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  • Aesthetics, Values and Autobiography in the Works of Willa Cather and Marguerite Duras by Erna Cooper
  • Lisa Downing
Aesthetics, Values and Autobiography in the Works of Willa Cather and Marguerite Duras. By Erna Cooper. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2018. xiv + 290 pp.

This fascinating and comprehensive study juxtaposes and compares the autobiographical aspects of the creative output of two apparently very different women: American Methodist writer Willa Cather and existentialist, atheist, ‘borderline anarchist’ (p. 2) French author and filmmaker Marguerite Duras. By focusing on their shared interest in, and attention paid to, the lives of women, children, and the marginalized, Erna Cooper convincingly draws out unsung resonances between the values and aesthetic concerns of these figures as expressed in their bodies of work. The book is structured as a series of thematic and partially chronological parallels between the writers. Chapter 1 examines childhood and maternal affect; Chapter 2 turns to questions of loss, exile, and home as the writers mature. In Chapter 3, Cooper undertakes a particularly original and powerful look at questions of the pecuniary and its gendering. Chapter 4 undertakes a study of how the process of creating autobiography and autofiction engages desire and wish-fulfilment for the two authors, while Chapter 5 looks at female creative authority and turns the lens from the literary to the filmic mode. One of Cooper’s principal methodological concerns, as well as the partial object of her study, is how psychoanalysis and its mechanisms (especially the concepts of ‘splitting’ and ‘mirroring’ from object relations theory) work through and speak about both the lived experiences of women and the narrative strategies of women’s writing. She brings psychoanalytic insights to bear with particular perspicacity on the former when she writes of the authors’ attitudes and affect towards the maternal in Chapter 1 and towards money, female success, and poverty in Chapter 3, and on the latter when examining the complex, multivalent nature of writing the self in Chapter 4. The framing metaphor of the book is, fittingly, chiaroscuro — light and shade — as Cooper unflinchingly examines the inextricable link between suffering, loss, desire, and joy in women’s lives and works, from the pain of maternal ambivalence to the shame of poverty and the poignancy of professional success. This book contributes to a sparse corpus of work, perhaps most notably represented by Julia Kristeva’s ‘Triptych’ of works on female genius, which considers women writers unapologetically as creators, as selves, as exceptional individuals and which asks questions about the conditions of possibility of female genius in a patriarchy. In this vein, Cooper writes in her Conclusion: ‘solitude [ . . .] offers the woman writer an opportunity to experience the most consistent and fulfilling relationship of all. That is the relationship with the writing art, which became, for these two women, the only constant source of life — the only evidence of “God”’ (pp. 258–59). Insights such as these are seldom-expressed truths that defy commonplace assumptions that the nature of woman is to find satisfaction in family life and in the everyday. In short, this is a beautiful, creative critical study that deserves to [End Page 646] become a major reference work for scholars and students of French, English, and comparative literature, and for those interested in women’s writing.

Lisa Downing
University of Birmingham


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