Reed on Genova (2016)



Genova, Pamela A. Writing Japonisme: Aesthetic Translation in Nineteenth-Century French Prose. Northwestern UP, 2016, pp. 324, ISBN 978-0-8101-3219-1

            Christopher Reed, The Pennsylvania State University

In 2004, Jan Walsh Hokenson published Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics. Belying its clunky title, this book offered a lucidly written, impressively wide-ranging, and theoretically informed series of readings in service of an argument that japonisme, long associated with the visual arts, also characterized French literature. This study, which spanned a century and a half of literature, offered cogent, if brief, analyses of canonic French authors and many lesser-known texts. Pamela A. Genova’s more elegantly titled Writing Japonisme: Aesthetic Translation in Nineteenth-Century French Prose takes up a very similar project, although its scope is limited to chapters focused on Edmond de Goncourt, J.-K. Huysmans, Émile Zola, and Stéphane Mallarmé.  In announcing that her “aim” is “to cross over the borders of genre, form, and discipline and explore the relationship of Japanese visual art to French prose” (xi), Genova closely follows in Hokenson’s footsteps. But this coincidence of purpose is obfuscated in the rambling scholarship review that opens Writing Japonisme, where the detailed summaries of short essays and art-survey books published on japonisme in the visual arts in the early 1980s conclude by hastily burying Hokenson’s “carefully documented study” with fulsome but vague praise: “To my mind, the book is essential to any scholar interested in the interdisciplinary dynamics of Japonisme and is especially notable for its combination of philosophical, aesthetic, and social components as well as for its implementation of comparative methods of scholarly critique” (31).

Hokenson’s is a hard act to follow. But Genova’s close focus on four japoniste authors offers an opportunity to expand on Hokenson’s necessarily brief textual analyses, albeit at the cost of cleaving to the canon. Genova’s preface acknowledges this limitation, noting that “many female writers […] demonstrated their cultural acumen regarding the aesthetics of Japan by […] exploring Japanese imagistic motifs and compositional structures in their own works,” but justifies sticking to the canon on the basis of “pragmatic limitations of space and the intellectual limitations of focus” (xiii).

Unfortunately, the expansion in words Genova dedicates to these four authors does not yield a proportionate increase of insight. The ratio of original textual analysis to anodyne scholarship summary and history collated from secondary sources in Writing Japonisme is disappointingly low. In the thirty-six page chapter on Goncourt, for instance, just two pages in which long passages from La Maison d’un artiste are quoted might qualify as textual analysis, albeit of a kind that alternates between hyperbolic vagueness and a lack of coherence. For example, Genova opens hagiographically: “La maison d’un artiste presents a stunning example of the effects of Goncourt’s mastery of écriture artiste in critical prose; its dynamics bring the writing to life throughout the book” (84). After a lengthy quote justified as a way “to respect the nuanced layers of this single sentence in Goncourt’s prose” (84), she offers by way of analysis, “Not unlike a series of quick snapshots, these imagistic highlights of the natural topography of Japan create, through the framework of fragmented vision, a surprisingly integrated whole, a unified concept made up of seemingly unrelated discrete elements.” Such claims raise a host of questions. How is prose like—or “not unlike”—a photographic technology that did not yet exist? What makes a denotive word or phrase “imagistic,” let alone an “imagistic highlight”? Is there a “topography” that is not “natural”? How could “fragmented vision” constitute a “framework”? What qualifies the passage as “integrated” or “unified”? But instead of getting a close reading here, readers are rushed on to another lengthy quotation introduced as “another example” of Goncourt’s “beautifully visionistic prose” (85).

If Genova’s chapters offer little in the way of innovative readings of her well-known authors, Writing Japonisme might be justifiable as an argument concerning the key term of its subtitle, “aesthetic translation.” Her “Prelude”—this book boasts a “Preface,” an “Introduction,” and a “Prelude”—summarizes debates about the nature of translation, a practice that paradoxically claims both to preserve and to transform. Coupled with the even more contested—although here unanalyzed—term “aesthetic,” the idea of translation has the potential to illuminate debates about the relationship of japonisme to its sources in Japan. This opportunity is missed, however, as Genova defines “aesthetic translation” as “active exploration on the part of literary artists to interpret the modalities of visual art and adapt them to literary work.” If we accept Genova’s argument that Japan has no bearing on japonisme, how is her rehearsal of theories of translation from one written language to another relevant to the well-worn topic of authors (unhelpfully here called “literary artists”) using the “modalities” (undefined) of visual art? A garbled sentence about the four writers who are the focus of this study exemplifies the muddle Writing Japonisme makes of its key concepts: “The intellectual atmosphere in which they created their art, and the historical context in which that art became enmeshed, have combined forces to construct a shared site of the forces of perception and interpretation that influenced their four individual ‘translations’ of the phenomenon of Japonisme” (50).

It is not clear what readership was imagined for this book. The numerous quotations in untranslated French suggest a specialist readership that will be ill-served by the book’s imprecise analysis, outdated scholarship, and gushing bows to authority (“Edward Said, the outspoken and legendary Palestinian thinker” [52]). Readers of all levels interested in the subject of Writing Japonisme will do better to return to Jan Hokenson’s far more “essential” book.