Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 389-390
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Thorel-Cailleteau, Sylvie. La Pertinence réaliste: Zola. Paris: Champion, 2001. Pp. 226. ISBN 2-7453-0512-3
Any attempt to summarize the author's subtle, erudite, complex, multi-tiered thesis in the short space permitted here, would fail to do it justice. This book is a major contribution to the ongoing effort of the present generation of literary scholars to rediscover Zola for itself, as one after another has before it. In particular, it is one of the latest of the numerous attempts, including those made in Zola's own lifetime, to discern the true Zola, to grasp the veritable nature of this most protean, sly, ambiguous of all great modern writers. Like numerous earlier critics, Sylvie Thorel-Cailleteau is intent on shattering maddenly stubborn old myths about him, including those of his own making. She is trying mightily, in her turn, to pin down his actual motives, his actual poetics; lay bare the true subject-matter of his fiction; illuminate his personal hermeneutics; redefine "naturalism," uncover the links between the man and his works, his realism and lyricism, form and content, era and portrayal of it.
The book is full of insights, not all of them new, but all freshly come by and formulated for the most part with a conciseness and precision that make them seem new even when they are not. For example, the overwhelming role played by synecdoche in Zola's fiction has been recognized for some time, especially in English and North American criticism. However, it is impossible not to admire the clarity and exactitude of Thorel-Cailleteau's affirmation that, for Zola, "l'œuvre ne s'entend précisément pas comme décalque du monde mais comme construction en abyme d'un espace fermé et séminal qui le condense; en d'autres termes, est ici en cause une conception de la représentation qui serait fondée sur la synecdoque. . ." (50). This reviewer was especially struck, moreover, by those passages in this excellent book that [End Page 389] shed new light on two major sorts of naturalism in Zola, what she calls "le naturalisme du désastre" and "le naturalisme utopique" (although one may wonder why, in her discussion of the former, she does not seem to be aware of certain relevant earlier studies). No critic, moreover, has better defined Zola's lyricism or, among other things, how his works must be interpreted in the light of his equation of artistic creation with procreation and of his repeated assertion that he had come in order to "vivre tout haut."
One possible weakness is the limitation of the bibliography solely to books and articles written in French. One wonders to what extent Thorel-Cailleteau has been deprived of the rich body of studies on relevant aspects of Zola by British, North American, and other non-French or Belgian scholars. She seems never to have heard of F. W. J. Hemmings, for example, or the essays assembled in Zola and the Craft of Fiction (ed. by Robert Lethbridge and Terry Keefe, Leicester, University of Leicester Press, 1990) not to mention Fernande Blaze de Bury, whose studies, published c. 1900, nevertheless foreshadow much of our contemporary Zola criticism, including, in some respects, Thorel-Cailleteau herself. The book, while well worth wrestling with, is, morever, not an easy one to read. The lack of a topical index does not help. More than one of its conclusions, furthermore, might be described as undoubtedly brilliant, yet debatable, providing excellent material for discussion in graduate seminars. I have in mind, for example, those relating to Zola's motivation, metaphysical assumptions, and philosophical and religious world view, or to the relationship between Zola and the Second Empire, not to mention the perhaps too sweeping conclusion, summarized on the back cover, "que l'entreprise de représenter des objets du monde, au xixe siècle, ne relève nullement de l'ordre de la mimesis aristotélicienne, mais de l'ordre de la deixis." I wish, moreover, that she could have probed more...