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The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 308-313 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0007

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For at least two generations, modernism was considered a scandal: the break from Victorian moral and aesthetic values along with often extreme stylistic and formal innovation led to a sense of shock and discomfort on the part of readers, reviewers, and more conservative artists and writers. The scandal of literary modernism was that it utterly transformed novelistic realism, which had come to represent for many modernists the utterly conventional house style of the Victorian novel.

As Sean Latham points out in his latest book, The Art of Scandal, the most subversive aspect of modernist fiction turns out to be not the scandalous rejection of realism but its re-use in the presentation of scandal itself in the form of the roman à clef, a genre that has its roots in the seventeenth century and is noted primarily for its daringly transparent fictionalization of real public figures. It is a duplicitous genre, one that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction precisely by deploying the conventions of the novel (and its "aesthetics of detail"—27) in a way that transmutes the "realistic simulacra" produced by these conventions "into genuine facts about real people" (9). In the opening chapters, Latham draws on a number of literary historians who focus on the novel to substantiate his argument that the rise of the novel was concomitant with the suppression of the roman à clef. His account of the relation between the novel and the roman à clef reveals the rise of a powerful new fictional form, whose aesthetic autonomy is predicated on the disavowal of a "creative and stubbornly persistent counter-form" (25). One of the most important and potentially subversive elements of this "shadowy" counter-form was the role of the reader who could draw inferences of fact from material presented as fiction (25). Alongside the novel, which proffered its narrated world as a "world elsewhere" (to use Richard Poirier's phrase), the roman à clef depicted presumably fictional worlds that could be mapped easily on the "real" world of the reader. Therefore, the roman à clef "stubbornly persisted . . . as a mode of reception capable of sometimes surprising writers who found their works accruing an unpredictable and sometimes even libelous factitiousness" (37).

The "conditional fictionality" (15) of the roman à clef thus raises important questions about the autonomy of art and the role of the reader in constituting literary meaning, particularly in a context in which aesthetic autonomy, as championed by writers like Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, is one of the hallmarks of modernist cultural production. Latham argues that the "extreme skepticism" (Michael McKeon's phrase) that had accompanied the roman à clef from the beginning "assumed a new sense of urgency as the nineteenth century drew to a close" (44). To some extent, this skepticism enabled modernist writers to embrace "a new and heady kind of social agency" in which they could engage the "public sphere" through "emergent networks of celebrity culture and mass mediation" (44). Literary artists were not the only ones to explore the efficacy of the roman à clef in addressing the public sphere in this way. Latham argues persuasively that the "anonymous case study" (46) of the sort Sigmund Freud composed was not only an important instance of the form in the early modernist period but also a very telling one, insofar as it revealed the social and ethical cost of the form's constitutive skepticism. "The initial confusion of fact and fiction designed to protect a tantalizing anonymity quickly becomes both infectious and pervasive as the case study becomes entangled in emergent debates about the legal and moral status of such writing" (53). Freud came to recognize for himself the roman à clef's "anarchic streak" and the unwelcomed celebrity that it brought both his patients and himself, and he finally abandoned it in favor of more "abstract and anecdotal forms" of conveying his findings (54, 56).

The very thing that led Freud to abandon the form led writers like Oscar Wilde to use the roman à clef and its "infectious" relation to the public sphere "to mount a critique of both Victorian realism" and "proto-modernist abstraction," both of which preserve "a central, organizing autonomy that cleaves fact and fiction into two mutually opposed...

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