Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, edited by Marc Chénetier, is intended as an introduction to the virtues and varieties of practical Continental criticism, an introduction for those American readers who may be unaware or suspicious of European ways. It also aims to introduce American writers to American readers as, Chénetier suggests, only European critics can or will. Chénetier observes that Americans tend to bring contemporary critical theories to bear on older literature, or else to bring thoroughly traditional, humanistically inclined methods imperfectly if not irrelevantly to bear on contemporary works. Even for those who need neither sort of introduction, Critical Angles is a welcome sampler of applied Continental theory and a valuable addition to the criticism of contemporary American literature. The essays may not often be startlingly original, but in their freewheeling, eclectic, and ad hoc use of various theoretical "tools" to illuminate texts, they are engaging, provocative, and richly suggestive.
The more general essays in the collection deal with such issues as modernism-postmodernism, the ontology of fiction, and author-reader relations. In the most literary-historical of the essays, Hartwig Isernhagen argues against the common view of an opposition between predominantly affirmative modernism and predominantly negative postmodernism. He argues instead for a view of modernism-postmodernism as a continuum on which both share a "split repertoire" of affirmation and negation. Thus modernism's drive to make it new is balanced by an urge to destroy the old, its rage for order by a despair of ordering systems, including language, or even by a rage at order itself. Postmodernism shares this split repertoire, perhaps stressing the negative strategies and themes but thereby differing in degree, not kind, from modernism. Isernhagen concludes by arguing that many modernist texts encroach on the supposedly postmodernist preserve of pure verbal play and that many postmodernist texts are moving in an almost premodernist direction toward recovering a sense of history and reaffirming semantic [End Page 644] reference. Maurice Couturier also assumes a modernist-postmodernist continuity in an essay in which he presents author-reader relations as "merciless conflict" and "the anonymous letter as a metaphor for the novel"—harrassing, frustrating, unanswerable communication from an undiscoverable and uncapturable author.
Alide Cagidemetrio and Heide Ziegler offer somewhat differing analyses of the ontology of contemporary fiction. Cagidemetrio describes the ambiguity and the uneasy compromise between fiction and reality, the characteristic ambivalence of literature that has become the obsession of contemporary American fiction. The fictions of Sorrentino and Major, for example, lay claim to reality by exhibiting their very fictiveness. Fiction, no more arbitrary a construct than reality but more self-conscious about its processes and more self-revelatory, becomes "the real thing." On the other hand, Ziegler argues that in such competition with reality fiction has always, ultimately, lost. Rather than compete for status with reality or risk infiltration by the epistemological other, postmodernist fiction aspires to self-sufficiency and independence from reality. Ziegler shows how Coover and Barth, as well as Blanchot and Calvino, attempt to reestablish the special status of fiction, not by a naive return to the novel's problematic origins but by the novel's "overreaching itself."
The essays devoted to particular authors or works include Claude Richard's fine essay on ontological and narratological exile in The Moviegoer, Marc Chénetier's exoneration of Raymond Carver from the dismissive charge of mere "new realism," Pierre Gault's analysis of formal and thematic parallels between Nabokov's novels and Balthus' paintings, and Nancy Blake's discussion of Guy Davenport's "homage to the spirits of his predecessors." Régis Durand exposes the attempts of readerresponse and deconstructivc criticism, for example, to redeem the idea of the old-fashioned subject by displacing it; his Lacanian reading of Barthelme demonstrates "a postmodernist version of the dramaturgy of the subject." Johan Thielemans' essay on Gaddis and Sorrentino, in spite of its subtitle's...