Review of “Writing Marginality in Modern French Literature: from Loti to Genet”

Mark Orme
Department of Languages and International Studies
University of Central Lancashire
Preston, England

Writing Marginality in Modern French Literature: from Loti to Genet.

By Edward J. Hughes. Cambridge University Press, 2001. vii + 209 pp.

The interdependence of the center and periphery in French cultural history is a matter fraught with ambivalence. In this welcome book, Edward Hughes sheds light on the issue by demonstrating how, in the words of the blurb, “cultural centres require the peripheral, the outlawed, and the deviant in order to define and bolster themselves.” Drawing on a range of authors from Pierre Loti to Jean Genet, Hughes analyzes the social, ethical and sexual tensions underpinning the idea of an “anxious exoticism” (8) and thereby monitors these writers’ “psychology of insecurity” in France’s journey towards decolonization.

The first of the book’s five chapters examines the concept of “‘exotic appropriation” in the work of Loti and Paul Gauguin. By means of what Hughes calls their “manipulative ethnography” (18), both of these writers exploit the otherness of Oceania to secure a prestigious exoticism. As a naval officer at the height of French colonial expansion, Loti witnessed first hand the military might of colonialism. But in works such as Aziyadé (1879), Le Mariage de Loti (1880) and Madame Chrysanthème (1887), he dissociates himself from the supposed moral authority of French colonial rule and offers idealized portraits of the Other, which, as Hughes argues, reveals an ambivalence common to the late nineteenth-century colonialist mentality. Gauguin also exposes the tensions of European cultural self-doubt and utilizes the exotic as a source of European rejuvenation. Yet, as Hughes highlights, “the self-proclaimed enemy of culture is incapable of abandoning the value systems that feed his malaise” (37). The impossibility of cultural migration is borne out by Gauguin’s paintings in which the civilized and the savage stand in stark juxtaposition.

In the second chapter, Hughes examines how Proust figures the otherness of desire according to an Orientialist exoticism whereby the Oriental city becomes the site of illicit desire. Proust’s representation of homosexuality, for example, is seen to rehabilitate a repressed sexuality while revealing the prejudices of the colonial psyche: “While the risks and spaces evoked are not narrowly colonial,” observes Hughes, “the heroic exertion overseas of political influence and power actively informs Proust’s presentation of homosexuality” (48). Proust’s exposition of perceived sexual orthodoxy and deviance gives rise to hostile manifestations of nationalism and political conservatism.

Montherlant’s anti-colonial novel La Rose de sable (written as a reaction to the 1931 centenary celebration of the French arrival in Algeria but published only in 1968) is at issue in chapter three. Despite its criticism of colonial arrogance, Hughes suggests that Montherlant’s novel fails to break free from its French imperial chains, reproducing “the cultural myopia of its day” (72). The work’s military theorizer, Lieutenant Auligny, embodies the contradictions inherent in a process of a military force masquerading as a civilizing mission, so that “for all Montherlant’s liberalizing claims […] La Rose de sable corroborates colonial culture in crucial respects” (83). Examining as much the colonial center as the cultural margins, the novel demonstrates once again the fundamental interdependence of the two.

In chapter four, Hughes turns his attention to Albert Camus, a man on the cultural margins whose “resistance to history” is examined with reference to the writer’s early lyrical essays. According to Hughes, Camus’s works bypass colonial reality in their “constructed world of ahistorical innocence” (104). After examining “Le Renégat” (1957) as a manifestation of cultural conflict in the European colonial imagination and colonial subtexts in La Chute (1956), Hughes focuses on Camus’s posthumously published autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme (1994), which the author argues “sends up a smokescreen of sentimentalism to mask the harsh realities of French colonial domination in Algeria” (132).

The final chapter, spotlighting Genet, assesses how the author of Journal du voleur(1948) and Un captif amoureux (1986) embraces alterity and questions the self/other dichotomy. Hughes poignantly recalls Genet’s support for the Palestinian cause, showing that social exclusion and marginalization from the West provide a means by which to celebrate cultural difference: “The writer expels from his body the 3,000 year-old worm of European civilization, and with it a burdensome morality. […] the drawing of France and Europe will be erased and, in the blank space of liberty, [Genet’s] experience of Palestine will be inscribed” (158). Offering “a retroactive education” (166) to the exoticists examined earlier in the book, Genet insists on placing limits on the ideal of a commodified Other, declaring the provisionality of his own identification with the dispossessed and thereby reflecting the notion of cultural elusiveness.

In sum, this book is very readable, meticulously researched and scholarly in presentation with useful notes and bibliographical apparatus. Readers interested in charting what Hughes calls “the inchoate awareness of the Other and the workings of an anxious exoticism” (170) will find this volume a solid contribution to French cultural studies and a useful addition to their personal libraries.


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