restricted access French Global: A New Approach to Literary History ed. by Christie McDonald and Susan Rubin Suleiman (review)
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Reviewed by
McDonald, Christie and Susan Rubin Suleiman, eds. French Global: A New Approach to Literary History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 546pp.

In the introduction to this impressive collection of essays by leading scholars in French Studies from several countries, Susan Suleiman and Christie McDonald inscribe their edited volume in the wake of two events that illustrate earlier developments in French and Francophone Studies. The first event, alluded to on page xii, was the publication of “Pour une littérature-monde en français” [Toward a “World Literature” in French] in Le Monde on March 15, 2007.1 The signatories, who included major figures in contemporary literature in French, from J.M.G Le Clézio and Edouard Glissant to Maryse Condé and Didier Daeninckx, famously proclaimed that the era of “the interdiction of the novel” was finally over in France and that Francophonie, a “virtual country,” was dead (3). Calling the text a “manifesto” is accurate in the sense that it declared the passing of a nefarious state of literary affairs and condemned the previous generation of intellectuals who were made responsible for it, while at the same time providing evidence of a new creative community ready to usher in a bright future for literary writing in the French language. In a neo-romantic idiom (“desire to find one’s way back to the world, incandescent powers of literature, novelistic and poetic effervescence,” etc. [2]), the proponents of the new paradigm rejoiced in the demise of the cerebral and formalist philosophy of suspicion that had declared, from the late fifties to the early seventies, the superiority of the critic over the creator. The dominance of those “master-thinkers, inventors of a literature that had no object but itself” (1), was finally giving way to the return of a literary repressed that is associated with “the world” and “the real.” The irony, of course, is that the decentering of literary practice hailed by the signatories was in large part the result of the celebration of déterritorialisation and littérature mineure by the same critical theorists whose work they were so strongly rejecting.

The world-historical story that informed the “Littérature-Monde” manifesto credited the opening up of new novelistic possibilities (“the return of fiction”) to the fall of the Berlin Wall as the symbolic event that signaled the end of ideological metanarratives (from the Right and the Left). The welcomed liberation of literature from its “exclusive relationship to the nation” (4) found its role models outside of the French context, as befits a transnational, multicultural, and cosmopolitan agenda. While francophone writers, torn between two cultures, continued to be confined to a marginal position in France, in Britain the children of the former empire, [End Page 171] “no longer living in the nostalgia of a country of origin that was forever lost, […] took ownership, in complete legitimacy, of English letters” (3).

The second event that frames the genealogy of French Global, this time explicitly and more extensively referenced in the introduction, is the publication two decades ago of the influential A New History of French Literature by Columbia University Press. What was “new” about the New History, as its editor, Denis Hollier put it at the time, is that it had been “composed outside of France’s own frontiers, […] written on both sides of as many borders as possible” (xxv). The critical intent of the book was obvious. The break with the tradition of canonical histories of French literature identified by the individual names of the prominent French men who had authored them (Nisard, Lanson, Ampère, etc.) lay in the fact that the new history was the product of a collective enterprise. Not only was it written in English and published in the United States, but it literally took to pieces a literary corpus identified by its Franco-centric predecessors as a unified, sacred textual body closely associated with a trans-historical national character naturalized either as “French spirit” (Lanson) or “French taste” (Ampère). Moreover, the two hundred short entries, arranged under specific dates, broke up the continuity of traditional narratives structured around a cumulative, oriented, and culturally and politically progressive...