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Reviewed by:
  • Exotic Subversions in Nineteenth-Century French Fiction
  • Michael Tilby
Exotic Subversions in Nineteenth-Century French Fiction. By Jennifer Yee. (Research Monographs in French Studies, 25). Oxford: Legenda, 2008. x + 124 pp. Hb £40.00; $75.00.

In this elegant, lucid, and original study of four 'exotic' works by Chateaubriand, Hugo, Flaubert, and Segalen, Jennifer Yee turns her back on Edward Said's negative depiction of nineteenth-century Orientalism in order to read her chosen texts from a post-colonialist perspective. With justifiable assuredness she shows that, counter to the assumptions of Said and Foucault, the nineteenth-century episteme did allow space for discordant voices and a degree of opposition to hegemony. Using concepts taken from Bakhtin, and maintaining a commitment to 'suspicious' rather than 'light' readings, she demonstrates the complex and varied ways in which the works in question (Les Natchez, Bug-Jargal, Salammbô, and Les Immémoriaux) exhibit a resistance, however inadequate or unwitting, to a discourse rooted in a binary, if skewed, opposition between colonialism [End Page 495] and orientophilia. By no means the least interesting part of her study is its readiness to confront the way the authors of these generically unstable texts are consequently vulnerable to the charge of artistic failure. (Revealingly, Sainte-Beuve lamented the absence of a 'raisonneur' in Flaubert's Carthaginian novel.) As Yee points out, all four works, in their very different ways, may be regarded as 'unread', although her meticulous engagement with previous critical discussions reveals the extent to which they have been the subject of scholarly and critical controversy. It is, nevertheless, the inherent anxieties and unresolved contradictions themselves that rightly attract her fullest attention. Their presence in the works by Chateaubriand and Hugo confirms the inappropriateness of assigning to either author a fixed position on the political spectrum. The former cannot be considered an exemplary imperialist, while the existence of two significantly different versions of Bug-Jargal(separated by the French government's recognition of Haiti in 1825) provides, in the form of the young Hugo's recourse to obsessive doubling beyond the Manichaean, precious evidence of his tortuous political evolution. In each of the texts examined, language itself is shown to be to the fore, along with the problematic nature of the Other and its representation. Flaubert's conviction that the Other was unknowable inevitably situates him outside Said's compass, but Yee also demonstrates to excellent effect his belief in the opacity of language and the proliferation of anti-taxonomic inventories in Salammbô. If her discussion of polyphony and shifting narrative focalization in Les Immémoriaux, which is analysed in terms of the fundamental question of whether it is possible to write as the Other, arguably constitutes the most rewarding chapter, it is doubtless only because Segalen's work is the product of a more confidently discordant voice than had been possible for her earlier writers. Exotic Subversions, indeed, tells the story of the way the challenge to hegemony became gradually less tentative as the century advanced. But if the story is shown to possess an unquestionable logic, Yee's underlying argument is neither pushed too far nor allowed to become submerged under a welter of qualifiers. One is left hoping that her impressive and admirably comparative study might inspire a parallel reassessment of nineteenth-century French Orientalist painting.

Michael Tilby
Selwyn College, Cambridge
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
pp. 495-496
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-27
Open Access
No
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