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Reviewed by:
  • Travels of a Genre: The Modern Novel and Ideology
  • Nada Elia
Mary N. Layoun. Travels of a Genre: The Modern Novel and Ideology. Princeton UP, 1990. 274 pp. $29.95.

If the modern novel rose with the emergence of the petite bourgeoisie in Europe, how did it evolve to become the vehicle of resistance to Western hegemony in the Palestinian diaspora? In this timely, insightful study, Mary Layoun sets out to investigate the complex problematics of the migration of the novel to Greece, Japan, and the Arab world, where the genre, initially "foreign in both cultural and class origin," has been appropriated, fully domesticated, to reclaim history.

Layoun begins her analysis with three early twentieth-century writers, Alexandros Papadiamantis, Natsume Soseki, and Yahya Haqqi, to examine the debates surrounding the adoption of the genre which found their expression in tension, an opposition to "some unacceptable sociohistorical and cultural context," the uneasy juxtaposition of tradition and modernism. She aptly points out, however, that "it might not be modernization that is opposed here but the specific structure and definition of that modernization"—neocolonialism. The novel appears then as a "utopie gesture," moving away at one and the same time from the past, symbolized by nationalism and tradition, and the "modern," viewed as "inextricably linked to a foreign and hegemonic power." [End Page 353]

Grounded as it is in various dichotomies, the genre indeed gestures toward change. In the second part of her study, Layoun looks at works by contemporary writers Dimitri Hatzis, Ghassan Kanafani, and Oe Kenzaburo, problematizing the evolution of the novel into a rewriting of history. "Language for Lacan, like history for Marx, is always already there, always already begun," she indicates, yet contemporary non-Western works seem to contest the alleged "impotence of human intentionality in forging a new language or a new 'de-alienated' subject." "If we make our history through actions . . . we equally, or alternatively, shape it through words," Layoun avers. Recalling Marx, she cautions readers that those narratives are not made "just as we like, under circumstances of our own choosing. But with limitations, within the terms and circumstances of pasts that we did not shape, we can alter them. That we must is the conclusion of all the texts discussed above."

Layoun qualifies her own use of the term "conclusion." Contemporary works, she argues, refuse all attempts at narrative integrity, providing only the most obviously manufactured textual closure, suggesting the "arbitrariness and contingency of the finished product," and thus challenging Language and the existing Symbolic order.

Layoun's book is soundly argumented and richly documented and provides a welcome post-Marxist textual and contextual analysis of "Third World" narratives. By applying European critics to the non-Western literary corpus, Layoun demonstrates the validity of Lukács' argument that the modern novel is truly "multinational." As such, it does reclaim history. Moving away from the imperialist East-West binary, the contemporary "Third World" novel provides a site of opposition, resisting the challenge of Western hegemony as it refuses to construct "authentic" or "indigenous" narratives to perpetuate Orientalist discourse.

Nada Elia
Purdue University


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pp. 353-354
Launched on MUSE
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