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  • Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures
  • David Damrosch (bio)
Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures. By Mads Rosendahl Thomsen. London: Continuum, 2008. 172 pp. Paper $39.95.

"The mappamund has been changing pattern," a speaker declares in Finnegans Wake, "since time and races were." Nowhere have the changing times required more extensive redrawing of maps than in world literature [End Page 396] studies, as scholars seek ways to chart the exponentially larger literary field now under consideration. Mads Rosendahl Thomsen's Mapping World Literature is an important contribution to our process of remapping. In four elegant, economical chapters, Thomsen synthesizes leading theories of the struggle for international recognition and the processes of global canonization, and he proposes a suggestive model of his own for grouping works into coherent "constellations" for reading, teaching, and analysis.

In a first chapter, "World Literature: History, Concept, Paradigm," Thomsen surveys conceptions of world literature from Goethe to the present, giving judicious appraisals of the strengths and limitations of a range of theories. In triangulating among the conceptions he discusses, Thomsen seeks to draw out a dynamic understanding of the process of canonization by which works come to be considered part of world literature. In Thomsen's view, we need models that allow both for individual genius and for systemic effects such as center-periphery relations, imbalances of national prestige, and the gradual, delocalized process by which works may gain canonical status over time. He emphasizes as well that the literary field is temporally divided into the established, slowly changing canon of older literatures and the shifting, uncertain field of contemporary world literature.

Thomsen develops his distinctive approach in his second chapter, "Shifting Focal Points in the International Canons," in which he argues for a more nuanced understanding of canonicity in its spatial and temporal variety. Temporary "subcenters" of canonical force can develop in a given nation or region for a limited period of time, as with the sudden prominence of the Russian novel in the age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky or, to look across genres, the Weimar of Goethe and Schiller. Thomsen proposes that such subcenters greatly enrich the limited picture offered by an exclusive focus on major literary centers such as Paris or New York. He contrasts the mutual reinforcement of writers within subcenters to the situation of "lonely canonicals"—individual writers such as Kierkegaard and Borges who achieve prominence in the absence of any broader national prominence in the world market, showing the need to find new categories to supplement those of the nation and the international system as a whole. This is suggestive, though at times Thomsen draws his canonical lines rather restrictively; Julio Cortázar's many foreign admirers may be surprised to learn that Borges is "the only Argentine writer to have gained a lasting prominent position in world literature" (45). Thomsen makes good use of Borges's important essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition," yet doesn't pause to consider the extent to which, in ironically disengaging himself from direct representation of his peripheral homeland, Borges may be creating [End Page 397] a literary space for himself against other Argentine rivals to national and international fame alike.

In his third and fourth chapters, Thomsen examines two categories of writing in a newly transnational mode: the literature of migrant writers and the literature of Holocaust survivors. Thomsen discusses migrant writers in terms of Homi Bhabha's hybridity and the sociological theories of Pierre Bourdieu and Ulrich Beck; he compares "cosmopolitan regionalism" and formal innovation in migrant writers from Joyce and Eliot to Milan Kundera, Gao Xingjian, and Michel Houellebecq. Thomsen's analyses fruitfully combine consideration of national cultures, systemic features, and individual aesthetic strategies in accounting for the success of the migrant writers he examines. If migrancy involves an entry into a new national space, Holocaust literature takes migrant internationalism a step further. Members of a highly self-aware international diaspora, Holocaust writers often are not writing from a national perspective or even that of a bicultural hybridity. Their readers, in turn, may read Holocaust literature together with works on other times and places, such as Armenia in 1915. Such writing constitutes a distinctive...


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