- The World Republic of Letters
First published in 1999, Pascale Casanova's La République mondiale des lettres now appears in English in an intelligent and reliable translation, which carries also a brief but illuminating 'Preface to the English-Language Edition' and a much better index than that in the original publication. Reading this substantial study in English brings out more strongly, perhaps, the fact that although the author's ambitions are truly international and her examples taken from the literatures of many nations and languages, her book remains in many ways distinctively French in its approach.
Her fundamental purpose, as declared in the preface and the introductory chapter, is to 'bring about a change of perspective', to propose 'a new tool for the reading and interpretation of literary texts', and this by 'situating a work on the basis of its position in world literary space'. This idea of 'world literary space' is overtly modelled on the concepts of two French maîtres à penser: the historian Fernand Braudel, in particular his notion of an 'economy-world', and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose theoretical elaboration of 'fields of force' is here applied to a 'literature-world', described as a 'literary universe relatively independent of the everyday world and its political divisions, whose boundaries and operational laws are not reducible to those of ordinary political space.'
Casanova proposes, then, to set out in a Braudelian way some of the 'laws' that govern the interrelationships of literary cultures, and therefore of texts. At the same time, she sees her approach as preserving what she sees as the characteristically French concern for the close examination of the way a text works, and thus overcoming 'the supposedly [End Page 426] insuperable antinomy between internal […] and external criticism'. The 'antinomy' in question is that between criticism and history posed by Roland Barthes in a famous early essay published in Annales. In an Anglophone context, however, this separation is far less an article of faith – one has only to think of the work of Raymond Williams and his followers. This is just one of many occasion when Casanova's critique of what 'everyone' thinks seems in a non-French context to be something of a battle against imaginary giants. Not that it is easy to achieve in practice the synthesis of criticism and history or theory; like many others, this book is stronger on the latter than on the former – it points towards a possible close reading of, say, Kafka, rather than actually engaging in it.
The first half of the book is devoted to a lengthy and somewhat repetitious outline of 'world literary space' and its evolution over time. The important point here is that world literature, rather than being some kind of timeless empyrean where great works from different cultures coexist in harmony, is a field of constant struggle for centrality or domination, a struggle which has a determining effect on the strategies of writers. In Casanova's Europe-centred view, the story begins with Du Bellay's challenge to the hegemony of Latin in 1549 and culminates in the establishment of Paris as the de facto world capital of literature from at least the late eighteenth century to the 1960s – a position that was not dependent on the exercise of political power. Sometimes, indeed, the phrasing might suggest that Paris still occupies that position – but clearly this is not the case, and the author is at pains to point out that after the many attempted revolts against Parisian dominance in the nineteenth century, the city of light lost its dominant position in the late twentieth century, though without being replaced by any one new centre.
Time is related to space, in that the centre determines what is seen as valuable at any given time – in other words what is modern (and modernity is a value that goes unchallenged in this book, allowing the author to speak dismissively of such traditionalist writings as Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.) Peripheral zones are thus conscious of their backwardness...