Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Colonial Metropolis and Its Artistic Adventure: Conrad, Congo, and the Nouvelle Revue Francaise

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Colonial Metropolis and Its Artistic Adventure: Conrad, Congo, and the Nouvelle Revue Francaise

Article excerpt

To Denis de Rougemont, critic, at the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, interwar Paris was nothing less than the geometric locus of the modern adventure." (1) The adventure he had in mind was of course an artistic one. He lists the works of cubism, surrealism, and "l'ecole de Paris"; the ballets of Diaghilev; the compositions of "les Six"; and the writings of Apollinaire, Proust, Valery, and Gide--important contributors to the NRF. Rougemont's enthusiastic assertion obviously calls to mind Gertrude Stein's famous line: "Paris was where the twentieth century was." (2) Yet, the modern adventure she experienced amongst the American authors of the "lost generation" who resided in Paris must have been an altogether different one than Rougemont's. Despite their simultaneity, Rougemont's Paris is not Stein's, and it is even less the Paris of, say, the Scandinavian modernists who gathered around the cafe Chez les Vikings at Montparnasse, or the Paris of first writers of the "negritude"-movement. Rather than being a monolithic "locus of the modern adventure," Paris represents various simultaneous and competing loci, which only partly overlap.

As the leading literary review in France, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise played a pivotal role in determining which modern "adventure" was most visible. In this article I shall point out that the transnational perspective, upon which the metropolitan review always prided itself, had its limitations when it comes to artistic representations of colonialism. My main focus will be the NRF's adoption of Joseph Conrad's oeuvre in relation to the adventure genre and its colonial aspect. Through the two central forces of the first NRF, Jacques Riviere and Andre Gide, I shall demonstrate the review's tendency to glorify adventure in a literary setting--in Riviere's case through an admiration for the British adventure story and in Gide's case through a Conradian imagination, which to a large extent prevented him from encountering Congo's colonial reality.

Conrad and the Nouvelle Revue Francaise

If the American writers of the "lost generation" were lost by the NRF, and the British Bloomsbury-group never discovered, one English-writing modernist did receive the NRF's full attention: Joseph Conrad. In 1910, Andre Gide read his first novel by Conrad, The Nigger of the 'Narcissus; and through the anglophile Valery Larbaud he met the Anglo-Polish author in Kent in July 1911.(3) Soon Conrad's novels were of the highest priority to the NRF. Conrad had first entrusted Henry Davray of the Mercure de France with the French translations, even dramatically exclaiming: "ce sera vous--ou personne." (4) Yet, the NRF somehow managed to wring that responsibility from Davray, and from November 1915 Gide was officially in charge of the NRF Gallimard's series of Conrad's complete works with a projected frequency of one translation every other year. In other words, Conrad's French reception was almost entirely in the hands of Gide and the NRF. In this sense Conrad's oeuvre was, as I shall show in more detail, appropriated by the NRF, culminating in 1924 with a special issue at Conrad's death in which Heart of Darkness at last appeared in French, more than twenty-five years after its first publication in English. (5)

Why did the leading French literary review persist in a belated interest in Conrad's early modernism at a time where its editorial board probably should have moved on to the emerging generation of high modernist authors such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and James Joyce, who all even resided in the French capital? The simple answer is that Conrad fit their notion of the novel. The question is then what that notion precisely consisted in and to this there is no simple answer, especially since it needs to take into account the literary divergences within "le team intime" of the NRF--in particular between Gide and Riviere. (6) Habitually, critics explain that Conrad, with his dense prose style, provided "a bridge between the British and Continental spirit. …

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