Thomson on Barjonet and Macke, eds. (2018)

Barjonet, Aurélie, and Jean-Sébastien Macke, editors. Lire Zola au XXIe siècle: colloque de Cerisy. Classiques Garnier, 2018, pp. 470, ISBN 978-2-406-07959-0

This well-edited and substantial volume contains the proceedings of the conference on Émile Zola that took place at Cerisy-la-Salle in 2016. Thirty-two speakers (established and early-career scholars, graduate students, creative writers, and descendants of Zola and Alfred Dreyfus) made presentations during the week-long conference. The editors Aurélie Barjonet and Jean-Sébastien Macke write that their “colloque faisait suite à un premier colloque de Cerisy, organisé en juillet 1976, sur le naturalisme” (13). The volume is divided into four parts, the first three have to do with issues relating to biographical matters and the reception of Zola’s oeuvre. The fourth and largest part comprises fourteen interpretive studies of Zola. The title of the collection thus plays on the double meaning of “reading” (reception and interpretation). The editors explain that their objective was to look at the past, take stock of the present, and imagine future directions for the field of Zola studies. Those who want to know the main trends in this field would do well to consult this volume, in which the scholarly quality of the papers is uniformly high.

The first section of the volume (“Mémoire”) contains two articles and an interview: Alain Pagès’s description of the 1976 Cerisy colloquium, which he attended (the present reviewer also attended the 1976 and 2016 colloquia); a historical analysis by Marion Glaumaud-Carbonnier of the annual “pèlerinages” to Médan since 1903; the interview is with the descendants of Zola and Alfred DreyfusBrigitte Émile-Zola, Martine Le Blond-Zola, Charles Dreyfusand focuses on how they experience their responsibilities regarding family traditions of encouraging respect for their forebears’ achievements. The second section of the proceedings (“Présence I”) includes six papers: Zola’s relative popularity as indicated by statistics on the print runs of his books (Jean-Yves Mollier); the ways in which newspapers, school textbooks, and social media have represented the writer in recent years (Adeline Wrona, Jean-Michael Pottier, and Elizabeth Emery); the reception of Zola’s works in Germany and Austria (Karl Ziegler); the projects undertaken by the Archiz research group at the Zola Center in Paris, with reference to challenges created by new digital humanities technologies (Olivier Lumbroso). The third section of the volume (“Présences II”) contains two articles and two interviews: Michel Houellebecq’s fictional writings are examined as a way of raising questions about Zola’s conflicted utopian vision in Les Quatre Évangiles (Stephan Leopold); two of Bruno Dumont’s films (La Débâcle and Flandres) and Zola’s La Débâcle are shown to represent the relationship between characters and landscape in innovative ways (Anna Gural-Migdal); in their interviews, contemporary writers Thierry Beinstingel, Fabrice Humbert, and Dominique Manotti answer questions on Zola’s approach to novelistic writing, and their own objectives.

Before I review the fourth section of Cerisy 2016, it is worth pointing out that the kind of valuable research on reception that I have mentioned so far was not represented at the 1976 colloquium. This is just one way in which the two were quite different, especially given the broader objectives of the 2016 event. Alain Pagès put it this way: “… les années 1970 rêvaient à des théories absolues, capables de bouleverser toutes les idées reçues… Trois courants dominaient la recherche littéraire: la critique sociologique, fondée sur la pensée marxiste; la critique thématique, d’orientation psychanalytique; et la critique narratologique…” (26). Aurélie Barjonet and Jean-Sébastien Macke claim in their introduction that the “regard plus ouvert et sensible à la complexité de l’homme” of the presenters at the 2016 colloquium “permet aussi de proposer de nouveaux rapports entre ‘l’homme et l’œuvre’” (20). I think that the 1976 speakers would object to this view, and would be disappointed that the psychoanalytic approach is virtually absent in the 2016 papers. They might also be surprised at how infrequently their scholarship is mentioned in the 2016 volume, since almost all of them went on to make significant contributions to nineteenth-century French Studies. Colette Becker, Philippe Hamon, and Naomi Schor spoke at Cerisy 1976 and are exceptions to this “rule.” Their scholarship was appreciatively mentioned multiple times at the 2016 meeting and has definitely stood the test of time.

Despite the differences, I believe that it is possible to see a number of continuities between the two proceedings volumes. The 1976 participants would approve of most of the studies in the fourth section of the 2016 volume. Some speakers at the 1976 colloquium were severely criticized when they did not elaborate explicitly on the “champ théorique et méthodologique” within which they carried out their analyses. With very few exceptions, the textual interpreters in 2016 explain their key critical concepts and associate their work with a particular theoretical framework. Several papers are impressive in this regard, notably those by Émile Piton-Foucault (a study of several characters from the Rougon-Macquart who represent “l’impossible élucidation, l’aveugelement ou l’intransivité,” 233), Thomas Conrad (the way in which the length of chapters regulates our reading of Zola’s novels), Marie Scarpa (an ethnocritical study of La Fortune des Rougon which places this novel under the sign of “un conflit de cosmologies,” 330), Éléonore Reverzy (the representation of the cemetery in the Rougon-Macquart as a “lieu de transgression,” 341). The following speakers take care to explain their methodological approach: Sébastien Roldan (Zola’s fascination and “puissante affection” for the river Seine, 349), Michaël Rosenfeld (Zola’s subtle lexical manipulations in his representation of sexuality so that he avoids trouble with official censorship), Céline Grenaud-Tostain (Zola’s novels as an allegory of “détraquement”, “souffrance” and “une humanité en déroute,” 391), Chantal Pierre (Zola’s particular manner of staging “les protocols et de l’empathie et de la désempathie,” 444). All of these papers are fine examples of an interdisciplinary approach to textual analysis, another quality that they share with the papers given at the 1976 conference. We conclude, therefore, that it is not quite true to see Cerisy I and Cerisy II as “two solitudes.” Rather, my sense is that the spirit of innovation and creativity at Cerisy I was very much alive and kicking at Cerisy II.

Clive Thomson
University of Guelph