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MLN 117.4 (2002) 919-921
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Writing Marginality in Modern French Literature:
from Loti to Genet
Edward Hughes, Writing Marginality in Modern French Literature: from Loti to Genet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
In these postcolonial times, it is tempting to ignore the colonial period itself as so much dusty ancient history. Hughes elegantly corrects such a lapse as he explores this forgotten era, exposing the contradictions of its narcissism and its self-hatred, its xenophobia and its embracing of the exotic, and the work of these contradictions in the construction of cultural value. Scrutinizing these strains at their most visible—the interstices of interaction between the European and its colonial other—Hughes undoes the geometry of center and periphery. Like Yeats's, the colonial "center cannot hold," and Hughes opens up for us a fascinating, disturbing complicity. Within the corpus he has chosen, Hughes discovers uneasy and anxious alliances between the iconoclasm of the Europhobe and the very Europeanism being rejected. The negotiation (whether predatory, paternalizing, appropriating, or embracing) of the colonial "other" thus often serves as oblique reflection, admission or confession, of the colonial source itself.
In the process, Hughes studies the contradiction between Loti's exposure of French colonial excesses in Indochina, and the easy indulgence of Loti's cultural transvestism and parade, his complacently superficial (by turns, delusive and exploitive) engagement with otherness. Similarly, Gauguin's glib commodification of exoticism is explicit in his agent's injunction not to return to Paris, where Gauguin's myth as noble primitive only boosts sales of his paintings. Yet, as Hughes argues, Gauguin's cultivated rebellion as Europhobe only replicates various European topoi of the exotic.
In Hughes's corpus, where the gesture toward cultural difference is often privately, occultly, motivated, sexuality frequently becomes an arena in which colonial tensions are most explicit—as in Proust's charting of a map and lexicon for homosexuality, drawing on figures of otherness such as the Jew, the heroic explorer, the Negro. Yet Proust's very apology for homosexuality is infiltrated and distorted by the prejudices of his era, as Proust both resorts to and decries cliché in enlisting colonial topoi to accommodate the forbidden. Here, Hughes offers an arresting upstairs/downstairs reading of two traveling servants, sisters, lodged on the top floor of the Balbec hotel. Rather than the cloistered, immaculate site one might expect, the sisters' room explodes with [End Page 919] libidinal and xenophobic energy, releasing a fierce drama of class and race. Similar contradictions surface in what Montherlant considered his anticolonialist novel, La rose de sable, written in protest of French centenary celebrations of the colonization of Algeria and the Exposition coloniale of 1931. With an epigraph from Lyautey, who was to become Maréchal de France and whose remains now repose with Napoleon's at the Invalides, Montherlant inscribes the benevolent military paternalism with which his own fictional lieutenant wrestles. Yet Lieutenant Auligny, indulging in exploitive relationships with young Moroccans, ultimately fails to recognize his own complicity with the mission civilisatrice, even as he rejects its alibis. Symmetrically, argues Hughes, Auligny himself becomes the sacrificial victim, his autonomy denied, of France as pathological, devouring matriarch.
Camus, who considered himself a French Algerian, particularly contests colonial borders and identities as he exposes France's neglected colonial responsibilities in 1939, yet subsequently remains silent on French atrocities during the Algerian war. The lyric refusal of history in the early Noces persists in the isolationism of Le minotaure, despite Camus's references, as he worked on the essay in 1941, to European cataclysm. In the short story "Le rénégat," a pathological colonial imagination finds expression in the missionary's disfigured body. Hughes works through the irony and cynicism of Clamence in La chute to argue for Camus's pose of indifference here to the Algerian war: a pose struck precisely to wither claims of Camus's own apathy in the face of Algerian suffering. And yet, a carefully distant relation to a colonizing France is suggested in Le premier homme, the autobiographical manuscript left unfinished...