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  • Figures of the World: The Naturalist Novel and Transnational Form by Christopher Laing Hill
  • Patti Luedecke (bio)
Figures of the World: The Naturalist Novel and Transnational Form, by Christopher Laing Hill. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020. Cloth, $99.95; Paper, $34.94; Ebook $34.95.

While scholars of American literary naturalism acknowledge the precedent of French naturalists, especially Émile Zola, they also differentiate American naturalists from their French forebears. Christopher Laing Hill contributes to this distancing work in his comparative literature study of naturalism, Figures of the World, by arguing that literary “genealogy does not equal servility” (xx). Hill’s study uncouples naturalism from Zola as it expands the field by suggesting that the transnational history of naturalism is one of proliferation into naturalisms in the many parts of the world that adapted it, instead of adopting it wholesale after its inception in 1860s France.

Hill’s first chapter charts the transnational “travels” of naturalism— a metaphor that Hill creates to avoid the concept of French naturalism having [End Page 257] a one-way impact or influence (13). Hill shows that naturalism as a method or a set of techniques, rather than a fixed form, lent itself to divergent ends across the planet: from anti-capitalism in the U.S. and Peru, to anti-colonialism in Korea. Hill rejects world literature criticism that would portray naturalism as radiating from a central French “‘Literary Mean Time’” with peripheral provinces lagging chronologically (15). Rather, Hill argues that what may appear to be false starts at naturalism in different parts of the world are, instead, proofs that writers retooled naturalism to suit literary conditions on the ground.

For example, Hill demonstrates how naturalism in Brazil and Argentina mixed with both romanticism and realism, suggesting that these “seemingly strange hybrids of romantic naturalism and naturalistic modernism were not temporal aberrations, . . . but a common consequence of the travel of forms” (24). There was no direct route from romantic to realist, from naturalist to modernist texts, he says (27). Hill resists such an “evolutionary teleolog[y]” of genres by constructing an image of naturalism as a geographical field (48). Hill’s image of naturalism as a field is productively capacious. It allows us to imagine naturalism as thicker where thematic and formal trends were most utilized and as thinner where the plurality of naturalisms generated outlier elements no less integral to the field, if localized. Because Hill’s transnational definition of naturalism embraces amalgams and aberrations, I believe that it has the potential to provide scholars with new insights into naturalism’s defining contradictions: its simultaneous biological determinism and social reformism, its equal interest in untamed and urban environments, its elision of political economy with both nature and the monstrously unnatural, and its juxtaposition of meticulous documentary details with outsized metaphors.

To attend to naturalism’s multifariousness, Hill advocates a method that foregrounds close reading (xv). While Hill developed this “inductive approach” (xvii) in response to the reductive methods of world literature criticism, it nonetheless mirrors Donald Pizer’s advice. Pizer urges readers of naturalism to attempt, not “to find a universal element in significantly different works but to read each work for what it expresses and then to build synthetic constructions” (Pizer 225). Hill coins three such synthetic constructions: the “body figure,” the “Nana figure,” and the “social figure” (xv). Hill’s attentive close readings trace how each of these figures was forged by Zola and formed by nineteenth-century French culture but recast by American and Japanese naturalist authors. By suggesting that these authors remolded these figures to critique their respective culture’s political [End Page 258] and literary authorities, Hill distances their works from both Zola and determinism.

Hill examines how Zola created the “body figure” as a naturalist technique by employing contemporary medical models of the nerve as a housing for both physiological and psychological processes. The nerve’s mind-body bridge created a spillover that enabled “body figures” of all kinds to represent physical, behavioral, and, ultimately, social phenomena. For example, Hill reads Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877) as a competition between bodily synecdoches, with Gervaise’s arm symbolizing her hardworking behavior, which prevails for a time...


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pp. 257-261
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