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  • Proses du monde: les enjeux sociaux des styles littéraires par Nelly Wolf
  • Jesse Welton
Proses du monde: les enjeux sociaux des styles littéraires. Par Nelly Wolf. (Perspectives.) Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2014. 264 pp., ill.

By putting Hegel’s notion of the novel as the prose du monde into the plural, Nelly Wolf invites us to examine the voices of both a society of individuals and the individuals of a society. Her ambitious study of almost two centuries of the post-Revolution French novel succeeds in its aim of illuminating the connection between the social and political worlds and literary style. It follows on from Wolf’s Le Roman de la démocratie (Saint-Denis: [End Page 279] Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 2003), in which she posits the novel as analogous to democracy, both being based on a social contract, equality, and debate. In Proses du monde, Wolf takes the link between political and educational democratization and the democratization of literary style as a starting point for her investigation of ‘les enjeux sociaux recouverts par les styles littéraires et plus précisément par les proses romanesques’ (p. 14). The text unites several of Wolf’s articles from 2005 to 2012 into four tableaux exploring the above problematic, each covering a key moment in the evolution of novelistic styles. ‘Peuple’ addresses the entry of the voice of the people into literature during the second half of the nineteenth century. Through a detailed analysis of the work of Sand, Zola, Huysmans, the Goncourt brothers, and Jules Renard, we see how authors broke with traditional literary language through the introduction of the speech and writing of working-class and ‘alphabétisés illettrés’ characters (p. 59), and the influence of this language on the narrative voice. In ‘Migrations’, Wolf brings the republican ideal of the shared national language to the fore, examining its intersection with minority languages and cultures during the first decades of the twentieth century. The tension of what Wolf calls ‘paratopies linguistiques’ (p. 78) is investigated through an examination of the hybrid style of authors from the French-speaking Jewish community and first-generation Jewish immigrants to France, notably Jean-Richard Bloch, Albert Cohen, Irène Némirovsky, and Georges Perec. ‘Désengagement’ explores the literary reaction to the Second World War as a paradoxical attempt to silence France’s recent history, while simultaneously being a product of it. Wolf studies the ‘contre-engagement’ of Gide and Aragon (p. 138), and the ‘écriture blanche’ of Camus and Alain Robbe-Grillet (p. 161). The final chapter evokes the replacement of ‘le peuple’ in French discourse by an abstract ‘Français moyen’ (p. 193), devotee of mass culture and consumption, and his language ‘le français moyen’ (p. 222). Wolf highlights the opposition between this norm and the exception in the work of Gabriel Matzneff, Annie Ernaux, and Patrick Modiano. Wolf successfully applies a method she calls ‘sociolectures’ (p. 15) to the detailed analysis of a diverse sample of French novels. By tracing the social influences on the evolution of stylistics, the book contributes to the reader’s understanding of current directions in contemporary French-language literatures, both from within France and extending to the global sense of proses du monde. Given the text’s genesis as separate essays, extra editorial attention could have been paid to cohesion and typographical accuracy; however, the reader is nonetheless able to follow the clear trajectory of Wolf’s investigation. Overall this book provides an extremely well illustrated exploration of the relationship between novelistic style and the social and political worlds in French literature.

Jesse Welton
University Of Melbourne


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pp. 279-280
Launched on MUSE
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