Tzvetan Todorov was born on March 1, 1939, in Sofia, Bulgaria. He earned an M.A. in philology at the University of Sofia in 1963. He enrolled at the University of Paris to do his doctorat de troisième cycle (equivalent to the Ph.D.) in 1966 and his doctorat ès lettres in 1970.
Todorov was appointed to his post as a director of research at the French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in 1968. In 1970, he helped to found the journal Poétique, of which he remained one of the managing editors until 1979. With structuralist literary critic Gérard Genette, he edited the Collection Poétique, the series of books on literary theory published by Éditions de Seuil, until 1987. He was a visiting professor at several universities in the US, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley.
Todorov published a total of 39 books, including The Poetics of Prose (1971), Introduction to Poetics (1981), The Conquest of America (1982), Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (1984), Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (1991), On Human Diversity (1993), A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer 1944 (1994), Voices from the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria (1999), Hope and Memory (2000), Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism (2002), In Defence of the Enlightenment (2009), Memory as a Remedy for Evil (2010), The Totalitarian Experience (2011), The Inner Enemies of Democracy (2014) and Insoumis (2015). Todorov's historical interests have focused on such crucial issues as the conquest of The Americas and the Nazi and Stalinist concentration camps.
Todorov's greatest contribution to literary theory was his definition, in Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970), of the Fantastic, the fantastic uncanny, and the fantastic marvelous. Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural. Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place. Todorov uses Alvaro from Jacques Cazotte's Le Diable amoureux as an example of a fantastic event. Alvaro must decide whether the woman he is in love with is truly a woman or if she is the devil.
Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous. In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event. Todorov gives examples of dreams, drugs, illusions of the senses, madness, etc. as things that could explain a fantastic/supernatural event. In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event. Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility is the text purely fantastic.
Aside from his work in literary theory, Todorov has also published studies of philosophy. He wrote Frail Happiness about the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He focuses on Rousseau's ideas of attaining human happiness and how we can live in 'modern' times.
In one of his major works, Facing the Extreme, Todorov asks whether it is true the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags revealed that in extreme situations "all traces of moral life evaporate as men become beasts locked in a merciless struggle for survival" (31–46). That opinion is commonplace of popularized accounts of the camps, and also appears in accounts of survivors themselves. Primo Levi, quoted in Todorov, writes that camp life is a "continuous war of everyone against everyone." To survive, all dignity and conscience had to be sacrificed and everyone is alone. Reports from gulag survivors are similar. However, in his reading of actual survivor testimonies, Todorov says the picture is not that bleak, that there are many examples of inmates helping each other and showing compassion in human relationships despite the inhumane conditions and terror. Survivors point out that survival always depended on the help of others. He concludes that life in the camps and gulag did not follow the law of the jungle and that the counter-examples are numerous, even in Levi's work.
Todorov's honors include the CNRS Bronze Medal, the Charles Lévêque Prize of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques and the first Maugean Prize of the Académie française and the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences; he also is an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He also received the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences. In 2015, he was awarded the [Wayne C. Booth] Award for lifetime achievement in narrative studies by the International Society for the Study of Narrative.
Todorov was married twice. His first wife was the scholar Martine van Woerkens and his second was Nancy Huston, with whom he had two children, until 2014. He died on February 7, 2017, at the age of 77. He is survived by a son, Boris, from the first marriage, and a daughter, Léa, and a son, Sacha, from the second.