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These three volumes all focus on twentieth-century French women writers, but they do so in varied ways, which range from an erasure of the role of gender (Howard) to a deliberate construction of gender as a major context (Durham). Joan Howard's study of Marguerite Yourcenar (a major, if not popular, writer who was the first woman to enter the Académie Française) is a thematic study of the role of sacrificial elements in myths in seven different pieces, which include two plays Qui n'a pas son Minotaure? and Le mystère d'Alceste, short stories Nouvelles orientales and Yourcenar's most famous fictional work Mémoires d'Hadrien and L'oeuvre au noir, as well as two lesser known novels, Le coup de grace and Denier du rêve. Howard claims that Yourcenar uses and rewrites myths to show that primitive sacrificial practices are still present in our world and that Yourcenar's revision of sacrificial narratives is a "demystification" and a rejection of myths.
Howard is strongest in the detailed analysis of specific works (for instance in her treatment of the short story "Comment Wang-Fô fut sauvé" [End Page 412] or the play Le mystère d'Alceste in which Yourcenar rewrites a Greek myth), but her conceptualization of sacrificial violence is not satisfying. On the one hand, she endorses René Girard's notion that ritualistic sacrifices are a form of institutionalized violence preventing its spreading to members of the community at large and that sacrifices also maintain a hierarchical social organization. On the other hand, she argues that Yourcenar questions the necessity of sacrificial violence. For instance, in the chapter on L'oeuvre au noir, Howard shows that Yourcenar dismisses the idea of sacrifice (and self-sacrifice) as an illusion. Although Howard does show that Yourcenar's works reveal and condemn sacrificial processes, she still does not account for her thematic fascination with violence and cruelty. Howard does not consider the source or the possible meaning of such fascination (could it be, for instance, that Yourcenar's apparent rejection of sacrifice is linked to a sort of Nietszchian belief in the triumph of the will?). Similarly, Howard does not deal with the role of gender in her discussion of violence. Is sacrificial violence a way to reject the (feminine) other? Is it genderless? Is the fact that a woman author rejects male myths and justification of violence significant? The occulting of gender in Howard's discussion of violence is paralleled by her silence about Yourcenar's homosexuality and its relation to her configuration of male violence.
Howard's fascinating topic is clearly central to an understanding of Yourcenar's works, but she is too eager to "defend" her author or even to admit that Yourcenar, like any other writer, can present ideological contradictions and limitations. As a result, her claims that Yourcenar's work is "engagé" (politically committed) seem unsubstantiated and deter from an otherwise interesting thematic study of works which deserve to be better known.
Contemporary French Fiction by Women groups thirteen short essays on a number of women writers including Simone de Beauvoir, Christiane Rochefort, Annie Ernaux, Claire Etcherelli, Djanet Lachmet, Michele Perrein, Geneviève Serreau, Monique Wittig, Marguerite Duras, Hélène Cixous, Chantal Chawal and Marie Cardinal. According to the editors of the volume, these essays were put together to "remedy the imbalance given to French feminist literary theory at the expense of fiction," a laudable enterprise which is certainly needed in light of the richness of the production of recent French women writers.
However, the title of the book is misleading since many of the writers discussed are hardly "contemporary." More than half of them are well known novelists...