Bielecki on Séginger, ed. (2005)

Séginger, Gisèle, ed. Écriture(s) de l'histoire. Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2005. Pp. 357 ISBN 9782868202826

This diverse collection of essays explores interchanges between literature and history in the modern era. The essays range widely both chronologically – from Balzac to Glissant – and to a certain extent geographically, for although most of the 21 essays focus on French writers, Michel Maslowski’s exploration of the role of Polish romantic poets in the construction of Polish national identity, and Cécile Schenck’s examination of the controversy surrounding German expressionism’s relationship to Nazism extend the boundaries of the collection beyond France.  

Diversity of objects of study is complemented by diversity of approach. Some of the contributions focus on individual texts, for example Gisèle Séginger’s essay on Illusions Perdues, Geneviève Jolly’s reading of Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s Le Nouveau Monde, which examines how the characteristics of theatre foster a specifically “intimate” approach to history, and Guy Rosa’s study of Les Misérables, which demonstrates how a novel written in two stages, with an interval of 12 years, invites reflection on history through emphasising its own historicity. Other essays are concerned with a given writer’s conception of history, and range over an entire œuvre, for example François Dumont’s essay on Nerval, Sarah Mombert’s on Gautier, and Pierre-Louis Rey’s study of Proust and the Dreyfus Affair.  Others have a still broader focus, such as Alain Montandon’s comparative study of the role of history in the work of Balzac and Gautier.  A variety of critical strategies and methodologies are also in evidence.  Paule Petitier brings the tools of the literary critic to bear on Michelet’s Louis XIV et la Révocation de l’édit de Nantes, whereas Patrick Werly scrutinises René Char’s Feuillets d’Hypnos with a historian’s gaze.  Roselyne Waller’s essay on Aragon mobilises Freudian conceptions of memory to examine those moments in his work which contest Marxist notions of the intelligibility of history, whereas Corinne Grenouillet’s essay on the same writer offers a stylistic analysis of Les Cloches de Bâle.  Both essays, however, are centrally concerned with demonstrating that neither Aragon’s relationship to history, nor his aesthetic practice, are reducible to Communist Party orthodoxy.

Challenging existing critical assumptions is a key concern not only of individual contributors, but also of the editor, Gisèle Séginger, who has eschewed a chronological organisation in favour of one that invites broad theoretical reflection on the relationship between literature and history, dividing the essays into four parts: “le véridique et l’intelligible,” “écrire/agir dans l’histoire,” “figures et défiguration de l’histoire,” and “contre l’histoire.”  Certain recurrent concerns are thus foregrounded: the operation of history as an aesthetic principle, the relationship between intelligibility and narrativity, the competing truth claims of historical and literary discourse.  One concern that surfaces throughout the collection is the relationship between history and politics, and a number of essays, inter alia Jean-Yves Guérin’s study of Camus’ critique of totalitarianism and Aurélie Loiseleur’s essay on Lamartine’s Toussaint Louverture, focus on the political dimension of literary texts.  They thus suggest that far from being only a product of history, literature can function as an intervention therein.

Emma Bielecki
King's College
Volume 37