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Reading on the Edge:
Exiles, Modernities, and Cultural Transformation in Proust, Joyce, and Baldwin
Theory and Cultural Studies
Cyraina E. Johnson-Roullier. Reading on the Edge: Exiles, Modernities, and Cultural Transformation in Proust, Joyce, and Baldwin. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000. xxi + 217 pp.
Ever since the wanderings of Odysseus, exile has been a central theme of the epic tradition. With its roots in this tradition, the modern novel seems to represent exile as a fundamental existential condition of life: Lukács called the novel the art form of "transcendental homelessness," and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus makes exile one of his watchwords: "silence, [End Page 1065] exile, cunning." Some historical reasons for the association between exile and modern fiction are apparent; the political events of the twentieth century created masses of stateless people and made exile a widespread and life-threatening phenomenon. Literary critics, and comparatists in particular, sometimes themselves caught up in these historical events, have returned continually to the theme. Auerbach's Mimesis, the holy scripture of Comparative Literature, has exile as both occasion and subject matter. Written in Istanbul during the Second World War, it begins with a reading of the great scene of Odysseus's homecoming. The theme persists in the life and writings of Edward Said. Much that is worthwhile and interesting has already been written about this theme, but there remains an opportunity for someone to write an important comparative and critical study of exile in modern literature. Unfortunately, the book under review is concerned more with flogging the dead horses of the "culture wars" than with saying anything new about its announced topic.
Cyraina E. Johnson-Roullier takes the topic of exile as an opportunity to link three great modern writers whose works are not all that frequently compared: Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and James Baldwin. Perhaps her most interesting gambit is to think of Proust as metaphorically in exile. She draws on Proust's famous description of the homosexual diaspora from Sodom and Gomorrah to suggest that he considered himself, as a homosexual, to be an exile in heterosexual society. Another provocative move is Johnson-Roullier's juxtaposition of Baldwin with Joyce and Proust: she wisely aims to shake things up by introducing "a text written by an African-American [. . .] into the canon of international modernism." Out of this combination, Johnson-Roullier hopes to develop some methodological innovations. She writes frequently about the concepts of "reading on the edge" and the "politics of cultural space," but both concepts remain vague despite two long chapters of theoretical introduction. A major concern here is the place of cultural studies within Comparative Literature. With its longstanding focus on European literary history and theory, Comparative Literature seems to some "progressive" critics hopelessly "traditional." However, as Johnson-Roullier rightly notes, Comparative Literature's natural interest in cultural differences and its insistence on reading in more than one language can offer much to the newer forms of "cultural studies" that have challenged traditional [End Page 1066] curricula in the last generation or so. Comparatists' attempts to introduce "world literature" (that is, non-western literature) into the Eurocentric core curriculum are a case in point. Yet Johnson-Roullier makes no very concrete suggestions about the directions in which a comparative cultural studies could proceed.
Turning to the primary texts, Johnson-Roullier insists that her study is "not simply a re-elaboration of the commonplace themes of the 'artist in exile' or the alienated Romantic hero," but it is hard to see what, apart from the choice of authors, she adds to previous studies of exile. For instance, a long disquisition on the question of whether or not Remembrance of Things Past is an autobiographical novel leads to the unsurprising claim that the narrator's "primary encounters with homosexuality in the Recherche are coupled with what becomes his own brand of sexual deviance: voyeurism." What is surprising about this discussion is that, among the dozens of critics she cites, Johnson...