Modern Languages

Middlebrow Matters – In Conversation with Diana Holmes

Middlebrow Matters is the first book to study the middlebrow novel in France. It asks what middlebrow means, and applies the term positively to explore the ‘poetics’ of the types of novel that have attracted ‘ordinary’ fiction readers – in their majority female – since the end of the 19th century.  The book has recently been unlatched by Knowledge Unlatched, and the ebook can now be accessed for free. We caught up with author Diana Holmes to discuss more about the book.

9781786941565

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Middlebrow Matters and what drew you to focus your work in this area?

Since at least A-level days I have been fascinated by literature, even the more arid reaches of modernism (Robbe-Grillet and the French ‘new novel’ come to mind). But I gradually became aware of a real divide between what I thought of as ‘books to read with a notebook and pen handy’ and the books I read – constantly – for pleasure. There was something in the deeply pleasurable experience of reading fiction that was neither valued nor accounted for in most literary criticism and theory. I wrote seriously about fully ‘popular’ fiction, including the Harlequin romance, but that did not correspond either to the sort of novel I and (I think) most avid book-lovers read, which falls between ‘literary’ and popular and is thus … middlebrow.

There was also a sort of semi-conscious political motivation in the desire to write this book. Literary scholarship tends to display a quiet disdain for ‘what most people read’. Difficult, ground-breaking, challenging, shocking is good: absorbing, page-turning, easy-to-read, moving is bad – hence the negative connotations of the word ‘middlebrow’. And somehow what women write and read is more readily placed in the latter category.

 This is the first book to focus on the middlebrow novel in France. How does this volume pave the way for future research on the topic?

Inevitably, despite the self-consciously challenging stance of each generation of literary scholars, a sort of master (the word is apt) narrative of a country’s literature gets written and generally accepted. Much has to be excluded, and I think what has disappeared especially in France is that broad swathe of serious-but-pleasurable fiction read by the majority – and the majority of readers over the past century have been women. Fiction read by a significant section of the population surely plays its part in forming, or inflecting, socio-political values.  In some cases such literature is hard to re-discover: I am still surprised by the relative absence in France of the rich seam of middlebrow women’s writing so evident in Britain in the inter-war period (thank you Virago and Persephone), and I hope there are authors there I failed to find.  Much work remains to be done on reading tastes at different periods, on forgotten writers and on the mainstream, broadly popular reception of acknowledged writers such as Mauriac, Colette, Beauvoir.

The book looks at several middlebrow authors from varying periods. Is there a particular author who you think is crucial to this study, or one you particularly enjoyed writing about?

Well of course there is Colette – I think the only book in which I have managed not to talk about Colette is the one on François Truffaut’s cinema. She is crucial here not of course because she is under-recognised (though she was for a long time), but because in the copious criticism devoted to her the aspect of her work least acknowledged is probably her huge appeal for ‘ordinary’ readers, and the reasons for this. Then there is the brave band of Belle Époque women novelists – hugely read at the time, then totally forgotten until (mainly Anglophone) feminist critics rediscovered them over the last few decades, though they remain largely out-of-print. Topical as they were, their novels (I think especially of Daniel Lesueur) are still brilliant page-turners that also deal with hard questions of gender politics,  and they deserve further attention. As does the equally topical but also durably eloquent fiction of Françoise Sagan.

You close the book with a double reading of Marie NDiaye’s  La Femme puissante which is a particularly interesting feature of your work. How did you find switching to and from ‘non-academic mode’, and what did you conclude from this?

This was part of the original proposal for the book – one of those bright ideas that you later have moments of regretting when it proves really difficult to write! Rather than a conventional conclusion – I hoped the central argument had been sufficiently spelled out – I wanted to try to put into words the (usually unarticulated) experience of suspending disbelief and travelling in imagination into the fictional world, and to compare this with the more detached, analytical reading I also engage in as a literary critic. To separate these completely is of course artificial, but what I learned from the exercise was that ‘just reading for pleasure’ is as instructive as the more cerebral process of analysing a text, though in a different way. The ‘immersive’ reading of Ndiaye’s story left traces of felt emotion that my critical reading might well have ignored. Through imaginative absorption into someone else’s consciousness and a world dissimilar to our own, we simulate experience beyond the confines of our own lives and thus (even if unconsciously) we grow a bit, develop, get outside our own skin. This is not often captured in literary analysis.

What are you working on next?

This book took a long time to write and I have unfinished business begun alongside ‘Middlebrow’ that I want to complete before deciding on the next direction. There is a collaborative edited volume on French feminism 1975-2015, Making Waves, now in production with Liverpool University Press. I am also engaged in a collaborative project on women and ageing in French culture, and writing a comparative piece on ageing in the work of Annie Ernaux, Nancy Huston and Margaret Drabble. Then a research group in Paris have invited me to speak at a conference on women and literary periodicals in France (Femmes et revues), and that allows me to go back to archival work on ‘my’  Belle Époque women writers and their spirited struggles to be taken seriously by a deeply patriarchal literary establishment. One of these will probably contain the seeds of a new project.

Visit our website for more information on Middlebrow Matters or to read the ebook for free.

 

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Modern Languages

Colette: writer, feminist, performer and #MeToo trail blazer

This piece was originally published on The Conversation.

Colette, photographed by Henri Manuel. Wikimedia Commons

The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.

Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.

The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.

But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.

The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.

When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.

She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.

In the 1907 pantomime which included a kiss with a woman. Wikimedia Commons

Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.

She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.

The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)

Sex and sensuality

Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.

She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:

Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.

In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.

In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.

She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.

One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional –- writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.

Diana Holmes is Professor of French at the University of Leeds and is author of Middlebrow MattersSee the original post on The Conversation.

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