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Selected Essays of Malcolm Bowie, I: Dreams of Knowledge; II: Song Man. Edited by Alison Finch. Oxford: Legenda, 2013. xxii + 260; xviii + 332 pp.

Malcolm Bowie, a brilliant interdisciplinary scholar who was at the centre of French studies in Britain in the three decades leading up to his death in 2007, at the age of 63, taught at UEA, Cambridge, London, and Oxford, and among many other achievements served as General Editor of French Studies from 1980 to 1987. His hugely influential and widely read books on Michaux, Mallarmé, Proust, Lacan, and on literary theory and psychoanalysis continue to inform critical debate and are admired for the combination of qualities that characterize his work: cultural breadth, close attention to the text, theoretical sophistication, and stylistic panache. Only someone with Bowie’s exquisite powers of expression and formidably focused, well-stocked mind could home in so closely on the multilevelled play of thought in some of the most difficult modern writers, and especially on the places where their work crosses aesthetic boundaries. The core of his critical achievement was to offer his readers ringside seats as he demonstrated how Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de dés made contingency visible on the page, or how Proust’s narrator turned jealousy into a form of epistemology. It is therefore a huge treat to be able to revel in the publication of his Selected Essays, impeccably edited by Alison Finch and beautifully produced by Legenda, which collect previously published (there are no inédits) but widely scattered publications. The first volume, Dreams of Knowledge, comprises five essays on Proust, six on Mallarmé, one each on Valéry and Éluard, and five on psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan, and Winnicott). This bald summary gives no idea of the teeming interdisciplinary richness of the volume’s contents, for reasons that are clearly in evidence in a late essay placed as a ‘Prelude’. ‘Remembering the Future’, a contribution to an anthology of writings on memory edited by Harriet Harvey Wood and A. S. Byatt, is quintessential Bowie in its forthright insistence on the ‘desire-driven’ character of great art, which always deals in futures as much as in pasts. Against the ‘delusional and demeaning’ stamp of ‘modern nostalgia’ he pinpoints the exuberant and affirmative play between creativity and tradition, the ‘migrations into the future’ (p. 13) he detects in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda, poems by Shakespeare and Ungaretti. One of the factors that make Bowie a great critic is that to read him is an education in itself (and one that makes the reader feel more intelligent, as well as illuminated and [End Page 422] energized, whatever the topic). As a rule, the essays collected here broaden the angle of vision on his favourite writers. Those on Proust involve painting, life-writing (a remarkable survey embracing Plutarch, St Jerome, Chaucer, and Augustine), psychoanalysis, brevity, and the device of superimposition as adumbrated in a remark by Walter Benjamin. Those on Mallarmé focus on the sea (and Debussy), Hegel, and eschatology. Those on psychoanalysis invoke Rilke (in connection with Winnicott), Mahler, and Marienbad (a keen sense of place is one of Bowie’s trademarks).The second volume, Song Man, a reference to a piece on Lieder, collects book reviews, from the TLS, French Studies, and the like, but also reviews of plays, films, contributions to opera programmes at Covent Garden, a translation, and more besides. There are eighty-seven pieces in all (including fifteen on music, twenty on ‘Surrealism and Modern French Poetry’, and items on Camus, Genet, Borges, Murdoch, Judith Butler, et al.). But these are not ephemera: each is a wonderfully crafted, resonant, far-sighted, and witty critical performance, designed not to upstage the work under scrutiny, but to come at it from such a surprising range of angles as to bring out its singularity yet place it in the wider constellations of ideas that Bowie was so brilliant at elucidating. One can pick up Song Man on any page and find oneself immersed in what he might have called a thought-world, or a verbal force-field, of a uniquely flexible and adventurous kind. Among my own favourites...


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