Hiner on Yee (2016)

Yee, Jennifer. The Colonial Comedy: Imperialism in the French Realist Novel. Oxford UP, 2016, pp. x + 250, ISBN 978-0-19-872263-2

More than once while reading Jennifer Yee’s remarkable reclaiming of colonialism and empire in French metropolitan realist novels, I wished that it had been published several years earlier so that my own book could have benefited from its many insights and meticulous research. With The Colonial Comedy, Yee has produced a richly textured and comprehensive study that challenges not only our assumptions about the function and importance of “colonial discourse” in nineteenth-century realist fiction, but also the theoretical heritage that has engendered those ideas. With a masterful command of broad literary corpuses and theories—canonical and minor literatures spanning the 1830s to the early twentieth century, later postcolonial literature, the genealogy of postcolonial theory and structuralist methodology—the author offers new views on the value and role of French realist novels, the culture that surrounded and informed them, and their enduring, indeed contemporary, relevance. But what attracts me most to The Colonial Comedy is that in addition to dazzling readings that demonstrate the deft skills of close analysis and full grasp of the machinations of rhetorical figures comes a workhorse of a book that carries readers through many familiar (and less familiar) works of Balzac, Flaubert, Daudet, Maupassant, and Zola, among others. With a lucidity and wit that refreshes and startles, such readings complement the complex theoretical conversation that has been actively evolving since the publication of Said’s seminal Orientalism in 1978.

Expansive and rigorous, Yee’s Colonial Comedy, in a clever echo of Balzac’s Comédie humaine, presents a deep exploration of several interlocking themes that thread through, as in a woven fabric. The central argument—that French realist novels engage with and respond to colonialism albeit largely “offstage,” and, secondarily, that critical discourse has overlooked this very engagement—thus builds thoughtfully and deliberately. Each chapter picks up threads from the previous one to create a steadily paced progression. The introduction announces the book’s stakes clearly, evoking key terms and stating the principal objective “to situate the realist novel in the context of France’s varied imperial engagements, ongoing and abortive, but also to renew our understanding of the permutations of the genre itself” (5). Yee adapts Jameson’s concept of the “blind spot” to refer to the realist novel’s (mostly indirect) treatment of colonialism by citing a conceptual tool box comprising the “offstage,” “imported metaphors,” “realist verisimilitude,” and self-conscious doubt. But she also expands her use of this term to contest a “critical blind spot” regarding French Realism.

Next come six chapters, each developing a central theme—exotic commodities, colonial ethics, financial fraud, “critical orientalism,” racialization, and the class/race/gender —through careful readings of diverse literary and critical works. Finally, in her conclusion, Yee presents a strong case for re-assessing the modernist “denunciation of Realism,” (210) asserting that Modernism itself, like Realism before it, should be “thought of in terms of modification (or incorporation) rather than complete reversal” (209).

Skillfully engaging with a wide range of critical theorists as well as analyzing episodes and descriptions from works of “Classic (or nineteenth-century) Realism” (217), Yee is at her best when excavating a literary text. “Balzacian characters have minds of their own” (173), she tells us, following an elegant discussion of cousin Bette that illustrates that the “indirect imprint” of racialized others “is in fact to be found at the heart of the realist and naturalist canon” (170). Revealing both the parallel and the difference between English and French literary treatments of colonialism and race here, she riffs on Gayatri Spivak’s famous reading to set up an analogy between Balzac’s character and the split figure of race in Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

The place of theory in this book is significant, yet it always serves renewed readings of nineteenth-century Realist texts. Yee’s dialogue with theorists as diverse as Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, and Ann Stoler is respectful without either ventriloquizing them or allowing their reputations to overshadow her own interventions. Yee is perhaps most evocative when she reads Flaubert, whether in her discussion of Madame Arnoux’s “Algerian purse” as emblematic of the reiterated exotic commodity that teases out the “subtext” of the conquest of Algeria, or later, in her suggestive parallel readings of Manet’s black maid, Madame Arnoux’s maidservant, and Félicité, “Flaubert’s ultimate black maid” (165). History and political context are both obfuscated and exposed, Yee argues, through these glimpses of the colonial subtext in Realist fiction, and she convinces me that these novels, however slyly, are self-consciously aware of this double agenda. Indeed, literary self-consciousness, that hallmark of Modernism, is revealed as a key feature of Realist fiction, and by calling attention to strategies of irony, self-referentiality, parody, and double focalization—not only in Flaubert, but in less obvious candidates too—Yee re-situates the Modernist turn in the heart of the nineteenth century, just as she re-evaluates the onset of the “new colonial world order,” placing it “well before the end of the nineteenth century” (177). She thus challenges the assumptions of literary history and persuasively models a fresh approach to some of the “classics” of French Realism.

While it is customary in the genre of the book review to identify one or two areas of weakness and to offer remedies or counterpoints, I have nothing but praise for The Colonial Comedy. In his “Avant-Propos à La Comédie humaine” Balzac writes:  “L’immensité d’un plan qui embrasse à la fois l’histoire et la critique de la Société, l’analyse de ses maux et la discussion de ses principes, m’autorise, je crois, à donner à mon ouvrage le titre sous lequel il paraît aujourd’hui: La Comédie humaine.” The Colonial Comedy likewise earns its title: ample and exacting, witty and generous, it is a deeply probing work of literary and critical scholarship that brings nineteenth-century Realist fiction right into the twenty-first century global context where it belongs.