Fancy on Kociubińska (2020)

Kociubińska, Edyta, editor. Romanciers fin-de-siècle. Brill-Rodopi, Faux Titre, 2020, pp. 205, ISBN 978-90-04-44371-6

Edyta Kociubińska’s edited volume, Romanciers fin-de-siècle, is a collection of essays offering new approaches to, and perspectives on, French novels and novelists from the turn of the nineteenth century, particularly those from the Decadent movement. The volume is made up of fourteen essays, whose topics range from literary analyses of less-studied authors and works of fiction to reinterpretations of better-known nineteenth-century novels. Scholars familiar with the period will no doubt recognize recurring themes such as transgression, dandyism, nihilism, neurosis, and subversion of norms related to gender and sexuality. Romanciers fin-de-siècle builds on Kociubińska’s numerous scholarly contributions to the field, which include not only a variety of publications and edited volumes but also a number of initiatives aimed at bringing together scholars interested in the period and offering them avenues through which to share their work and research.

In her introduction, Kociubińska situates the importance of late nineteenth-century French fiction in the broader context of French literary studies. She emphasizes continued interest among scholars in fin-de-siècle literature and culture; these researchers, in her words, “s’acharnent à découvrir les auteurs méconnus et à les sauver de l’oubli” (xi). Kociubińska highlights the “rôle éminent” that Marie-France de Palacio and Jean de Palacio, two of the most preeminent scholars of the French Decadent movement, have played in generating and maintaining scholarly interest in turn-of-the-century French novels and their authors (xi). At the same time, Kociubińska also provides an important overview of the many contributions (from both French- and English-speaking academic traditions) that have followed their work. One of the stated goals of this collection is to expand and develop scholarly interest in the period by bringing together a diverse set of perspectives and analyses, with the collection serving as what Kociubińska refers to as a “point de ralliement” for studies of the Decadent movement (xiii). The volume indeed accomplishes this goal by bringing together essays from scholars working in France, Italy, and the United States at different stages of their career as researchers, from early-career doctoral students of French literature to foundational figures in fin-de-siècle scholarship such as Marie-France de Palacio and Jean de Palacio themselves, whose chapters bookend the series.

Marie-France and Jean de Palacio both take the approach of bringing to light the work of a less-studied author in the first and last essays of the volume, with the former studying the work of Nonce Casanova, “auteur prolifique, dont nous n’avons gardé bien souvent qu’une image dépréciative” (1) and the latter that of Hector Fleischmann, “un inconnu, même dans son propre pays” (191). The essays differ, then, in that they showcase two possible pathways to becoming forgotten: where Fleischmann is unknown even to his contemporaries, Casanova is, as Marie-France de Palacio reveals, later denigrated by literary scholars in the twentieth century. This leaves her the task of bringing Casanova’s work back into the scholarly conversation, which she accomplishes through emphasizing the author’s radical originality among Decadent writers. In Casanova’s characters, Marie-France de Palacio identifies a remarkable ability to “célébrer le Néant sans perspective”; it is this quality that elevates Casanova to the status of, in her words, a “grand écrivain mineur” (15).

An essay by Manon Raffard builds on this approach by showing us another of the forms that originality may take. She demonstrates the unexpected value of the work of Luis d’Herdy, who frequently referenced and borrowed from the writings of his contemporaries. D’Herdy, Raffard writes, uses imitation in his writing not only “pour honorer ses modèles, mais aussi pour répondre aux angoisses créatives propres aux littérateurs de la fin-de-siècle” (45). By studying the works from which d’Herdy drew inspiration and the themes and motifs he closely imitated, Raffard reveals how his oeuvre—“une véritable archive exemplifiée de la culture littéraire fin-de-siècle”—can be used to establish a canon of Decadent fiction (47). Her unique methodology proves particularly well poised to meet the volume’s collective goal of unearthing and demonstrating the value of understudied voices; indeed, this approach could be adapted by scholars of other less widely-studied fields to determine what works might constitute a canon in that field.

In her own essay, Kociubińska reexamines the work of that preeminent figure of Decadent fiction, Joris-Karl Huysmans. She highlights the fact that critiques of Huysmans and his novel À rebours by his contemporaries conflated the author and the novel’s main character, Jean des Esseintes. She artfully demonstrates how des Esseintes, far from being Huysmans’s mere alter ego, is in fact carefully crafted into “le personnage le plus original de l’esthète fin-de-siècle” (177). By challenging prior assumptions about not only the novel but also its author, Kociubińska contributes to a more nuanced understanding of Decadent fiction, which has at times been derided for its potential “influence dangereuse” on its readers (175). Kociubińska’s work shows how close attention Decadent authors’ representation of substance abuse, sexual indulgence or, in the case of des Esseintes, mental illness reveal ironies which, in turn, indicate the author’s critical distance from their characters’ excesses. Kociubińska and her collaborators thus perform the work of scholarly rehabilitation: emphasizing and reemphasizing the value of Decadent writers and the intellectual rigor of their work.

It is clear that Kociubińska’s volume and its many contributors have made an important contribution to the field of nineteenth-century French studies and to the study of Decadent fiction in particular. The variety of approaches and perspectives contained within will certainly prove invaluable both for burgeoning scholars and experts alike in not only literary and cultural studies, but also those in fields such as history, gender and sexuality studies, psychology, creative writing, and the fine arts, among others.

Benjamin Fancy
Princeton University