- Drieu La Rochelle and the Picture Gallery Novel: French Modernism in the Interwar Years
Take an author whose writing is as often mediocre as it is brilliant, whose quintessentially modernist views espouse, as modernism frequently did, sexism and racism, who joined the Fascist party in 1934 after publicly attacking the Surrealists for having taken political stands (especially left-wing), and who befriended the German ambassador and literary censor in Paris during the occupation, and you get Pierre-Eugene Drieu la Rochelle (1893-1945), this "most corrupt of Parisians," to use an expression from one of his novels.
Write a book about Drieu and, if you are Rima Drell Reck, you will produce an impressive, captivating study of the interrelation of painting and writing in Interwar France. This feat, however, is achieved at a certain expense. Reck explains that she will not, "like some critics," concentrate heavily on social and political issues, ignoring thus the fact that Gilles, Drieu's major work, "is not about events but about vision" (Reek's emphasis). Thus she explains that, because no analysis can do justice to the novel, she has "organized the discussion of pictorialist elements in Gilles to focus on elements faithful to the primary visual impact of the text rather than its many complex details." Her first chapter is entitled "The Other Drieu," and its opening sentence is a citation from Drieu: "I would have liked to be a painter." Drieu indeed was heavily influenced by painting. Gille, the central character of a number of his novels, and the protagonist of Gilles, (with an "s"), is inspired by the 1718-1719 oil painting by Antoine Watteau, Gilles, exhibited at the Louvre. [End Page 313]
Drieu's work is "writerly," a galaxy of signifiers, and in her interpretation of it, Reck has chosen to highlight the aesthetic. As such, she achieves a superb reading, taking an obvious Barthesian delight in writing Drieu, disseminating his images ad infinitum. The title of her work is very appropriate indeed, for she convincingly demonstrates that Drieu's work reads like a selection of some of the best artifacts of the period. Drieu, she explains, had a vision of fiction as a peculiar form of painting. Drieu called the Paris of 1923 "this Theater Babel on the Champs-Elysées," and he was himself an "Artist-Babel," whose work features influences by Watteau, Picasso, Baudelaire, Joyce, "a touch of Eliot," and "a soupçon of Hemingway."
Clearly a museum-goer herself, Reck has made a choice which is bound to determine the readership of her book. It is an invaluable companion to students of the "années folles," rife with compilations of the various influences on Drieu. But it fails to convert those who approach the work with prejudices against Drieu—and they are many, as witness the various negative studies of this writer—to an appreciation of the novels of this fascist member of the decadent, elitist, banquet-going lost generation.