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Reviewed by:
  • Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust, and: The Hysteric's Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle
  • Patricia Tilburg
Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust. By Michael Lucey . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. 336. $84.95 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).
The Hysteric's Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle. By Rachel Mesch . Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006. Pp. 264. $69.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

In turn-of-the-century France, two figures more than any others found themselves scrutinized, cataloged, and demonized as scapegoats for the nation's mal du siècle: the hysterical woman and the homosexual. The discursive explosion surrounding these figures, fired by doctors, social philosophers, novelists, and politicians in the second half of the nineteenth century, has been rich fodder for scholars. In two skillful recent monographs, Michael Lucey and Rachel Mesch have chosen a constellation of turn-of-the-century French authors who wrote out of and against this pathologization of same-sex and female sexuality. In so doing, these avant-garde writers, unwittingly at times but with remarkable volition at others, announced the new century with a treatment of sexuality that transformed French literature and helped break apart nineteenth-century categories of sexual identity.

Lucey, chair of the Department of French at Berkeley, provides what promises to be the first in a two-volume series devoted to the history of the "queer first person in twentieth-century French literature." This first installment takes as its subject a particularly galvanizing moment in the writing about and public negotiation of same-sex relations in the first decades of the twentieth century. Lucey is most interested in the way that several French authors-Gide, Colette, and Proust-engaged in a complicated "project of imagining a first person in which to speak about" same-sex sexual identities in this period (6). This struggle to find a way of articulating same-sex identities in a novel way at the outset of the twentieth century is Lucey's field of inquiry.

Though the book's title highlights the role of Gide, Proust, and Colette in this process, Lucey's study offers much more than a rereading of these three well-studied figures and their work. Instead, he not only investigates the "position-taking" that came to characterize their literary output but also seeks to understand these positions in the context of an intimate web of writers, critics, and others in the cultural elite in France in this period. To this end, Lucey reads Gide, Proust, and Colette alongside the "works of authors of unquestionably lesser quality or lesser status who also dealt with same-sex sexualities in their work" (25). He interrogates the intersections of published works, revisions of those works for different publications, and private correspondence and conversations about those works among the authors in question. This approach allows Lucey to illuminate a network of literary and personal relationships in the early twentieth-century French [End Page 660] cultural scene that served, in his estimation, a crucial role in breaking from the late nineteenth-century pathologization of same-sex sexuality. Lucey convincingly demonstrates that Gide, Proust, and Colette, along with minor literary lights like Jean Lorrain and Catulle Mendès, were engaging in a "kind of extended conversation or debate with each other" and "contributing to a social dynamic in which manners for speaking about same-sex sexual relations . . . were evolving" (82).

One of the benefits of this approach is that Lucey is able to establish connections between the authors and contemporary iterations of same-sex sexualities not readily apparent in most literary studies and "forms of association" that have been overlooked in "more commonly evoked structures of literary affiliation" (23-24). Lucey's decision to read Colette's early writings alongside Gide and Proust, for example, breaks with both contemporaries' and later scholars' insistence on embedding Colette almost exclusively within the field of French women's writing in this period. Lucey suggests that it has "become too much of a received habit of mind to imagine that [Colette's] writing practice...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 660-664
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-31
Open Access
No
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