Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 452-456
[Access article in PDF]
Bernard Shaw and the French. By Michel W. Pharand. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000. xviii + 412 pp. $55.
Considering that basic principle of alliances—"The enemy of my enemy is my friend"—one would expect France to embrace Bernard Shaw for his life-long service as England's gadfly, particularly after he wrote a Nobel prize-winning play lionizing France's patron saint and another featuring its greatest general, "the man of destiny," Napoleon Bonaparte. Shaw also deserved Gallic gratitude for championing French artists, writers, and philosophers, [End Page 452] including Auguste Rodin, Emile Zola, Eugene Brieux, and Henri Bergson. However, as Michel W. Pharand demonstrates in his excellent study of Shaw's relationship with the French, that relationship was troubled by misunderstandings and doomed by irreconcilable differences.
In the wide range of literature Pharand examines, there is no mistaking the deep current of mutual distrust, irritation, and even hostility that prevented Shaw's genius from being fully appreciated in France, and Pharand analyzes the reasons for that Gallic resistance, even as he also demonstrates how deeply Shaw was influenced by French culture and how Shaw, in turn, influenced some important French writers who came after him, including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jean Giraudoux, Jean Anouilh, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In this book, Pharand significantly expands the inquiry begun by Mina Moore's Bernard Shaw et la France (1933), the only other extended study of Shaw's connections to France, which remains untranslated.
Pharand covers a wide range of topics, which attests to his impressive versatility as a scholar. Furthermore, as a bilingual French-Canadian, Pharand is able to offer an in-depth analysis of one subject that would be of particular interest to comparative literature scholars: Shaw's trouble with his French (mis)translators, Augustin and Henriette Hamon, whom Shaw chose more for their political ideas than for their expertise in translation or their understanding of theater. It was a disastrous choice which seriously impeded French acceptance of Shaw's plays. Pharand explains the difficulty with a precision that is one of the books strengths:
Hamon was bound to fail, considering the obstacles posed by Shaw's mastery of English. He used slang, aphorisms, idioms, allusions; his characters spoke satirically or ironically, using words with multiple meanings; key words and phrases were repeated in different places verbatim or with a significant variation. After a career as a critic of art, music, and drama, Shaw's style was supple, voluble, lucid—and his vocabulary was enormous. It was easy for the Hamons to misunderstand and misrepresent his ideas and intentions: 'stone dead' became 'morte comme une pierre'; 'pulled the house about our ears' became 'tiré les oreilles à toute la maison' instead of "nous a entrainé dans la ruine' [dragged us into ruin]. (108)
Pharand also shows how Shaw himself, in translating works by the French pacifist Romain Rolland, made some errors significant enough to change the meaning of the work. [End Page 453]
Other subjects covered include Shaw's early reviews of French paintings and the influence of French art on Shaw's plays, and Shaw's criticism of music by major French figures, such as Georges Bizet and Hector Berlioz, as well as lesser artists such as Charles Gounod and Jacques Offenbach. There is also an interesting survey of Shaw's criticism of French theater, which consisted of repeated attacks on the ideal of the "well-made play" advocated by Eugène Scribe and the overly histrionic acting of the wildly popular Sarah Bernhardt, as well as support for the more philosophical, didactic plays of Alexandre Dumas, fils, and Eugène Brieux.
Other sections are devoted to discussion of the writing, staging, and reception of Shaw's St. Joan; Shaw's treatment of Napoleon; Shaw's relationship with French pacifist Romain Rolland and the sculptor Rodin; the French roots of Shaw's idea of the Life Force in the works of Henri Bergson and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck; the influence of Voltaire on Shaw's theology, and Shaw's relationship with French...