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French Forum 27.1 (2002) 156-157

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Book Review

René Leys

René Leys

Victor Segalen. René Leys. Edition de Sophie Labatut. Folio classique, Gallimard, 2000, 420 pp.
René Leys. Edition présentée et annotée par Marie Dollé et Christian Doumet. Le livre de poche classique, Librairie Générale Française, 1999, 289 pp.

Victor Segalen's 1922 novel about two young men in China is one of his more accessible texts for readers or instructors interested in learning more about this writer's travels, aesthetics and style. The novel is just over two hundred pages and recounts the relationship between a narrator called Segalen and his young and mysterious Belgian mentor in Peking during the last days of China's last emperor. This text in particular reveals Segalen's fascination with the encounter of the real and the imaginary and as such engages the reader in a very contemporary manner. In the last decade the bnf has organized exhibitions around Segalen, his complete works have appeared in more than one volume and numerous conferences and reviews have been devoted to his work. Although Segalen's writing can be challenging for non-native speakers this novel can be read on many levels and would be appropriate for the undergraduate classroom. Two very affordable and very different paperback critical editions of this novel have just been published in France. Since the text is set in some version of Imperial China and has many historical and cultural references, even the most astute reader will enjoy the convenience of a critical edition.

René Leys can be read through multiple lenses and reread with much pleasure. The novel has been considered a detective novel, a novel about exoticism, a discreet exploration of homosexuality, a complex investigation into the relationship between narrator and character, a semi-fictive autobiography of Segalen, an orientalizing portrayal of Peking's past and a novel which puts into question the entire possibility of novels. The novel is situated at the midpoint of Segalen's literary career and illustrates many of the tropes found in his poetry, his essay on exoticism and his Chinese travelogues. In light of the multiple facets of the text, it is not astonishing that these two new editions take very different approaches.

Both books do the reader the service of including some examples of Segalen's original manuscript, a map of Peking, a chronology of [End Page 156] Segalen's life and many notes both on textual variations and explaining historical details. However, Labatut's edition consistently provides more relevant and clear information than the Dollé/Doumet (dd) volume. Labatut was responsible for the massive two-volume edition of René Leys published by Chatelain-Julien in 1999 and with Gallimard she provides a more compact but quite rich critical edition. Dollé and Doumet have long provided more poetic interpretations of Segalen and their text provides more appreciation but much less substance than Labatut. While Labatut's introduction very clearly presents Segalen's oeuvre and career, dd's preface is a rambling reflection on literature and would be much less useful for someone seeking a concrete introduction to Segalen's writing. dd have also made the unfortunate choice of notes on almost every page which can be quite distracting. In addition they have chosen to thematize their interpretation in ways that leave little freedom for the reader. These keyed (and confusingly cross-referenced) themes include such heavy-hitters as homosexuality, the climate and childhood. At one point the reader is referred to no less than three different references in order to find an original footnote. dd make no distinction in their notes between textual variations and extra information thus obliging the reader to constantly read all remarks. Labatut's notes contain more explicit historical and cultural references and are nicely placed at the end of the text. She allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the thematic trends of the text, making her version much more appropriate for the American classroom. The dd edition will be of more interest to Segalen scholars who would like access to a...


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