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.

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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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News

‘Ethnography and Modern Languages’ published on MLO invites readers to join the discussion

The article ‘Ethnography and Modern Languages’ by Naomi Wells et. al has been published on the Liverpool University Press open access platform, Modern Languages Open. Readers are invited to join the discussion on the role of the ethnographic in Modern Languages and can leave their response directly on the MLO platform.

In response to recent debates and discussions on the subject, the article proposes ways in which an engagement with ethnographic practices and theories can be transformative in relation to approaches to Modern Languages teaching, research and wider engagement, as well as how such approaches can be more effectively supported within and across institutions.

Read the complete article on Modern Languages Open >

To add a response, simply go to the article on the MLO platform and click on the ‘discussions’ tab to the right of the article.

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Modern Languages

Frères Ennemis – In Conversation with William Cloonan

Frères Ennemis focuses on Franco-American tensions reflected in literature. Each chapter explores the evolution/devolution of the often fraught relations between the two nations, ranging from an initial French fear of American cultural dominance to the eventual realization that France could absorb this cultural invasion into its own traditions. We caught up with author William Cloonan to discuss this recent publication.

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

I have always been intrigued by the ways the Americans and French manage to get on one another’s nerves. Loyal allies in every major conflict since the American revolution, each nation seems nevertheless  gifted in creating annoyances for the other. Sometimes the differences are silly and sometimes serious. As I studied this bizarre phenomenon in literary texts I began to understand that the tensions were more political than personal and reflected the struggle of two great powers to achieve and maintain a preeminent position on the world stage.

The cover of your book features a particularly striking display of postwar French tensions. Where does the image come from, and what is its relevance to your book?

André Fougeron painted Atlantic Civilization (1953) to illustrate French leftist concerns about the growing influence and presence of the United States in France and Europe. The topics alluded to in the painting are serious, the German rearmament, racism, the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying, etc., but the figures seems caricatural, as if taken from a comic book. I felt this painting displayed both the serious and silly aspects of Franco-American relations which I wanted to discuss in my study.

In your study you introduce a concept called urban colonization. What do you mean by this expression, and how does it function thematically in Frères Ennemis?

Urban colonization is an expression I coined to describe the way a group of wealthy American expats essentially take over sections of Paris and transform them into an alternate universe which is neither France nor the United States. This is a world where the only French tolerated are either servants or nobles whose primary value is decorative. They enhance the grandeur of the Americans by being at their beck and call. While this tendency is most apparent in The Custom of the Country, it figures in every novel where the American expat community plays a role.

In your chapter on Jean Echenoz, you introduce the subject of the influx of American consumerism in postwar France. How is your treatment of this social phenomenon different from other analyses?

I argue that the disdain on the part of French intellectuals for American products, especially appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, vacuums, etc.) is greatly misplaced. As fond as the French have become of taking polls, it is a pity that grandmothers, daughters, sisters, –women in general—never seemed to have been consulted with regard to their sentiments concerning the influx of American household products. This discussion allows me also to challenge hoary concepts like “the American character,” and “France’s traditional way of life.” I argue these are largely empty phrases whose putative strength comes from their lacking any real substance.

You discuss the thematic importance of the English language in several chapters. Could you develop this idea and show how it plays an important role in several of the novels you discuss?

In my study, language is power. For the French to speak with Americans in both French and American novels, the language has to be English, and the predominant role of English reflects the growing political importance of the Unites States and the failing fortunes of France. The U.S. is the present and the future, while France is the past.

What are you working on next?

In the final chapter of my book, I point to an emerging trend in contemporary French fiction with regard to the United States. Due to a variety of social factors in both countries, among them 9/11, the election of Obama, racism in France and the rise of extreme right wing movements in the two countries, French novelists are developing a renewed curiosity about l’Amérique. Social criticism is still very much alive, but there are many fewer clichés about the States bandied about. I see this change primarily in three areas, the treatment of American movie stars and pop icons, the depiction of everyday life, and finally in the recent spate of parodies of American fiction by younger authors writing in French. This new direction in French literature will be the subject of my next book. Obviously, Trump’s effect on the image of Americans will be a crucial element in this study.

For more information on Frères Ennemis please visit our website.

 

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Modern Languages

Liverpool University Press is delighted to announce that Barbara Spackman’s book, Accidental Orientalists, received an Honourable Mention from the Modern Languages Association (MLA) as they announced the twenty-fifth Howard R. Marraro Prize.

Spackman

Barbara Spackman is a professor of Italian studies and comparative literature, and holder of the Giovanni and Ruth Elizabeth Cecchetti Chair in Italian Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Accidental Orientalists is the first monograph in English to address Orientalism in the writings of Italian travellers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to do against a backdrop of comparative reference to works in English and French that preceded or were contemporary to them.

Accidental Orientalists, published in July 2017, is the second title to appear in LUP’s Transnational Italian Cultures series which aims to publish works in the expanding field of postcolonial, global and transnational Italian studies, setting a new agenda for academic research on what constitutes Italian culture today.

The committee for the award said the following about Spackman’s book:

‘Barbara Spackman’s contribution to the archives of Italian and orientalist studies illuminates a heretofore little-known cluster of authors and cultural phenomena that invites us to rethink Italian modernity transhistorically. The lives of these ―accidental orientalists‖ resonate profoundly as points of departure from which to reflect on Italy’s diasporic past and evolving diasporic present and future. Accidental Orientalists: Modern Italian Travelers in Ottoman Lands has opened a new chapter in the migration and movement of Italians in the Mediterranean basin across linguistic, gender, and religious boundaries. These affective adaptations and reactions contribute to the twenty-first century cultural negotiations that inform narratives of identity, displacement, destabilization, and reconsolidation.’

Read the official press from the MLA here.

For more information on Accidental Orientalists please visit our website.
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