Academic journal article ARIEL

Embodied Criticism: A French Lesson

Academic journal article ARIEL

Embodied Criticism: A French Lesson

Article excerpt

for Susan Shapiro

What happens as scholars of various disciplines increasingly write in the first person? (1) What does it mean for us to place ourselves, our embodied and historicized selves, in our work? I am interested in what transpires when we do this not just in our introductions, prefaces, or acknowledgements, but throughout an entire text. Given this turn to the first person point of view, what are we to make of the narrating of self, the self narratives that are present in our work and in the works of others? What comes to pass as these narratives become sedimented, when we can see the layers of self narratives presented over time? How do we write and rewrite our stories knowing that at least some of our readers already know some of these earlier tellings? With these questions in mind, I want to think about how we read the traces of the lives of other writers in an author's work and what the traces tell us, and to consider how we account for changes in our own positions as writers in our own work. To do this means thinking about imagined readers coming to our various works over time and the expectations we create as we place ourselves in our work. What do we imagine our readers do, once they have come to know us in our work in particular ways as we do other things? What lingers? How do we tell stories, create new narratives about topics we have addressed in the first person already; what can and do readers expect in these instances? In a sense, all of these are new questions and I do not think there are simple answers. Instead I am interested in exploring what we do with these questions as scholars, as readers, and as writers by looking at a particularly pointed case of what happens when the "I" in a series of scholarly texts is figured in relationship to a charged and indeed tainted history and the author's various relationships to that larger story and key figures within it. To begin to address some of these difficult issues I consider here the literary scholar Alice Kaplan and her engagements with the legacy of French fascism. (2)

I turn to Kaplan to ask how these issues of the "I" in a scholarly text play out when the work we do is about our relationships, and what might be construed as our complicities with historical figures whose legacies are indeed tainted. And once we have placed ourselves in these situations and written about them how can we write otherwise? My title, "A French Lesson," refers to the title of Kaplan's acclaimed memoir French Lessons (1993), which chronicles her life in French. I examine Kaplan's powerful presence in this text and how it relates to her other scholarly work, especially her overt discussion of her personal engagement with French fascist Maurice Bardeche and the legacy of both Bardeche and his brother-in-law Robert Brasillach who was convicted of treason as a collaborator after the war in 1945. Kaplan writes about these legacies in French Lessons, as well as in her first book Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature and French Intellectual Life (1986), and in The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (2000). In each of these works Kaplan addresses her relationship with Bardeche as it evolves over time. I am interested in the twists and turns of this interaction as presented in these works, French Lessons, Reproductions of Banality, and am ultimately concerned with how this depiction changes in the story she tells in The Collaborator. Because Kaplan presents this material in relation to the loss of her father, a prosecutor at Nutemberg who died when she was only eight years old, I will argue that the psychological stakes are extremely high. Kaplan's insistence on the importance of this loss makes it virtually impossible not to see her personal story seeping through the pages of all her work. Given these details, I believe this self narration over time offers a case in point. And, as I will argue, even her more recent work, The Translator (2005) is haunted by this story. …

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