Evans on Banville, eds. Edwards and Hambly (2003)

Banville, Théodore de. Critique littéraire, artistique et musicale choisie. Vols I & II. Ed. Peter J. Edwards and Peter S. Hambly. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003. Pp xxx + 490 and 524. ISBN 2-7453-0783-5

As the editors observe in their introduction, “La carrière journalistique de Théodore de Banville se confond en grande partie avec sa vie artistique” (vii), and so, following the welcome publication of Banville’s complete poetic works in a superbly documented and annotated eight-volume critical edition (1994–2001), this double volume offers “un choix assez restraint” (xxvi) from Banville’s journalistic career spanning thirty-five years, from 1846 to 1881. Alongside contributions to journals of some renown such as the Revue françaiseRevue européenneLe Figaro, and L’Artiste, Banville wrote for a wide variety of publications including L’ÉchoLe TintamarreLe ConstitutionnelLe BoulevardLe NationalGil Blas and La Presse. The articles are grouped according to the genre of the works discussed, the first volume containing Banville’s poetry, fine arts and music criticism, the second his writing on novels, prose writers, theatre and a selection of letter-prefaces to works as diverse as Louis Lucas’s Une Révolution dans la musique (1849) and Ernest Monin’s L’Hygiène de l’estomac (1888). Included are studies of a wide cross-section of Banville’s contemporaries, from important figures such as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Maupassant, Corot, Daumier, Courbet, Manet, Berlioz, Bizet, Sand, Flaubert, Zola, Vigny, Gautier and Hugo to those neglected by posterity such as Auguste Vacquerie, Anaïs Ségalas, Philoxène Boyer and René Maizeroy. All the articles prove invaluable, since a striking characteristic of Banville’s genial and humorous critical persona is his eagerness to postulate fundamental poetic and aesthetic values at almost any opportunity, framing his discussion of others’ work within his own theories on poetry, rhythm, rhyme and musicality. Recurrent themes are the tensions between originality, imitation and tradition; his disdain for institutional snobbery, bourgeois materialism, cliché and platitude; repeated calls for vitality and energy, progress (“l’immobilité c’est la mort” I: 95), sincerity and freedom from conventions; the complex relationships between inspiration and compositional effort, genius and artistry, art and reality; the eternal truth of beauty; art’s ability to resist analysis (“On n’analyse pas des vers lyriques” II: 307); devotion to form, rhythm, harmony and mystery. In the light of these writings, the oft-repeated Parnassian mantra of “l’art pour l’art” emerges not as a form of cultural elitism, but as a democratic, humanist conviction in line with Republican pedagogical ambitions (xiv). The volumes’ annotation is meticulous, with detailed footnotes illuminating all references to other artists, their works and careers, while the introduction provides useful insights into Banville’s intellectual background, the evolution of his aesthetic thought – encompassing Fourierist hedonism, stoicism, Christianity and a vague pantheism – and also the cornerstones of his aesthetic theory, namely Wagner, Delacroix, Shakespeare, Balzac and Hugo, whose names reappear throughout these volumes. It is judicious that, while typographical errors typesetters’ inconsistencies have been eradicated, the editors have retained Banville’s favorite archaisms rhythmepoëte and poëme which sit comfortably alongside his frequent references to the poets and dramatists of Antiquity and myth. Whereas Banville has long been inaccurately caricatured as stuck in an idealized version of the past, the concept of modernity appears throughout these articles as central to his thinking on art; these writings allow us re-evaluate his work, not as nostalgia for a redundant past, but rather, as a dialogue with the dominant artistic developments of his century. As such, these documents provide an indispensable accompaniment to Banville’s poetry, and pave the way for future research on one of the French nineteenth century’s most under-researched, yet fascinating, literary figures.