- French Contributions
As several books published over the past two years demonstrate, Southern writers attract the most critical attention in France. Some recent studies also focus on the cultural history of American Indians with its environmental ethos and identity consciousness. French scholars are intrigued by Indian-white relations and the life stories of indigenous peoples. These studies explore the notion of "othering" to offer a reflection of the way the literary history of America—including Canada and the Caribbean—is to be understood. Among other trends in French scholarship is an inexhaustible curiosity in 19th-century literature, especially the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. William Faulkner and John Steinbeck are the main focus of criticism on 20th-century fiction.
a. Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville
Henri Justin's Avec Poe jusqu'au bout de la prose (Gallimard) is among the most learned and thorough studies on Poe ever published in France. The four chapters of this lively text assess Poe's life, aims and methods, dream world, syntax, and literary strategy. In the first chapter Justin questions some of the received ideas about the author and reexamines the French face of Poe drawn long ago by Charles Baudelaire and Paul Valéry. By emphasizing biographical data and dwelling on the sociohistorical forces that shaped the author's career, Justin decodes oppositions in the tales. The second chapter offers a rethinking of Poe's tales based on an analysis of [End Page 465] his nuanced use of language, which leads in turn to interesting remarks about the concept of the implied reader. In the final two chapters, Justin scrutinizes Poe's major tales through a variety of critical lenses: the gothic, metaphysics, and psychoanalytic and race theories. By analyzing Poe's works with great breadth and penetration and highlighting their aesthetic dimension, Justin introduces the reader to Poe's achievements and the society in which he lived. No doubt this valuable study will become essential reading.
Alain Suberchicot discusses Melville's major work in a challenging book titled Moby-Dick, désigner l'absence (Honoré Champion, 2008). Divided into eight chapters, the volume provides an alternative to traditional commentaries on Melville's romance. From the start, Suber-chicot offers an elegant and highly symbolic reading of Moby-Dick as an allegory of the spirit of adventure. He weaves together such topics as traditional phallocentric masculinity, confusing gender lines, religious and political sensibility, iconoclastic attitudes, and Ishmael's disorders of the brain. Exploring how to understand Melville's intentions in the novel, he draws on Marcel Proust and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. Obviously privileging Proust's sociocultural approach to a literary work over Sainte-Beuve's biographical one, Suberchicot argues that central to the reading of Moby-Dick is Melville's self-conscious rendering of one man's self-deluding fantasy. Suberchicot's contention is that the author's unsettling constructs and narrative strategies are the reflection of a lack. But in opposition to the projection of the various characteristics of this lack and highly emphasized "absence," a unifying principle is significantly brought to the fore—the novel as a work of imagination exhausts the capacities of double-dealing, riddle, enigma, and random occurrences. This implies, according to Suberchicot, that the text brings the reader to imagine the wrong side of events, through a blurred and elusive vision. Taking issue with the narrator, this interesting and well-informed study of Moby-Dick shows how the ideas and motifs in the novel reveal a dark view of the human condition while encouraging the freedom to choose among a range of possibilities. Notable for the depth of its critical approach, Moby-Dick, désigner l'absence provides a perceptive vision of Melville's art. No doubt Melville enthusiasts will welcome this volume.
b. W. D. Howells
Howells scholarship is marked this year by a collection of ten valuable essays that discuss the thematic range and originality of one of the chief novelists of the Gilded Age. William Dean Howells, [End Page 466] ed. Michel Bandry (UPVM), draws attention to the ongoing critical controversy over the various interpretations of Howells's novels and suggests several angles from which...