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  • Broken Glass, Broken World: Glass in French Culture in the Aftermath of 1870 by Hannah Scott
  • Robert Lethbridge
Broken Glass, Broken World: Glass in French Culture in the Aftermath of 1870. By Hannah Scott. (Research Monographs in French Studies, 46.) Cambridge: Legenda, 2016. xi + 151 pp., ill.

This book is an outstanding contribution to an increasingly important field of study: the activating relationship between material culture and literary texts. Substantial and innovative chapters are devoted to Zola, Maupassant, and Huysmans, prefaced by a richly informative account of the proliferation of glass objects and structures, from the monumental to the miniscule, in nineteenth-century France. Hannah Scott's more particular focus is the année terrible, experienced by contemporaries as a shaking and shattering of windows so resonant as to endow broken glass of every kind with a symbolic association informing the writing of the post-1870 generation. It is argued that, until about 1890 and the revalidation subsequently exemplified by the practitioners of Art nouveau, the negative or ambivalent connotations of glass haunt the collective memory. What is called here 'Flaws in the Visual' (p. 58) has recently been explored at length in Émilie Piton-Foucault's Zola ou la fenêtre condamnée (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015; see FS, 71 (2017), 120–22). In the critical perspective adopted by Scott, however, the window is less a traditional metaphor vitiated by optical blurring than the literal site, as in Gustave Caillebotte's pictures, of the 'disconcerting permeability of bourgeois space' (p. 16). Ranging from topographical markers to the bottles hurled by the pétroleuses or fuel-ling the alcohol-deranged Communards of the popular imagination, the oblique allusions to the Franco-Prussian War and its revolutionary epilogue are, at least in Zola and Huysmans, ubiquitous. In Au bonheur des dames, even the 'emphatic contrast' (p. 54) between the darkened windows of Baudu's vieux commerce, juxtaposed to the vitreous purity of the new department store, evokes a traumatic past. As does the 'looting' of the latter's commodities by invading shoppers. Whether Zola's 'lexical choices' (p. 68), in his recourse to a sublimated 'débâcle', are as telling is less certain. In the preparatory notes for La Curée, dating from 1869, he uses the same term (capitalized and underlined, no less) in relation to his protagonist's fortunes: 'Plus tard la DÉBÂCLE aura lieu'. It would have been interesting to scrutinize that novel, in which glass is also notoriously prevalent, through the analytical grid so acutely brought to bear on others such as Le Ventre de Paris, given that La Curée, with the exception of its opening chapter, was written in the months immediately after the Commune. But if that is to stress the suggestive avenues opened up by Scott's attention to textual detail, it is also to misrepresent the thrust of her intellectually sophisticated but engagingly written book. For her real concern is the ways in which a variety of mirroring surfaces articulate different fictional responses to the events of 1870–71: putative reconciliation in Zola; alienation in Maupassant's short stories, extending an 'aesthetic of anxiety' (p. 81) to the narrative techniques aggravating the reader's [End Page 456] own sense of insecurity; and the reconfiguration of literary modernity in Huysmans's À rebours. The chapter devoted to the latter is both brilliant and wholly original, grounded in Des Esseintes's conservatory conjuring 'an immense body of intertextual glass imagery'(p. 115). What these complex responses have broadly in common is the problematizing of national, class, cultural, and gender identities. Whether this can be tracked back exclusively to the année terrible, as opposed to the myriad dislocations in France since 1789, is another question.

Robert Lethbridge
Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge


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