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  • The Art of Survival: France and the Great War Picaresque by Libby Murphy
  • Cecilia Benaglia (bio)
Libby Murphy. The Art of Survival: France and the Great War Picaresque. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 304 pages.

Many accounts of life in the trenches during World War I written by French combatants share a certain air de famille, which is due not only to the similar conditions and objective situations they narrate, but also to the type of humanity these texts describe. Libby Murphy' The Art of Survival: France and the Great War Picaresque proposes to read the common traits shared by numerous World War I fictional books, and in general by cultural artifacts from this period, through the notion of the picaresque. In her book, Murphy approaches the picaresque not as a historically bound genre in which modern writers would inscribe their work, but rather as an "ethos," or as a "way of life" that she describes in the following terms: "(one) based on self-preservation through resourceful improvisation, making do, and accepting conditions as they are, rather than trying to change them" (2). If this mood was so common in the literature and the culture of the Great War, it is because it offered writers, journalists and common civilians an alternative narrative path to the traditional language of heroism. In Murphy's own terms, the picaresque provides them "an alternative imaginative framework to tragedy and victimization—a framework for surviving conditions as they are" (3). In all the novels that represent this "way of life," we encounter modern incarnations of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish picaro; despite inevitable variations, these figures maintain something in common: an acceptance of the world as it is, a pragmatic attitude aiming at surviving amidst disastrous situations and an immunity in the face of violence and abuse.

The book is divided into eight chapters; each of them deals with a specific aspect of the war picaresque. Along with detailed analysis of novels belonging to the "canon" of First World War literature, from Voyage au bout de la nuit by Louis-Ferdinand Céline to Les Croix de bois by Roland Dorgelès, Murphy proposes fascinating readings based on a large variety of historical and cultural documents. In the chapter entitled "Tactics of the Foot Soldier. The Arts and Antics of Système D," the author analyses la débrouille, namely the capability of "getting out of trouble, making do, cultivating the art of expedients, living by one's wits" (44-45). By shifting attention from the moment of extreme combat violence to episodes of rest and of everyday life of the soldiers, Murphy adopts Michel de Certeau's notion of tactic to read the Système D, a mindset [End Page 1118] and a slogan that became popular and widespread in France to the point of being "elevated to the status of national mantra" (11).

Murphy's goal is to use the notion of the picaresque to reread in an original and coherent perspective a large body of diversified cultural productions. Even more interestingly, she also approaches the picaresque as a notion that can contribute to a major historiographical debate around people's participation in the Great War. Indeed, historians are still grappling with a challenging question: how and why did millions of people agree to fight for such a long period of time and in such terrible conditions? A first position, known as the paradigm of consent and shared by historians working at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, supports the vision according to which French soldiers had a deep commitment to the war and felt a strong identification with the Republic. A second vision, common among historians of the Collectif de Recherche International et de Débat sur la guerre de 1914–1918, argues that soldiers kept fighting because they were victims of coercion. According to Murphy, the picaresque mediates between these two positions making it possible to keep together aspects that seem in contradiction with each other, and thus to embrace the complexity of the situations French society was going through. Neither powerless victims nor martyrs, soldiers imagined and represented themselves as picaresque survivors whose...


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