progress” becomes messianism. Todorov saw these foes as armed and active in the twenty-first century.
Despite his own excursions into historical reconstruction in such books as Fragilité du bien and Une tragédie française, Todorov challenged, in Les abus de la mémoire (2004; trans. as Memory as a Remedy for Evil, 2010), what he saw as “a cult of memory” that seemed to obsess Europeans and especially the French. He argued that to sacralize memory was to sterilize it, abusing it to distract people from the present and from tackling current and future forms of xenophobia, racism and exclusion, which were not identical with those of the past.
Todorov’s last book before his death, Insoumis [The Rebellious Ones, not yet translated] appeared in 2015. It focuses on eight people who, in his view, successfully reconciled, at the highest level, moral imperatives and public action: Etty Hillesum (1914-43); Germaine Tillion (1907-2008); Boris Pasternak (1890-1960); Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008); Nelson Mandela (1918-2013); Malcolm X (1925-65); David Shulman (b. 1949); and Edward Snowden (b. 1983). In its emphasis on the importance of the defiant individual, Insoumis echoes L’homme révolté (1951; trans. as The Rebel, 1953) by the French Algerian novelist and essayist Albert Camus (1913-60), but it incarnates its argument in specific figures and situations, thus making it more concrete.
Todorov died in Paris of multiple system atrophy on 7 February 2017, at the age of 77. The full measure of his work has yet to be taken, but the scholar Karen Zbinden is currently working on an intellectual biography which will explore the relation between “his thought of the past thirty years” and “his earlier, structuralist work” and consider “how he reinvigorates the humanist agenda for our own time” (from Zbinden webpage, address in “Works cited” list below). Zbinden’s book should be an important contribution to the understanding and appreciation of a writer and thinker whose rich and challenging oeuvre has much to offer in the twenty-first century.
Works in French:
Théorie de la littérature: Textes des formalistes russes réunis, présentés et traduits par Tzvetan Todorov. Préface de Roman Jakobson. Paris: Seuil, 1966.
- - - Littérature et signification. Paris: Larousse,
- - - Introduction à la littérature fantastique. Paris: Seuil, 1970.
- - - Poétique de la prose. Paris: Seuil, 1971.
- - - Symbolisme et Interprétation. Paris: Seuil, 1978.
- - - Mikhaïl Bakhtine, le principe dialogique [followed by] Écrits du Cercle de Bakhtine [trans. from Russian by Georges Philippenko, assisted by Monique Canto]. Paris: Seuil, 1981.
- - - La Conquête de l'Amérique: la question de l'autre. Paris: Seuil, 1982.
- - - Critique de la critique: un roman d’un apprentissage. Paris: Seuil, 1984.
- - - Face à l'extrême. Paris: Seuil, 1991, 1994.
- - - Au nom du peuple: témoignages sur les camps communistes [intro. by Tzvetan Todorov; trans. from Bulgarian by Marie Vrinat]. La Tour-d'Aigues: L'Aube, 1992.
- - - Une tragédie française: été 44, scènes de guerre civile. Paris: Seuil, 1994.
- - - La fragilité du bien: le sauvetage des Juifs bulgares [texts compiled and with commentary by Tzvetan Todorov; trans. from Bulgarian by Marie Vrinat and Irène Kristeva]. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999.
- - - Devoirs et délices: une vie de passeur: entretiens avec Catherine Portevin. Paris: Seuil, 2002.
- - - Les abus de la mémoire. Paris: Arléa, 1995.
- - - L’esprit des Lumières. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2007.
- - - Les ennemis intimes de la démocratie. Paris: Robert Laffont/Versilio, 2011.
- - - L’expérience totalitaire. Paris: Points, 2011.
- - - Insoumis: essai. Paris: Robert Laffont: Versilio, 2015.
- - - “La tentation du Bien est beaucoup plus dangereuse que celle du Mal.” Tzvetan Todorov and Boris Cyrulnick in conversation. Available online at: http://www.tamoudre.org/geostrategie/terrorisme-geostrategie/tentation-bien-beaucoup-plus-dangereuse-celle-mal/
- - - The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary
Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland, OH: Case Western
Reserve University Press, 1973.
- - - The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1977.
- - - Symbolism and Interpretation. Trans. Catherine Porter. London, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
- - - The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Trans. Richard Howard. Norman OK: Oklahoma University Press, 1984.
- - - Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Principle. Theory and History of Literature, vol. 13. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
- - - Literature and its Theorists: A Personal View of Twentieth-Century Criticism. Trans. Catherine Porter. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988.
- - - Facing the Extreme : Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. Trans. Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollak. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996.
- - - A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer 1944. Trans. Mary Byrd Kelly. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 1996.
- - - Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria. Trans. Robert Zaretsky. PA: Penn State University Press, 1999.
- - - The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust. Trans. Arthur Denner. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
- - - Duties and Delights : the Life of a Go-between [Interviews with Catherine Portevin]. Trans. Gila Walker. Kolkata, India: Seagull Books, 2008.
- - - In Defence of the Enlightenment. Trans. Gila Walker. London: Atlantic Books, 2009.
- - - Memory as a Remedy for Evil. Trans. Gila Walker, with photographs by Naveen Kishore. Kolkata, India: Seagull Books, 2010.
- - - The Totalitarian Experience. Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Kolkata, India: Seagull Books, 2011.
- - - The Inner Enemies of Democracy. Trans. Andrew Brown. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2014.
Zbinden, Karine. “In Praise of Nuance: An Interview with Tzvetan
Todorov”. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature: 29:2
(2002), pp.1-7. Available online at:
Zbinden, Karine and Henk de Berg. “Tzvetan Todorov: Un Entretien”. 5 March 2016. Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds4KYdL89Xk&feature=youtu.be
Zbinden, Karine. Current University of Sheffield webpage at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/french/staff/kzbinden/index
Citation: Tredell, Nicolas. "Tzvetan Todorov". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 August 2017 [https://staging.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=4408, accessed 01 June 2023.]