The French in American Literature, Americans in French Literature
Liverpool: University Press, 2018
Hardcover. xiii+299 p. ISBN 978-1786941329. £90
Reviewed by Xavier Kalck
William Cloonan’s Frères Ennemis : The French in American Literature, Americans in French Literature studies the reciprocal attitudes of the French and of Americans through the prism of literary expression over a period which extends from around 1870 to the later years of the Cold War. Whereas some have been said to enjoy a special relationship, Franco-American relations are, in this book, explicitly viewed antagonistically for the enduring tensions they reveal. Cloonan’s perspective is avowedly a paradigmatic one: he seeks to understand and to describe Gallic and American positions about each other over a time span that is long enough for specific continuities to emerge from necessarily evolving trends. This book therefore proceeds to alternate between historical, social and cultural contexts and close readings of literary texts. In doing so, Cloonan explores many of the clichés and myths which have come to pass about both countries through key fictional types and specimens he finds in the many novels he analyses. Taking his cue from Roland Barthes’s essays in Mythologies, Cloonan contextualises the various cultural assumptions about national identities held by Americans about the French and vice versa. It is worth noting however that context here is largely introductory, and that Cloonan’s objective is mostly a literary one. The examples in the book – fiction exclusively – constitute the backbone of Cloonan’s reasoning, supported by historical evidence but rather as a backdrop against which characters may be scrutinised.
The book itself is made up of nine chapters, each devoted to a specific work: Henry James’s The Americans in chapter I; Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève future in chapter II; Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country in chapter III; Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises in chapter IV; Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins in chapter V, which already mirrors some of the central issues evoked in the first chapter regarding international relations when they are embodied in male-female transnational relationships. In chapter VI, Cloonan suggests a shift, epitomised by Jean Echenoz’s Cherokee, then moves through Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions in chapter VII, and makes a convincing case that these are instances of cross-cultural fertilisation which testify to an important reversal in French and American perceptions of each other’s cultures. The penultimate chapter is devoted to Dominique Falkner’s chronicle, Ça n’existe pas l’Amérique as an example of appropriation of American realities by a French voice, while the last chapter returns once more to James’s seminal work with Diane Johnson’s aptly titled Le Divorce.
More specifically, the first chapter looks at elements of caricature present in James’s portrayal of what Cloonan calls the original “American in Paris” and details the well-known dichotomies which have opposed the practical, rational, monied new American and his symmetrical counterpart in old Europe. Cloonan focuses particularly on the role of money as a means of distinction that only reasserts the cultural hiatus the character was clumsily attempting to hide or compensate for in the first place. Cloonan is also careful to underline the importance of the recent barbarity of the Civil War experience and how it is mixed with an idealised version of a merely superficially peaceful Europe in 1868. Needless to say, the author is well aware that the prototypical Christopher Newman and the no less neatly devised Bellegarde family evoke “rather simplistic portraits [that] were nonetheless destined to survive” .
Villiers’s handling of a fictional Thomas Edison in the novel L’Ève future, in the second chapter, opens up the spectrum of Cloonan’s panorama to the challenges of modern science and to the role played by America in France as a fearful yet fascinating embodiment of the future. This chapter includes a useful if brief history of anti-American French sentiment, starting from Baudelaire’s championing Poe against the country which did not recognise the latter’s genius down to the conflicted views held by the French regarding the Civil War, including the issue of slavery. If desire and estrangement were the hallmarks of James’s hero’s attitude towards France, fear and admiration are Villiers’s response, as one country’s place in history and on the world stage is becoming challenged by another.
In the third chapter, Cloonan delves into the ambiguities of Wharton’s character, Undine Spraggs, throughout her pursuit of social success in the Gilded Age and her contact with sophisticated French society embodied by Raymond de Chelles. Although Wharton’s work has already received much critical attention, Cloonan’s choice to read it within the larger context of an “invention,” as he puts it, of Paris as a concept sheds new light on it, while the idea of Paris as social construct of the American mind and a stage for these characters is tempered by Cloonan’s reminders of the very real practical differences in American and French societies, namely regarding the role of religion in divorce. This stage soon becomes that of Hemingway’s lost generation, studied in the fourth chapter. In a post-World War I environment, Cloonan’s reassessment of Robert Cohn’s character, as a catalyst through which to read the whole novel, is particularly convincing. Cloonan’s comparative reading of Wharton’s and Hemingway’s novels also presents, in this regard, an interesting opportunity to look at these works both in context and from a somewhat oblique, more evolutionary perspective. When Cloonan moves into Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins, the world has changed and what now drives the plot is the issue of political affiliation among French intellectuals in the early years of the Cold War. Anti-American and anti-communist sentiments become exacerbated through the well-known literary device that allows a given microcosm to stand in for the macrocosm the author wishes to critique – among which, in this case, French fears of American colonisation at the time of the Marshall Plan, while actual decolonisation had already started in French colonies.
With the embrace of American culture exemplified in Cherokee, where Echenoz plays with how the French have absorbed American culture through a pervasive influx of cultural goods (namely here, cinema and jazz) within a genre, the detective story, to which American literature has so significantly contributed, Cloonan suggests his earlier paradigm has either found its limits, or has finally found a way towards renewal, if not reconciliation. In this same spirit of hybridisation, chapter VII returns to the American creation called French Theory and its impact in the U.S. through the prism of Paul Auster’s work, and specifically the French and American reception of his work, which benefited from French theory as its intellectual matrix. Chapter VIII then prolongs this back-and-forth by examining many French novels depicting the U.S. (novels by Marc Dugain, Eric Vuillard, Hubert Haddad, Mathieu Larnaude, to name only a few of those mentioned). Here, Cloonan explores the French fascination with America through the kind of novelisation of pop-culture icons’ lives which has flourished so much in the last few decades, and then turns to Falkner’s provocative work, part-essay, part-fiction, which shows a balkanisation of the American experience into a myriad of illusory fragments. In his last chapter, devoted to Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce, paradoxically translated into French as L’Américaine à Paris in reference to the famous musical, Cloonan returns to the mode of cultural frameworks colliding even as they interact. The dominance of American culture and the risk for expatriates to wander through various theme parks rather than specific locations – one of the issues in the novel in question – all this returns the reader, worryingly, to James’s initial portrayal. Although Cloonan’s point is not particularly pessimistic, or indeed nostalgic, the progression does leave one wondering if such a dual relationship can still make sense for very long in our globalised age.
Perhaps this useful panorama might indeed have benefited from an effort to locate French and American relationships within a larger framework or taken into account similar dual antagonistic rivalries between America and other European as well as non-European nations. Somewhat more puzzling is the systematic reliance on fiction as a would-be historical document for the study of periods, places and mentalities, and therefore of individual characters as representatives of a people. Such is the illusion literature may seek to create, yet it remains but an artifice, which historians may rely on at their peril. This narrow focus is sometimes problematic geographically speaking as well, when France and Paris become all too metonymically entwined, or indeed in terms of literary genres – poetry or the theatre might have equally been solicited to exemplify connections and borrowings across the Atlantic. Cloonan’s book nonetheless offers a nuanced portrayal of Franco-American tensions through a striking gallery of portraits.
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