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  • How Postmodern Is It?
  • Mark Cohen
Review of: Maurice Blanchot, The Book to Come. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.

The Book to Come was published in 1959 and is composed entirely of articles written for the Chroniques section of the Nouvelle Revue Française between 1953 and 1958.1 It came at a particular juncture in Blanchot’s career, marking the end of his period of “retreat” into literature. After his passionate involvement with right-wing journalism, which had culminated in anti-Semitic articles against the Blum government in 1936–37, Blanchot refrained from making any direct political statements for another two decades. Instead he became a highly productive and widely recognized literary critic and novelist. In the 1950s alone, he wrote a hundred articles as well as four novellas or récits (as Blanchot called them then). Although these reflections on literature incorporated philosophical and political references, the latter always remained subordinate to literary concerns. In 1958, however, what Blanchot considered to be De Gaulle’s legalized coup d’état and the revelations of French war crimes in the Algerian conflict roused him to enter the political arena once more, this time on the left wing. Over the next three decades his writing and activities become more broadly engaged with issues that went beyond the strictly literary, in particular in the form of anguished reflections on the Holocaust and “Jewishness,” understood more as an existential category than as one restricted to a real historical or religious group. He also participated actively in the événements of 1968 on the side of the insurgent students. In a similar move toward engagement, responding to new art forms and philosophies, he abandoned fiction for a hybrid form of discourse that incorporated criticism, dialogue, and the fragmentary, becoming in turn a highly influential figure for radical French philosophy and writing of the 1960s and 70s.

The Book to Come represents then the purest version we have of Blanchot littérateur in what proved to be his last major work of literary criticism. Emblematic of its exclusiveness in this regard was its close association with the NRF, which began publication in the 1950s after a ten-year hiatus. It became a flagship for a certain small-scale, even “provincial” variant of modernism in its apolitical promotion of a “pure” literature untethered to either ideological statements or grand projects. Under the guidance of the legendary Jean Paulhan, it promoted an investigation of the workshop of writing, printing short excerpts of novels, notebooks, diaries, and reflections by writer-aestheticians like Caillois, Cioran, Jouhandeau, Malraux, and others. Blanchot’s tortuous avoidance of direct reference to his prewar mésalliance has been dealt with at length by American critics. Steven Ungar, for one, finds in the title of The Book to Come an uncanny repression of one of Blanchot’s fascist essays of 1938 entitled “The Revolution to Come.” Indeed, looking at the structure and institutional self-identification of The Book to Come affirms just how comfortable he was in his attachment to the literary. The NRF was a tolerant milieu, defiantly indifferent to partisan, résistant polemics, and thus accommodating of former right-wingers like Blanchot. He quickly came to occupy a special role in the review, becoming what amounted to its house critic during the 1950s, well-placed to create an audience for his own fiction and that of others working in the same vein. The secure position he enjoyed is evidenced in a prefatory note that not only foregrounds his dual activities as both writer and critic but gives biographical information (however exiguous) that is completely uncharacteristic of his habitual reticence about such matters: “Maurice Blanchot, novelist and critic, was born in 1907. His life is wholly devoted to literature and the silence unique to it.”2 Equally unprecedented in the Blanchot corpus is a postfacial note referring to the essays’ provenance—“A little modified, these texts belong to a series of little essays published starting in 1953, in La Nouvelle Revue Française.”

In comparison with his other nonfiction prose, The Book to Come lacks the central theoretical essay of its predecessors Faux pas (1943) and The Work of Fire (1949), the...

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