L'Europe en automobile: Octave Mirbeau, écrivain voyageur ed. by Éléonore Reverzy and Guy Ducrey (review)
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Reviewed by
Reverzy, Éléonore, and Guy Ducrey, eds. L'Europe en automobile: Octave Mirbeau, écrivain voyageur. Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2009. Pp. 320. ISBN: 978-2-86820-382-3

L'Europe en Automobile: Octave Mirbeau: écrivain voyageur (ed. Éléonore Reverzy and Guy Ducrey) is an extensive collection of critical essays on Mirbeau's La 628-E8 (1907), a revolutionary work that initiated the genre of automobile fiction. La 628-E8 traces the narrator's trip across Europe in one of the early automobiles, where he travels "à travers un peu de la France, de la Belgique, de la Hollande, de l'Allemagne, et surtout, à travers un peu de moi-même" (Mirbeau qtd. on pg. 6). L'Europe en Automobile begins by articulating the difficulty of categorizing such a revolutionary and fragmented "novel," which is also, in part, a travel journal, a cultural commentary and an ode to speed and movement. This collection examines multiple ways in which La 628-E8 expresses liberation from cultural dogma and stagnant conventions.

L'Europe en Automobile contains Reverzy and Ducrey's introduction and twenty-five short essays by various scholars, organized into five sections: I. Poétique du récit de voyage, II. Esthétique du voyage, III. Mirbeau, la voiture et les arts, IV. Confrontations et réceptions, and V. Discours critique et politique. However, these categorizations are by no means rigid. L'Europe en Automobile mimics La 628-E8's patchwork structure, zigzagging between topics such as the arts (literary, visual, musical and cinematic), the rejection of xenophobia and postcolonial prejudices and the intersection between technological and creative breakthroughs. The majority of essays also mention Mirbeau's scandalous account of Balzac's death, an iconoclastic description that perhaps symbolically marks the end of nineteenth-century literature and the beginning of the twentieth.

The first section, "Poétique du récit de voyage," begins with Gérard Cogez's "La 628-E8: digressions critiques et dérapages contrôlés." Cogez argues that Mirbeau's novel calculatedly skids off the path of conventional colonialist discourse and takes a courageous stance against colonialism, anti-Semitism and nationalism. Similarly, [End Page 345] in "La 628-E8: Poétique de l'analogie," a compelling and well-organized essay, Reverzy discusses the use of analogy in historical or travel narratives as a useful tool to understanding that which is unknown or foreign. In contrast, Mirbeau's novel, or rather collection of impressions, often turns this convention on its head. The speed of the car blurs nationalistic boundaries and dematerializes objects, often rendering comparisons between two individuals or cultures difficult. Furthermore, as the narrator drives away from France, the nation loses its status as a fixed reference point and center of cultural identity. In a similar spirit as Montaigne's "Des Cannibales," Mirbeau debunks the stereotype that Germans are barbaric compared to the supposedly civilized manners of the French.

Part two, "Esthétique du voyage," primarily consists of Mirbeau's impressions of Holland and Belgium. According to Lola Bermúdez, Mirbeau admires the beauty of the Dutch countryside as well as the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. As Gwenhaël Ponnu notes, in contrast to Baudelaire's scathing parody of Belgium, Mirbeau reveres the country's profound soul. While enchanted by the two countries, the author also observes scenes of cruelty and exploitation. The last two essays of this section highlight issues of political and social justice perhaps even more than aesthetics. In "Voyages en Europe, Impressions de l'Afrique," Ducrey focuses on the presence of Africa in the novel, often found in major European ports, in contrast to contemporary exotic literature. Ducrey argues that these traces of Africa reveal not only the cruelty of European colonialism but also the universal barbarianism practiced by all human beings. Noëlle Benhamou's essay, "La 628-E8 sur les chemins de la prostitution européenne: de l'étape au tapin," illustrates the connection between automobiles and prostitution, as cars provided a sheltered place for illicit sexual activities. Prostitution is a metaphor for commercial exploitation in modern society.

In contrast to these seedier aspects of progress and technology, Emmanuel Polluad-Dulian focuses on the fantasy...


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