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  • Incipit:The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries (Mis)Reading the Nineteenth
  • Gerald Prince and Debarati Sanyal

For the next installment of this dialogic series, the journal asked Gerald Prince (University of Pennsylvania) and Debarati Sanyal (University of California at Berkeley) to reflect on in what ways the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (mis)read the nineteenth. They composed their initial essays without knowing who their interlocutor would be or what would be the content of the other person's essay; the ensuing exchange took place in the order presented below.

The continuity between nineteenth and twentieth-century literature is undeniable and it is not easy to determine which of the centuries writers like Rachilde and texts like Ludine belong to. The break between the two centuries is undeniable and it is not difficult to situate temporally Daniel Rochat and Le Cœur à gaz or Paul Féval and Pierre Guyotat. This essay argues that these opposite accounts may well be equally valid and even consistent. They do not necessarily arise from ignorance or misconstruals but from differences in the kind of nineteenth and twentieth century considered, the texts in these centuries taken into account, and the contexts in terms of which these texts are explored. (GP)

The notion of a "misreading" between the nineteenth and twentieth century in French literary studies opens a differential temporality, where past, present and future might be seen to emerge in relations of mutual modification. Starting from an account of teaching L'Éducation sentimentale "today," I reflect on Flaubert's description of 1848 and its ongoing pertinence for how bodies are materialized and which lives matter. (DS) [End Page 199]

On (Mis)reading the Nineteenth Century (and the Twentieth)
Gerald Prince

The nineteenth century keeps getting longer. At least the French literary nineteenth century. Fifty or seventy years ago, it often started in 1800 or 1801 and ended with 1899 or 1900.1 Fortuitously, Mme de Staël published De la littérature in 1800 and Chateaubriand's Atala appeared in 1801. Less fortuitously, perhaps, 1899 is the year of Jean Moréas's Stances and Paul Bourget's Trois petites filles (but also that of Gide's Le Prométhée mal enchaîné) and 1900 is the year of Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon, Albert Samain's Le Chariot d'or, and Pierre Loti's La Mort de Philae (but also that of Jules Renard's Poil de carotte and Rachilde's La Jongleuse). In those ancient times, the century occasionally began in 1815 and ended around 1890, with the Centennial Exposition Universelle and the Eiffel Tower, the Mayerling incident, the Boulanger suicide, and Jules Huret's Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire. More recently, its date of birth is often given as 1789 and its death comes in 1913 (the annus mirabilis of Alcools, La Prose du Transsibérien, Le Grand Meaulnes as well as that of Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues) or in 1914, 1917, 1918, 1919 (the very long nineteenth century, ending with the Treaty of Versailles and Proust's Goncourt prize).2 The obscurity surrounding the century's end is compounded by the fact that many literary representatives of that end—Bourget, Barrès, Rachilde, Gustave Kahn—lived and wrote well into the twentieth century. Rachilde, for instance, published dozens of books after 1919—Le Grand Saigneur, Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe, Les Voluptés imprévues— and died in 1953. Moreover, several illustrious literary figures of the first half of that century—Gide, Proust, Claudel, Valéry—were born around 1870 and started publishing before 1900. In fact, judging by papers delivered at nineteenthcentury conferences (and perhaps in part because of an ever-increasing need for "new" material), Proust, for one, has become a nineteenth-century author.3

In any case, the continuities and similarities between nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary texts are considerable and it is not easy to determine these texts' temporal provenance through blind testing. I have even devised a game about it.4 The two centuries constitute a modernity in which the very [End Page 200] notion of literature gradually takes on its present acceptation and in which...


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