Nettleton on Reverzy and Ducrey, eds. (2009)


Reverzy, Éléonore, and Guy Ducrey, eds. L'Europe en automobile: Octave Mirbeau, écrivain voyageur. Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2009. Pp. 320. ISBN: 978-2-86820-382-3

Claire Nettleton, Scripps College

L'Europe en Automobile: Octave Mirbeau: écrivain voyageur (ed. Éléonore Reverzy and Guy Ducrey) is an extensive collection of critical essays on Mirbeau's La 628-E8 (1907), a revolutionary work that initiated the genre of automobile fiction. La 628-E8 traces the narrator's trip across Europe in one of the early automobiles, where he travels "à travers un peu de la France, de la Belgique, de la Hollande, de l'Allemagne, et surtout, à travers un peu de moi-même" (Mirbeau qtd. on pg. 6). L'Europe en Automobile begins by articulating the difficulty of categorizing such a revolutionary and fragmented "novel," which is also, in part, a travel journal, a cultural commentary and an ode to speed and movement. This collection examines multiple ways in which La 628-E8 expresses liberation from cultural dogma and stagnant conventions.

L'Europe en Automobile contains Reverzy and Ducrey's introduction and twenty-five short essays by various scholars, organized into five sections: I. Poétique du récit de voyage, II. Esthétique du voyage, III. Mirbeau, la voiture et les arts, IV. Confrontations et réceptions, and V. Discours critique et politique.  However, these categorizations are by no means rigid. L'Europe en Automobile mimics La 628-E8's patchwork structure, zigzagging between topics such as the arts (literary, visual, musical and cinematic), the rejection of xenophobia and postcolonial prejudices and the intersection between technological and creative breakthroughs. The majority of essays also mention Mirbeau's scandalous account of Balzac's death, an iconoclastic description that perhaps symbolically marks the end of nineteenth-century literature and the beginning of the twentieth.

The first section, "Poétique du récit de voyage," begins with Gérard Cogez's "La 628-E8: digressions critiques et dérapages contrôlés." Cogez argues that Mirbeau's novel calculatedly skids off the path of conventional colonialist discourse and takes a courageous stance against colonialism, anti-Semitism and nationalism. Similarly, in "La 628-E8: Poétique de l'analogie," a compelling and well-organized essay, Reverzy discusses the use of analogy in historical or travel narratives as a useful tool to understanding that which is unknown or foreign. In contrast, Mirbeau's novel, or rather collection of impressions, often turns this convention on its head. The speed of the car blurs nationalistic boundaries and dematerializes objects, often rendering comparisons between two individuals or cultures difficult. Furthermore, as the narrator drives away from France, the nation loses its status as a fixed reference point and center of cultural identity. In a similar spirit as Montaigne's "Des Cannibales," Mirbeau debunks the stereotype that Germans are barbaric compared to the supposedly civilized manners of the French.

Part two, "Esthétique du voyage," primarily consists of Mirbeau's impressions of Holland and Belgium. According to Lola Burmúdez, Mirbeau admires the beauty of the Dutch countryside as well as the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. As Gwenhaël Ponnu notes, in contrast to Baudelaire's scathing parody of Belgium, Mirbeau reveres the country's profound soul. While enchanted by the two countries, the author also observes scenes of cruelty and exploitation. The last two essays of this section highlight issues of political and social justice perhaps even more than aesthetics.  In "Voyages en Europe, Impressions de l'Afrique," Ducrey focuses on the presence of Africa in the novel, often found in major European ports, in contrast to contemporary exotic literature. Ducrey argues that these traces of Africa reveal not only the cruelty of European colonialism but also the universal barbarianism practiced by all human beings. Noëlle Benhamou's essay, "La 628-E8 sur les chemins de la prostitution européenne: de l'étape au tapin," illustrates the connection between automobiles and prostitution, as cars provided a sheltered place for illicit sexual activities.  Prostitution is a metaphor for commercial exploitation in modern society.

In contrast to these seedier aspects of progress and technology, Emmanuel Polluad-Dulian focuses on the fantasy of a free-spirited, vagabond lifestyle that Charron cars tried to represent. The first essay of the third section, "Mirbeau, la voiture et les arts," "Gus Bofa et la publicité Charron Limited" contains three delightful Charron advertisements illustrated by Gus Bofa, which surprisingly feature a hobo in rags hoping to catch a ride in a Charron car. The profound sense of newfound freedom and movement that automobiles evoked ccc can be linked to the avant-garde arts. Drawing on historical detail and close readings of the novel, the essays in this section convincingly compare La 628-E8's aesthetic to various genres of visual art.

The rapid movement of the car dismantles ordinary perception and creates a new fragmented vision, reminiscent of that of Impressionist or Expressionist paintings and even cinema. In "Fragments d'une amitié: Octave Mirbeau, Claude Monet et Théodore Robinson" Aleksandra Gruzinska explores the relationship between the author and these two Impressionists. Yannick Lemarié draws the connection between automobiles and cinema, arguing that the vision of the writer/travel is similar to that of a cinematographer/voyeur. The new technologies of both car and camera enable travel through time and space at extraordinary speeds. Mirbeau's literary aesthetic, characterized by narrative digressions and time jumps, could be compared to cinematic devices such as montages and flashbacks.

The fifth section, "Discours critique et politique," features an essay by Reg Carr on the influence of Herbert Spencer, a Darwinist and laissez-faire economist, on Mirbeau. Although not directly related to La 628-E8, the essay provides useful background information regarding the biological and economic foundations for the author's strong belief in freedom from political tyranny. The book concludes with Robert Ziegler's "Le personage de Weil-Sée dans La 628-E8" (translated by Pierre Michel). Ziegler argues that in contrast to the character Weil-Sée, a mathematician and metaphysician who speaks in abstractions, Mirbeau's observations about the dissolution of matter are grounded in physical, biological realities and lived experience. 

Just as La 628-E8 traverses multiple aspects of human consciousness and culture, L'Europe en Automobile e  en enriches scholarship of varying disciplines ranging from travel narratives, autobiographical fiction, colonialism, comparative European cultural studies, technology and perhaps most profoundly, the avant-garde arts.