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SubStance 30.1&2 (2001) 266-271

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Book Review

L'Arbre de Cracovie:
Le mythe polonais dans la littérature française

Rosset, François. L'Arbre de Cracovie: Le mythe polonais dans la littérature française. Paris: Imago, 1996. Pp. 268. ISBN 2-911416-00-7. 140 F.

Early in Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1993 feature film Trois Couleurs: Blanc, the protagonist Karol Karol returns from France to his native Warsaw by hiding in a friend's suitcase. Barely escaping a gang of airport security thugs, Karol staggers to his brother's hair salon, which has undergone some changes since his departure. "You've got neon," he says. "This is Europe now," replies his brother.

The sequence cleverly satirizes Poland's transition from Communism to neo-capitalism, but it also responds to stereotypes of Poland that predate the Communist era. Centuries before Winston Churchill warned of an iron curtain descending upon Central Europe, writers and travelers from Western Europe felt they were entering an unfamiliar and exotic landscape when they crossed the eastern frontiers of Prussia or Austria for Poland, Hungary or Russia. In L'Arbre de Cracovie, François Rosset examines representations of Poland in French literature and culture from 1573, the year Henri de Valois became King of Poland, to 1896, when Alfred Jarry published Ubu roi. Between the rise and fall of these two kings, one historical, the other fictional, Rosset presents an impressive body of research that includes familiar figures like Voltaire, Constant and de Staël as well as lesser known writers and texts.

Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983), scholars have produced a considerable body of research analyzing representations of nations and cultures in French literature. Rosset includes a long footnote in his conclusion [End Page 266] citing a dozen recent publications that concern, for example, "le mythe anglais," "le mirage russe" or "l'image de l'Italie" in French literature and letters. A skeptical reader might wonder if Rosset is simply taking advantage of current academic tastes. In fact the existence and government of Poland were hotly debated topics in French intellectual circles of the eighteenth century, and its liberation became a cause célèbre during the nineteenth century. Between 1770 and 1794, Prussia, Russia and Austria partitioned Poland three times; the third and final time occurred in response to a national uprising led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a veteran of the American Revolution who, like Washington, Schiller and others, had received the title of French citizen from the French Legislative Assembly in 1792. Fearing an Eastern outbreak of Jacobinism, Poland's neighbors imprisoned Kosciuszko, exiled King Stanislas II to St. Petersburg, and removed Poland from the map of Europe. The British essayist Lord Acton later declared the partition "the most revolutionary act of the old absolutism," claiming that it "awakened the theory of nationality in Europe."

Uprisings in Poland against foreign domination occurred in 1831, 1848 and 1863 without success. After each, streams of Polish immigrants found their way to new homelands. And to new literatures. Some of these literary representations are particularly memorable; one thinks of Honoré de Balzac's tortured artist Wenceslaus Steinbock, or the beautiful Ellénore of Benjamin Constant's Adolphe. More often they fade from memory, like the immigrant doctor whose practice Charles Bovary inherits in Madame Bovary, or the Polish refugee who proposes marriage to Felicité in Flaubert's "Un cœur simple." Rosset has gathered 300 years of French representations of Poland to produce an informative and provocative account of a fascinating but often neglected relationship.

Rosset takes his title from an actual chestnut tree that stood in the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris during the eighteenth century. The tree was a favorite gathering place for newswriters to share local gossip and exchange foreign reports, and Rosset suggests that the tree's name, besides being a reference to Cracow, is a play on the verb craquer, "au sens de mentir, propager des racontars, de fausses nouvelles"(7). The gossips and their tree--ironically...


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