Nouvelles françaises du dix-neuvième siècle. Anthologie. Rockwood Press, Charlottesville, 2006. 487 pages. Textes établis, annotés, et présentés par Allan H. Pasco.
In an introductory essay to his anthology, Allan H. Pasco argues that even in the current era of cultural studies, genres and their definitions remain conceptually relevant for literary production and analysis.
At the very least, even loosely defining genres establishes a dominant order and allows for transgression and innovation. Without established norms in a genre Godard and Sollers, for example, could not have accomplished what they did since their artistic creations work to undermine the conventions of their art. “Nier l’existence d’un genre comme le roman revient à enlever à un Sollers l’opportunité d’attaquer la société bougeoise en minant l’une de ses catégories conceptuelles” (5).
But more importantly, generic definitions inflect a reader’s understanding or misunderstanding of a work. Reading fiction as non-fiction, for example, or prose as poetry will fundamentally alter the reader’s experience and subsequent interpretation of a text.
Pasco, therefore, offers the following working definition of the nouvelle, a definition designed to distinguish the nouvelle from other genres and provide a point of orientation for the genre’s readers: “Une nouvelle est une courte fiction littéraire écrite en prose” (6). From there Pasco examines each assertion of his definition, detailing their value and exposing their limits. At what point does fiction become journalism or history and when does a récit become artistic enough to be considered a nouvelle? What are the limits between poetry and fiction, when does rhythm supersede narration? And what constitutes short? Is it a certain number of words, a work that can be read in one sitting (Poe), or, more generally, a sense of unity in the nouvelle’s narration? In the end, Pasco is not interested in serving up the ultimate definition of the nouvelle. Rather, he wants his readers to be able to understand the debate, to think about what a genre is, what its limits are and how its definition (explicit or intuited) frames their reading experience. “Plus le lecteur dispose d’une connaissance étendue en matière de distinction des genres, plus il a de chances de mettre en œuvre un décryptage subtil du sens et des procédés” (18).
Thanks in part to the demand for fiction in the growing newspaper industry, the nineteenth-century, Pasco argues, is the century during which the nouvelle reached maturity. Judging by the works in this volume, he is certainly correct.
Perhaps the most lasting contribution of any anthology, for good or evil, lies in the choice of texts. Those left out risk marginalization, those included are often reexamined or rediscovered, as the case may be. Pasco does an admirable job in this department. He includes the obligatory, established masterpieces of the genre: “René,” “Carmen,” “Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu,” “Un Coeur simple,” and “Le Horla.” In addition, he adds less studied works of canonical authors: Stendhal’s “Vanina Vanini,” Sand’s “Mouny-Robin,” and Zola’s “Madame Sourdis.” But authors less frequently read are also represented: Schwob, Denon, Rachilde, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly. Women authors are also well represented. In addition to Sand and Rachilde, Pasco includes works by Desbordes-Valmore and Germaine de Staël.
The works of each author are preceded by both a brief biographical sketch and a selected bibliography that includes editions, biographies and studies that relate to the story or stories that follow. The biographical sketches serve to contexualize the works that follow and really should be read as the short works of analysis that they are. This anthology is particularly well suited for use as a text book in a senior seminar or graduate course focusing on the nouvelle. But Pasco’s anthology is also worthy of a broader public (academic or not) in that it includes many hard to find texts as well as excellent explanatory footnotes. The introductory essay, too, warrants attention from any scholar studying the evolution of criticism regarding the short story as a genre since it offers a good summary of what has come before and provides a well-reasoned argument of what a nouvelle is and why knowing it is important.
The anthology contains the following nouvelles:
Germaine de Staël: “Mirza”
Vivant Denon: “Point de lendemain”
Honoré de Balzac: “L’Auberge rouge,” “Le Colonel Chabert,” “Le Chef-d’œvre inconnu”
George Sand: “Mouny-Robin”
Stendhal: “Vanina Vanini”
Prosper Mérimée: “Carmen,” “Mateo Falcone,” “La Vénus d’Ille”
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore: “L’Inconnue”
Gustave Flaubert: “Un Cœur simple”
Victor Hugo: “Claude Gueux”
Guy de Maupassant: “Pierrot,” “Le Parapluie,” “La Folle,” “Le Horla”
Emile Zola: “Madame Sourdis”
Joris-Karl Huysmans: A vau l’eau
Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly
Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam: “L’Enjeu,” “La Torture par l’espérance”
Rachilde: “La Dent,” “La Panthère”
Marcel Schwob: “Le Roi au masque d’or”