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  • The Modernist Traveler: French Detours, 1900–1930
  • Thangam Ravindranathan
Kimberley J. Healey . The Modernist Traveler: French Detours, 1900–1930. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. 175 pp.

Kimberley Healey's eloquently titled The Modernist Traveler: French Detours 1900 - 1930 , in the reflection it invites on early-twentieth-century travel narratives, probes a crucial episode in the evolution of French travel writing: for here are writers traveling (and writing) after the high point of nineteenth-century "exotic" literature but before the epistemic shift in representations of foreignness initiated by French ethnology a few years later. Indeed, this study turns the critical lens on a largely under-studied body of writings, featuring the works of Victor Segalen, Paul Morand, Paul Nizan, Blaise Cendrars, as well as those of less well-known writers such as Isabelle Eberhardt, Albert Londres, and Ernest Psichari. Through these the book sketches out, if somewhat allusively in places, a productive site through which dépaysement as a motif and a structure (psychological, temporal, spatial, metaphysical) was imported into French literature in the early years of the century. The thematic concern with displacement and otherness, along with certain other preoccupations discerned in these writings (anxiety regarding the place of the self in the world, a privileging of the metatextual, a concern with formal solutions to thematic/ontological/metaphysical questions, etc.) testify in turn, for Healey, to the advent of modernism in French literature.

A doubly ambitious premise thus informs The Modernist Traveler. Four (perhaps overly) vast categories serve to organize the fascinating material Healey examines: the self, time, space, and the body. Each chapter defines on its own terms a broadly compelling central thesis: travel narratives in these early years variously (and deliberately) marked their distance from the facile exoticism proscribed so explicitly by Segalen at the turn of the century, but testified in the bargain to the limits of the experience of displacement, and of the apprehension of otherness. Segalen's own brand of exoticism is rightly shown to be not so much about the Other as it is about the Self, his split protagonists and doubles further belying a certain representational impasse vis-à-vis radical otherness. Writers such as Morand and Cendrars would seem to encounter comparable limits in their search for an other temporality, stumbling instead against the mere illusion of difference (the speed of modern travel for instance) or against the (inescapable?) [End Page 116] time of the self. Healey's treatment of space is somewhat more complex, concerned on the one hand with the ways in which travel writing wrote space, the latter revealing itself to be just as subjectivized (and narrativized) a dimension as time, and on the other with the text as a space wherein the subject's oft-precarious relationship(s) with "other" spaces were staged. In this chapter a passage on the heterotopia of penal colonies and a glossing of the eloquent disorientation of Psichari in Africa are points of particular interest. Healey's last chapter, titled "Anatomy of no escape," considers the traveler's body as both a necessary vehicle and an obstacle to travel and suggests a fecund interplay between physicality and textuality. All four categories (self, time, space and the body) thus reveal themselves to be critical sites in the increasing self-referentiality of the travel narrative: otherness becomes a mere detour from the solipsistic structures of the self, and the search for difference shifts from the experience of travel per se to the modalities of writing (about) travel.

Such preoccupations would appear to nicely anticipate the alarmist "fin des voyages" pronounced in the 50 s with Lévi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques, as well as later more experimental forms of the travel narrative, like Butor's Mobile or Barthes' L'Empire des Signes, that more self-consciously problematize the relationship between the sign and the referent, or that playfully expose the elsewhere to be an effect of semiotic construction. Healey, however, stops shy of gesturing toward such lineages. In some respects her (understandable) historicizing gesture (sectioning off a specific time period for study) incurs the paradoxical cost of isolating the said period from what follows, and even, to a certain extent, from what precedes—for...


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