Shryock on Bivort, ed. (2012)

Bivort, Olivier, ed. La Littérature symboliste et la langue. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2012. Pp. 236. ISBN : 978-2-8124-0810-6

French Symbolism, as is true with other literary movements, is difficult to define. The nature of language is a fundamental dimension that traverses nearly all definitions of this movement. Mallarmé and Rimbaud, of course, wanted to create their own form of poetic expression. Indeed, using language in new ways was at the foundation of most Symbolist poetry and prose. The Symbolists' use of French was often criticized for being incomprehensible because of its syntactic and lexical choices as well as for the use of certain tropes. La Littérature symboliste et la langue examines the role of language from a rich variety of perspectives. This collection of essays edited by Olivier Bivort is the product of a colloquium held in Aosta, Italy in May 2009. As is true with many conference proceedings, this volume contains some essays that are stronger than others. Any shortcomings in a few pieces should not overshadow the contribution of the volume as a whole to the study of Symbolism.

A key problem facing scholars of Symbolism is who should be included as Symbolist. La Littérature symboliste et la langue takes an expansive view toward Symbolism to include precursors such as Baudelaire and those impacted by the esthetic, such as Proust. The volume is balanced between well-known Symbolist writers such as Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Laforgue and less-studied Symbolists or those on the margins of Symbolism.

As is often the case with an amorphous creation such as a literary movement, so-called "marginal" authors and texts play an important role not only in defining the limits but also the core of the esthetic. The majority of these studies might be characterized by some as marginal in the negative sense, but this is part of the collection's strength. The essays cover a broad range of topics. André Guyaux's short piece attempts to link Baudelaire's "brutalism" to the Symbolists. Mario Richter's study of symbolic allusion and ambiguity in Les Fleurs du Mal is interesting, but its significance with regard to Symbolism is not clear. In separate chapters, Jean-Nicolas Illouz and Marco Modenesi both analyze one of Mallarmé's marginal texts, Les Mots d'anglais to elucidate different core aspects of his poetry. Sergio Cigada provides insights into Rimbaud's use of language. Laforgue's creative language play is the object of an enlightening joint contribution by Jean-Pierre Bertrand and Henri Scepi. Liana Nissim and Ida Merello examine the boundaries between Symbolism and Parnassianism through their respective studies of Jean Lahor (better known as Henri Cazalis) and Charles Guérin. This boundary is often more fluid than many Symbolists state as can be seen in a remark Mallarmé made in an 1894 letter to Guérin "moi, qui, au fond, n'ai guères rompu le lien qui me rattache au Parnasse." Simonetta Valenti studies Camille Mauclair's development of the idea of a "sacred dialect" and its relationship to Mallarmé's esthetic. Christian Berg sheds some revealing light on one of the Belgian Symbolists in his analysis of the difficulties encountered by the Flemish Max Elskamp who wrote in French. Gilles Philippe provides a careful stylistic study of Symbolist prose. This is most welcome as prose is often neglected in discussions of Symbolism.

The volume includes two chapters centered on the role of language during the latter part of the nineteenth-century. The opening article of the collection is Jacques-Philippe Saint-Gérand's "Français vs langue française: la langue est-elle symbolique?" which reminds readers of the ideological dimension of the French language during the latter part of the nineteenth century. This is a key element for situating Symbolism relative to the dominant discourses of the time and is often neglected by scholars of the period. Bivort's own excellent contribution is in some ways an extension of Saint-Gérard's. It thoughtfully addresses a central criticism leveled at Symbolist poetry: its obscurity.

I dispute only one small matter of dates. After quite rightly laying out the challenges of defining Symbolism, the Avant-propos states "entre 1860 et 1890, des poètes poursuivent des objectifs communs, concentrés autour du renouvellement des formes" (7). The mid-1880s brought a new generation of writers to the Symbolist esthetic. It is hard to see their efforts, or those of their maître Mallarmé to renew poetic forms, as ending in 1890.

Given the centrality of language to the Symbolist enterprise, Bivort has chosen a particularly fruitful area of inquiry and does an outstanding job providing a rich variety of topics and approaches on the subject through this collection. 

Richard Shryock
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)
Volume 42.1-2