Modernism and Mystery: The Curious Case of the Lost Generation

By Durham, Carolyn A. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Modernism and Mystery: The Curious Case of the Lost Generation


Durham, Carolyn A., Twentieth Century Literature


If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

"It's great, hey? It's a feast, Paris."

"Yes, I said, "but it's a sort of moveable feast, isn't it? It leaves you with memories so powerful that you can never really forget them. They stay with you forever."

--Satterthwait, Masquerade (242)

In the passages above, Ernest Hemingway's celebrated metaphor for Paris has traveled from the title page of A Moveable Feast to settle into the dialogue of a contemporary detective novel, Masquerade, by Walter Satterthwait. In the course of the trip, moreover, Ernest Hemingway has been transformed into a fictional character whose words serve to prompt the remark now attributed to the novel's female hero. Of course, Hemingway's seminal story of Paris in the 1920s was written years later in America, and immediate and ongoing questions were raised about its accuracy as memoir. Indeed, by the writer's own prefatory admission, A Moveable Feast is, as its title suggests, uneasily contained within traditional generic boundaries: "If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact." (1)

Similar complexity characterizes the current cultural and literary phenomenon that within the last 15 years has once again led a remarkable number of contemporary American writers to turn their attention to France. A body of work initially dominated by cultural historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and journalists (for example, Richard Bernstein, Robert Daley, Richard Kuisel, Jean-Philippe Mathy) has of late increasingly included the output of essayists (for example, Adam Gopnik, David Sedaris), memoirists (for example, Art Buchwald, Edmund White), and, especially, novelists (for example, Diane Johnson, Claire Messud, Edmund White, Lily King).The contributions of these last mark the emergence of what can be considered a cultural counterpart to a process of globalization that has too frequently been seen as predominantly economic and political in nature. The novels in question also suggest that contemporary American fiction set in France is generally characterized by aspects of postmodern writing (see Durham).

That detective novels and mysteries should constitute a distinctive and substantial subcategory of this corpus is in no way surprising; even Peter Mayle, whose best-selling nonfictional books about Provence have helped to create an audience for contemporary English-language texts about France, has lately turned his attention to light-hearted romantic mysteries. The plotlines and characters of what Carolyn Dever and Margaret Cohen see as the most popular genre of the twentieth century frequently appear in mainstream fiction about France as intertextual allusions (23-24; see, for example, Johnson). Moreover, within postmodern theory, the mystery novel or detective story has come to represent an international and hybrid art form, one that transcends both geographic and generic boundaries (see, for example, Collins and Hutcheon). In an introduction to the work of the French novelist Estelle Monbrun, whose own recent examples of the Franco-American polar (detective novel) traverse national and aesthetic boundaries, Pierre Verdaguer stresses the thematic and stylistic flexibility of the form: "It allows every kind of mixture and can sometimes support the juxtaposition of cultural registers usually deemed incompatible" (356).

Within the "mixture" of recent American detective novels about France--which include Cara Black's new series of murder mysteries set in 1993-94 in different quartiers of Paris and Sarah Smith's trilogy of historical mysteries set in America and France in the first decade of the twentieth century--I want to focus on a group of three texts whose similarities cannot be attributed to the particular vision of a single author. …

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