McCready on Guyaux and Lestringant, eds. (2011)

Guyaux, André, and Frank Lestringant, eds. Fortunes de Musset. Paris: Éditions Classiques Garnier, 2011. Pp. 413. ISBN 978-2-8124-0103-9

Another contribution in a flurry of recent scholarship on Alfred de Musset, Fortunes de Musset includes essays by twenty scholars confronting Musset's literary and cultural legacy from various angles. Individually, the articles in the volume illuminate multiple aspects of Musset's career from his election to the Académie Française in 1852 to the present. Collectively, they demonstrate the extent to which literary reputation is constructed over time by means as diverse as public statuary, popular music, literary gossip, cinematic references and inclusion in or exclusion from anthologies and academic curricula. Lestringant and Guyaux should be congratulated on providing both a nominal index and an index to references of works by Musset, which make the volume more easily navigable than many such collections based on conference proceedings.

After an introduction by Lestringant that attempts to situate Musset politically and demonstrates to what extent he has been conscripted by both left and right at different historical moments, the volume is divided into four parts. The first and largest "Musset dans le siècle" will be the most significant to nineteenth-century French scholars whose focus is poetry. Articles by Aurélia Cervoni ("Gautier lecteur de Musset"), Michel Brix ("Musset vu par Sainte-Beuve"), Gianni Iotti ("Flaubert and Musset"), Yann Mortelette ("Musset au ban du Parnasse"), André Guyaux ("Huysmans, Baudelaire et Rops, lecteurs de Gamiani") examine Musset through the eyes of some of his well-known contemporaries. They show the ebb and flow of Musset's reputation over the course of the century and against the backdrop of aesthetic developments in poetry and the novel. Vital Rambaud's article, "Le centenaire de 1910," examines the state of the field at the moment of the centenary, focusing on Musset's growing prominence in the theater and especially how the mounting nationalism of 1910 inflected Musset studies, as "le poète des Nuits" became "celui du Rhin allemand" (123).

A second section on "Musset et les arts plastiques" features an article by Hélène Védrine, "Musset dans le livre illustré du XIXe siècle" that will certainly be of interest to those who study the publishing industry. Laure Pineau's excellent article on "Les Statues à la mémoire de Musset" demonstrates the importance of the activity of non-specialist readers in the elaboration of literary memory. According to Pineau, it was largely these "fans" who led the drive for the first public statues of Musset in Neuilly and Paris. Pineau's article also satisfied my personal curiosity about the unusual location of the statue of Musset and his muse--it was moved from its initial place in front of the Comédie-Française to the Parc Monceau--by explaining the poet's literal marginalization within the context of the cultural movements of 1968.

The third and shortest section, "Musset dans l'Histoire Littéraire," includes three articles which tell a similar story of the progress of the official view of Musset in literary manuals, anthologies and textbooks. They identify a shift from a moralizing strain in Musset criticism in the late nineteenth century, through a Third-Republic "Musset des familles" (the term is Simon Jeune's), which emphasized the least problematic of Musset's proverbs, and finally, through a modern Musset, fragmented, complicated and subversive.

The final section features five articles on "Musset en musique, au théâtre et au cinéma." Those engaged in cinema studies will find Valentine Ponzetta's "Comédies et proverbes, de Musset à Rohmer" of special interest, as it was written with the participation of Eric Rohmer.

If this volume has a flaw it is the relatively short shrift given to theater, which as Sylvain Ledda demonstrates, is at the heart of Musset's twentieth and twenty-first-century rise in status. He cites Pierre Fresnay's 1925 Fantasio at the Comédie-Française as a turning point in Musset's theatrical fortunes, as performance in the interwar theater revealed the modernism in Musset that made him the most performed nineteenth-century playwright in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  

Musset's status is complicated, as this volume shows, but at least in the French academy it is uncontested. The same is not the case in North America, where Musset is most often studied as a playwright, commonly relegated to the second tier of poets, and ignored entirely as an author of prose fiction. This volume suggests some reasons for this: Baudelaire's scorn? Rimbaud's derision? Anglo-American Puritanism? More importantly, it helps to correct the problem, bringing attention to a major author too often ignored on this side of the Atlantic.