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Traversée d'une œuvre

Crossing the River de Caryl Phillips


Sous la direction de Vanessa Guignery et Christian Gutleben


Revue Cycnos 32/1

Paris : L'Harmattan, 2016

Broché. 231 p. ISBN 978-2343107219. 24,50 €


Reviewed by Françoise Kral

Université Paris Nanterre





This volume brings together twelve articles on Caryl Phillips’s 1993 novel Crossing the River by literature specialists, some of whom have published on Phillips previously and others who are new to the field of Phillips studies and bring fresh perspectives on his work. The reason for this grouping of papers on Crossing the River is the fact that the novel is on the syllabus for the French Agrégation competitive exam and has become a figure obligée of English studies in France, thereby prompting a timely and welcome revisiting of this novel over twenty years after it was first published. Crossing the River has often been hailed as a pivotal novel in the genre of the neo-slave narrative. Yet the appeal of the novel goes further than this label suggests, as rightly underlined by the two editors in their critical introduction to the volume. Their collection of articles foregrounds new perspectives ranging from formal analyses of the intertext and of the rhetorical specificities of the novel to new orientations in the field of postcolonial studies, including queer studies.

The critical introduction brings into dynamic tension the different critical perspectives commonly applied to Phillips’s novel but quickly goes beyond the much discussed themes of identity and belonging, unbelonging to offer new perspectives on Crossing the River as a roman de la déterritorialisation (a novel in the vein of deterritorialization) not only in the Deleuzian sense of the term but also along the lines of critical inquiry opened up by Nicolas Bourriaud in his book Radicant : Pour une esthétique de la globalisation.

The volume is divided into four parts.  The first part, entitled ‘Echos, symétrie, renversement’  brings together four contributions. The first, by Mélanie Joseph-Vilain investigates the question of filiation in Crossing the River; this welcome contribution goes beyond the question of the allegorical writing of the guilty African father who has sold his children to a slave trader to reposition the novel within the subcategories of the family romance (the ‘roman familial’ as opposed to the ‘roman généalogique’).

Christian Gutleben’s article seeks to address the duality inscribed at the heart of the novel and which becomes apparent as early as the prologue. This duality interweaves several discursive threads, some materialized by italics, thereby bringing into contact the voice of the African father and that of the slave trader. Gutleben provides some insightful analyses of the form and in particular of rhetorical figures;  hypallages pepper the text and are present in the titles of some of the sections (‘The Pagan Coast’), pointing to a move from the human to the spatial.

Catherine Lanone’s analysis of repetitions in ‘Repetition and Reckoning in Crossing the River’  provides some very enlightening close readings of Crossing the River to evidence the role of rhetorical figures of repetition such as  epanalepsis or anadiplosis. Lanone shows how repetition and reiteration partake of an aesthetic of psychic numbing, a concept she borrows from Scott Slovic and which allows her to show how these repetitions are instrumental in Phillips’s underlining of what Arendt termed ‘the banality of evil.’

In ‘Dit et non-dit, ruptures et reprises dans Crossing the River,’ the last article of this first section, Catherine Pesso-Miquel probes into the most resilient ambiguities of Crossing the River. In particular she interrogates the status of the fragmented narrative of ‘Somewhere in England’, which critics have interpreted as a diary. Pesso-Miquel shows that in this section Phillips achieves an ambiguous form of narration which is neither a journal nor an interior monologue. The section ‘écrire une voix’ (writing a voice) investigates the question of the voice, which Phillips often describes as the starting point of the act of writing. This section is particularly insightful as it allows Pesso-Miquel to go further in terms of evidencing the continuities of the novel in spite of its apparent fragmentation by drawing stylistic parallels between the laconic voice of Martha and that of Joyce, despite the fact that the two characters are of different races and nationalities.

The second part, ‘Empathie, Emotion et Vulnérabilité’ (‘Empathy, Emotions and vulnerability’) brings together three articles. The first, by Kathie Birat, one of the most respected Phillips specialists, investigates the question of empathy in the light of recent research at the crossroads between the neurosciences and literature to analyze the nature of the emotional involvement of the reader of Phillipsian texts. The beautifully written article by Hubert Malfray, ‘Une Poétique de la Précarité : économie(s) d’écriture dans Crossing the River de Caryl Phillips’ contains some very insightful analyses of the way the epistolary exchange between Nash Williams and Edward Williams becomes a locus par excellence of where this precariousness becomes manifest as the asymetric exchanges preclude intersubjectivity (‘un déni d’intersubjectivité’ as Johannes Fabian terms it).

The third section ‘Voix, Corps, performance : Voice, body performance’ opens onto a very enlightening text by Oriana Palusci which retraces very minutely the rich intertext of Crossing the River, including other works by Caryl Phillips such as The Shelter. Kerry-Jane Wallart draws on the notion of performance, which is a key concept in the work of Caryl Phillips, possibly more obviously in other novels such as Dancing in the Dark, to discuss how the question of the body, often understudied and obscured by a hyperfocus on the voice needs to be reclaimed.

The last section ‘Rapprochements théoriques’ offers two theoretical perspectives on Crossing the River. The first by Eleanor Byrne seeks to apply the paradigm of queer studies to Crossing the River and foregrounds the question of same-sex relations in the context of the slave trade and of proto-queer relations; and the second article by Murat Oner rereads Crossing the River in the light of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the rhizome, which is indeed a very pertinent notion to apply to Crossing the River, both thematically and in terms of the form.

The wide-ranging spectrum of perspectives on Crossing the River offered by this volume forms a very convincing ensemble which will be of great interest not only to Agrégation students but to all those interested in the field of slave narratives, the literature of the middle passage and contemporary engagement with canonical forms. In the field of postcolonial studies where the aesthetic of the literary texts is often obscured by their politics, the renewed emphasis on the form which some of the articles foreground contributes to renewing the perspectives on the work of Caryl Phillips, whose later works confirm his interest in and desire to dialogue with canonical texts which he claims as part of his literary inheritance. The timespan as well generates some convincing reinterpretations of the importance of certain themes which came to full aesthetic maturity in later works, in particular the notion of an ethics of vulnerability, which the editors rightly insist on in their Introduction and which has become one of the trademarks of Phillips’s writing, in particular since his 2003 novel A Distant Shore.



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