Andrew Sobanet. Jail Sentences: Representing Prison in Twentieth-Century French Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. 270 pp.
As Andrew Sobanet reminds readers in the introduction to his superb, eminently readable new study of the representation of prison in modern French literature, incarceration is excellent narrative fodder. The penitentiary is not only "a privileged center for thought" (6), but also a place where creation--and especially literary creation--often happens. Writers holed up in dank cells have, for centuries, conjured up some of the most enduring works in the French literary tradition (Villon and de Sade, most famously). And imagined tales of jailed narrators--like Hugo's anonymous condemned man and Camus' Meursault--are memorable not only for exploring the depths of prisoners' minds, but for the innovative nature of their prose. Indeed, as Sobanet maintains from the outset, "prisoners are storytellers" (1).
The novels examined in the individual chapters that compose Jail Sentences--Victor Serge's Les Hommes dans la prison (1930), Jean Genet's Miracle de la rose (1946), Albertine Sarrazin's La Cavale (1965), and Francois Bon's Prison (1997)--testify to twentieth-century French literature's fascination with the carceral realm. They also collectively help to define a literary sub-genre--what Sobanet calls the "prison novel"--that has received relatively scant attention until now. While the trend has been to read these texts as documentaries that testify to the realities of life behind bars, Jail Sentences seeks to underscore their status as fictions. Each novel offers accurate portrayals of the sights, sounds, and smells of daily prison life, shedding light on a world that will be foreign (one hopes!) to most readers. Yet the status of these texts as documents does not necessarily imply the absence of make believe. As Sobanet compellingly demonstrates, authors of prison novels often wield their mastery of narrative technique to strategically develop their own potent critiques of various hegemonic institutions; these narratives, he argues, not only corroborate sociological studies of prison life, they mobilize the various "signposts of fiction" to denounce the growing inequities of market capitalism (in Serge), castigate the influence of mainstream, bourgeois morality (in Genet), and condemn the abuses of France's judicial and penal systems (in Sarrazin and Bon, primarily).
While each chapter has its particular merits, the study of Francois Bon's Prison is particularly illuminating. Here Sobanet had privileged access to the author's notes and transcripts of writing that inmates produced during workshops that Bon conducted in a youth-detention center near Bordeaux in 2006 and 2007. …