Wolf on Saliou (2021)

Saliou, Kevin. Le Réseau de Lautréamont: itinéraire et stratégies d’Isidore Ducasse. Classiques Garnier, coll. Études romantiques et dix-neuviémistes, 2021, pp. 318, ISBN 978-2-406-11512-0

In Le Réseau de Lautréamont: itinéraire et stratégies d’Isidore Ducasse, Kevin Saliou tells the story of a failure and an eventual success. Isidore Ducasse (1846–70), better known by his nom de plume Comte de Lautréamont, was born to French parents in Uruguay before moving to Paris to pursue a literary career. Despite his best efforts, he failed to make a name for himself, dying in obscurity at only twenty-four amidst the Siege of Paris. Many years after his death, he finally gained recognition for his strange and macabre Chants de Maldoror. This bizarre and beguiling work, coupled with a lack of information about the author’s short life, has engendered a host of legends about Lautréamont as a mysterious, possibly insane poète maudit.

Le Réseau de Lautréamont separates the man from the myth. Given that Saliou is the director of the Cahiers Lautréamont journal and president of the Association des Amis passés, présents et futurs d’Isidore Ducasse, it is no surprise that his study is meticulously researched. Across six chapters, he shows that Ducasse was not a secluded madman; rather, the author strove to involve himself in the literary milieu of Second Empire Paris. Using the study of social networks to “mettre en lumière les stratégies d’Isidore Ducasse et ses tentatives pour acquérir un peu de visibilité et de notoriété dans le champ littéraire parisien” (219), Saliou brings sociological methods to bear on literary history. While the field of literary sociology is not new, a major contribution of Saliou’s book is that it illustrates the potential of sociology’s methods to better understand an author’s success or failure, an especially novel tactic for the study of a marginal figure like Ducasse/Lautréamont.

Arguing that we actually know more than we think we do about Ducasse, Saliou begins by demonstrating how the legend of Lautréamont came to be before summarizing the most current research concerning Ducasse’s biography. The first chapter, “Pour une représentation d’Isidore Ducasse,” provides a clearer image of the young author. An engaging analysis that is of interest to new and seasoned Lautréamont scholars alike, these pages summarize relevant archival findings, including letters, possible photographs, and testimonies from former classmates and editors, all of which may have helped craft the author’s literary alter ego. Saliou closes the chapter with words of caution, acknowledging the “opération risquée” (44) of using Les Chants de Maldoror to know the real Ducasse as well as the “problème épistémologique” (45) of relying on others’ testimonies—an inevitable issue indeed, given that Ducasse left few archival traces; even Saliou himself occasionally draws on Maldoror’s content to support claims about its author (mainly his sexuality).

In chapter two, “Le Paris d’Isidore Ducasse,” Saliou traces the author’s titular itinéraire et stratégies in the French capital, asking “Quels sont ses choix et ses stratégies pour s’intégrer dans le milieu littéraire et se créer des contacts?” (47). Far from a poète maudit, Ducasse was in fact a “dandy aisé” (50) of the chic Right Bank (boulevard Montmartre, rue Vivienne, Grands Boulevards)—a strategic location due to the editors, booksellers, and presses there. Moreover, Saliou hypothesizes that Ducasse may have chosen this area to join other South American expats (an important note given that scholars sometimes neglect Ducasse’s Uruguayan identity and connection to the Spanish language). In perhaps the boldest part of the book, Saliou also suggests that Ducasse was part of Paris’s gay community—or was at the very least familiar with it—given that his neighborhood was “le cœur de la vie homosexuelle” (69) at the time. The author’s sexuality has long been a topic of discussion, and Saliou makes his case convincingly by using historical and secondary studies, while recognizing the limits of this line of inquiry.

The following two chapters about Ducasse’s social network feature a stunning amount of research about the author’s known acquaintances. For example, Saliou details everyone who was a part of Ducasse’s literary “réseau social” across sixty pages (divided into subsections for each person), offering a treasure trove for fellow “ducassiens,” if somewhat less relevant to non-Lautréamont specialists. Nevertheless, through this extensive accounting we see that Ducasse endeavored to integrate himself into a specific literary community but failed largely because “ses choix, tant esthétiques que relationnels, n’allaient pas dans le sens que semblait prendre l’évolution littéraire” (166). Indeed, Saliou’s reflections on an author’s failure offer a productive approach to understanding literary history and its evolution.

The final two chapters trace the reception of Maldoror immediately following its publication. Here Saliou uses network graphs to visually represent the circulation of his work after 1870, from Belgian literary circles to French Symbolists, reaching the widest audience during the Belle-Époque. These graphs—a popular tool in some digital humanities projects—are a useful way to study literary questions, and Saliou’s graphs are evocative, though further explanation would have been helpful to fully appreciate the information they hold about Lautréamont’s readership. By 1917, Saliou argues, Lautréamont appears to have finally succeeded in making a name for himself.

Overall, Saliou’s work offers a compelling narrative of how Ducasse tried, failed, and finally managed to circulate his work. He corrects the myth of Lautréamont as a crazed recluse, situating him instead in a specific time and place. This book is a welcome addition to Lautréamont scholarship, particularly for its blend of sociology and literary history. Indeed, Saliou’s meta-reflections on his methods will be useful to many scholars. The blurred boundary between an author and his persona could have been further teased apart, given that the distinction between Ducasse and Lautréamont (which Saliou uses interchangeably) is central to his discussion of the real author versus the myths surrounding him. Lastly, if Saliou’s goal is in part to “cartographier” Ducasse’s “trajectoire d’écrivain en construction” (8), then perhaps actual maps of the city—that compare Ducasse’s locales with those of his editors, other interlocutors, or even places frequented by the gay community detailed in chapter two, for example—may have further supported the book’s goal of understanding Ducasse’s life and literary strategies in Paris. Le Réseau de Lautréamont nevertheless remains an impressive and valuable study for scholars interested in Lautréamont, nineteenth-century publishing practices and literary circles, and literary history. Not only does Saliou fill in many lacunae about Ducasse’s life and times, but he also showcases the rich possibilities of interdisciplinary literary studies.

Madeleine Wolf
New York University Abu Dhabi