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The World Republic of Letters Paperback – May 30 2007

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A Modernist Republic of Letters, maybe April 5 2012
By jdou - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Thoughts from a scholar of revolutionary literature
Analysis of publishing data and the search for evidence of a work's "influence" on later audiences is an important first step in the creation of strong and verifiable scholarship. This step, which involves painstaking research in newspapers and archival sources of police and publishers, is often overlooked by critics who think that it is the job of the historian. For some fields such data may already exist and excellent editions make it accessible for students and scholars. But for others, such as the literature of the French Revolution and other moments of socio-political turmoil, this basic data is still missing. We have to delve into the background of publishing history ourselves: this attention to concrete data is crucial for putting literary history into true dialogue with political history, for example, or understanding traces of its echoes in art.
Pascale Casanova disparages these methods in her provocative book, The World Republic of Letters (2004). She dismisses the concepts of "reception" and "influence" as outmoded for today's readers, noting: "Plainly, this will not do." Instead she calls for critics to depict the "specific geography of literature and its unique measure of aesthetic time," or "the balance of power and competition that organizes the literary field" (103). These geo-political and economic metaphors are appropriate for Casanova's study, because it focuses on major writers of the Modernist school (1890s-1920s). It is not easy to find something new to say about such well-known writers as William Faulkland and James Joyce, and so it is appropriate--and quite fascinating--to reveal aspects of the dialogic afterlife that they inspired among writers who work in "minor" languages and hail from small countries of South America and Eastern Europe. Such famous literature responds well to this kind of scrutiny because it continues to wield a powerful role in the global publishing market, as seen in the teaching canons of high schools and universities, and in modern-day notions of aesthetic Beauty and literary Excellence. To be nick-named the "Brazilian Beckett" would be a sure-fire promise of material and intellectual success! To be named the "Brazilian Regnault-Warin," not so much. But even if the French corpus of revolutionary materials that are today emerging into sight cannot yet aspire to global geopolitical scrutiny, given the dearth of primary research and aesthetic evaluation of their place in world canons, I think that they still herald a kind of innovation that makes them worthy of close scrutiny. For that, the methods that I listed above (otherwise known as the "new positivism") are very much in demand. And Casanova is way off base.
The bottom line is that Casanova's claim to an atemporal and universal republic of letters is a bit misleading. A Modernist republic of letters is more accurate.
21 of 30 people found the following review helpful
French cultural propaganda Oct. 24 2009
By Jason Argonaut - Published on
Format: Paperback
While Casanova does appear to be speaking for cultural decentralization (especially where novels are concerned), her argument is so selectively and relentlessly gallocentric she winds up reifying a center-periphery vision that effectively erases alternative centers. She tends to confuse the economic dimension of (relative) cultural hegemony (who has the money to translate, publish, review, distribute?) with what one might call a strictly cultural dimension of hegemony (i.e., excellence, for want of a better word). Excellence is and has always been everywhere. As Hollywood has demonstrated within France itself over the past 40 years, having more money to produce and especially to control channels of distribution is neither a mark (necessarily) of excellence, nor is it (necessarily) a symptom of cultural superiority: it's merely a mark of having more money and organizational power to create, market, and distribute your own "product." Casanova's gallocentric view of the world is distorted badly enough where the 19th and 20th centuries are concerned (she effectively erases the fact, and significance, of writers who did not move to, dream about, or react to Parisian aesthetic dictates, while claiming to want to destabilize Parisian hegemony), although her model works relatively well for this period given the fact that Paris did nevertheless operate, relatively speaking, as something like the hegemonic center Casanova curiously both laments and goes a long way toward naturalizing (a better strategy, of course, would be to focus on the much bigger literary world that was not filtered through Paris). But her account fails utterly (and becomes a lot more like French cultural propaganda than well-informed, even-handed scholarship) when it looks at historical beginnings in the 16th and 17th centuries. Anglophone critics have pointed out the problems with her account of Shakespeare reception and of Paris's position since the 1960s (although they have missed her essential point: alas, neither New York nor even London has taken over the function of Parisian publishing houses where translation is concerned; in the US 2-3 % of books are translated, compared to England's 20-40% in the 18th century). Paris has not been displaced by New York and London; New York and London have participated in the increasing parochialism of an Anglophone world more than ever functioning like a giant cultural island with its back to a very much larger, diverse, vital world out there. It is not obvious to me that ANY city is now fulfilling Paris's 19th to mid-20th century function as literary arbiter (certainly where Latin American writers are concerned, Madrid and Barcelona in the past 50 years have been far more central to diffusion than Paris or New York: e.g., the case of Chilean Roberto Bolaño). Would comparatists centered in French and English, please, for once wake up to the fact that the world is and has always been polycentric; and that what you know and do not know is not the measure of what is worth knowing about other cultures and literatures, it's just the measure of the greater or lesser extent of your personal ignorance and the blinkers of your professional (grad school) training. Casanova niftily dismisses the medieval and early modern Italian defenses of the vernacular and the consolidation of a vernacular literature in Italian on the questionable grounds that Italian was not backed by a large, centralizing state. But she has to ignore the early modern Spanish case because it simply cannot be dismissed (except by ignoring it): unlike the Italian case, there was a large, powerful, centralizing state behind it (indeed more powerful than the French till 1648); it antedated French defenses of the vernacular by anywere from 50 to 100 years (Nebrija's groundbreaking first grammar of a European vernacular, published 1492; Valdés's Defense of the [Castillian] language of the 1530s, widely circulated in Italy as well as Spain); and the emperor Charles V's dramatic and decisive use of Castillian, and his demand that Spain take diplomatic precedence before French, at the papal court in the 1530s. Indeed, Castillian was consolidated precociously as the vehicle for official historiography and the laws of the land already by the mid-13th century, as part of the remarkable cultural project of Alfonso X of Castille (with his court at Toledo). His politically motivated cultural project is a major precursor for what was accomplished by the Spanish and French monarchies in the 16th and 17th centuries, but itself looked to the example of the great Hispano-Muslim courts at Córdoba, Seville, Toledo, etc. for its effective recognition of the crucial links between political and cultural power (it also explains why Castillian was a vehicle for major literary texts well before Nebrija and the Spanish Golden Age). More importantly, there was the translation and deep influence of Spanish letters on French beginning at least as eaarly as La Celestina (1499) [whose translation went through over a dozen editions in 16th century France], the vogue for Spanish sentimental/epistolary novels of the 1490s through the 1550s, the Continent-wide success of the chivalric book Amadis de Gaula (from 1508), Antonio de Guevara's influence on Montaigne (Montaigne recognizes that Guevara was one of his father's favorite writers, in the original!), the diffusion of picaresque novels (which originated in Spain, beginning with Lazarillo in 1554), to say nothing of Cervantes and Don Quijote. The biggest erasure of Spain in Casanova's account, however, has to do with the Spanish classical theater's widely documented influence on the beginnings of French classical theater: as is well-known but not sufficiently appreciated, Corneille's Le Cid was an adaptation of Guillén de Castro's Mocedades del Cid and a reflection of course on the Spanish medieval epic hero; Corneille's Le menteur was an adaptation of Alarcón's wonderful play, La verdad sospechosa. Many other examples could be cited: Casanova focuses on the relation between Racine and Shakespeare because if she looks at Corneille and his generation she'd have to deal with the fact that the French classical theater in significant ways emerges out of its engagement with Spanish classical theater (as well as Italian commedia dell'arte, etc.). I'm less interested in turning tables here than in drawing attention to the fact that we need, once and for all, a comparatism that sheds its vestigially 19th century narratives and stops trying to do the work of nationalists and imperialists by promoting one or another tradition as origin, center, source vs. alleged "peripheries." A disciplinary imperialism has taken the place of the old politically motivated nationalist imperialisms: but there are more intelligent ways of defending your field and particular interests than by engaging in these knee-jerk, self-serving narratives (a true comparatism recognizes and enchances the distinctive greatness of all traditions, and recognizes a "center" wherever there is human creativity). All cultures draw on others and are shot through with borrowings and contradictions, now, in the recent and remote past, and for the foreseeable future. Moretti's work on the novel, in this sense, gives a much more useful, and much less tendentious bird's-eye view of the development of the novel (although even he has a tendency to reinforce the Chunnel myopia).
13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
An Ideal Work of Scholarship Feb. 8 2005
By A Reader - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I read this book in the original (French) while writing my dissertation (comparative literature), and quoted from it often. The writing is engaging, the author covers an encyclopedic range of writers and literary periods, and she brings a compelling theoretical perspective to fundamental questions of cultural development and social history. The book is particularly authoritative in the crucial question of how literary vernaculars legitimate themselves--a question as central to contemporary post-colonial literatures as it was to the early-modern writing of the 16th and 17th centuries. That Casanova can speak meaningfully to readers and researchers at both ends of the modern literary spectrum indicates the magnitude of her scholarly achievement. This is the kind of book that all of us who are in the academic racket would like to have written, and it is one that anyone interested in literary studies would enjoy and profit from reading. I'm looking forward to reading this translation to remind myself of what I liked about the original, and to catch any nuances that my quite non-native command of French would have missed. Thank you, Harvard, for bringing this book out in translation: please put it out in paperback, as well!
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Still Educational for Literature & the Arts Nov. 1 2013
By G. T. Bysshe - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Now 14 years old, 8 years old in English, "The World Republic of Letters" is still educational to all who would study European culture, literature or the fine arts. While our picture of international culture today is now "globalized," there was a time when international culture and international style meant Europe, just more recently exported to the world as international. Global culture ought to recognize the distinction between European/American "international" culture and global cultures (plural) because they are not a whole, nor often even national, and often post-colonial.

So, Casanova's book is also about working/navigating European cultural/ language lines, extending outward toward many authors/cultures seeking recognition/publication, by way of numerous language strategies. We may have had a blurry vision of national and international cultures, but this book makes something unclear clear, gets beneath the sheets, and puts firmly between the boards of a book what authors are confronted with.

She starts with a cultural history of the development of European "cultural capital" (Bourdieu) from its vernacular languages, split from Latin, the Church, the growth of their literatures related to their politics, the ascendency of French, to the widespread consciousness of the "people"-- their language-- their nation, (Johann Gottfried von Herder 1772, who's he?) and to the Parisian culture of the late 19th and early 20th C.

Casanova is a French researcher who is something of a philologist and literary historian, taking Fernand Braudel, (such as: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1 ), as a model for history writing, and Pierre Bourdieu The Field of Cultural Production], for some concepts and terminology (cultural capital) of cultural sociology, to write a new book in every sense about something old, something we all know about more or less, vernacular language and literature in Europe, but that we have not heard-- a history and sociology of cultural power and influence.

She builds this picture up through numerous writers' testimony and surrounding history to an extent that seemingly no one is left out. She also posits sub-models, and sub-submodels that reflect back. Such as Joyce, an ex-pat national and international writer as opposed to Maeterlink, a nonnationalist national writer. And this what gives the book its substance and trajectory-- reflection and testimony, almost a synecdoche of literature itself.

I wondered with whom this book resonated, so I read the other reviews and got my answer immediately from the reviewer I will call "the Spaniard". (Thank you for your review.) I thought this book might have problems with detailed academics (as opposed to elective readers like myself) in related literatures who felt this did not represent them. These would be people not in the Anglo-French-German triangle, (which includes Russia for its francophilia, but maybe not Italy and Spain for their regents' inter-relations over the centuries) The main triangle is where this book gains most of its traction, in my view.

Personally, I too felt the repel of the gallocentricism in Casanova, but also the attraction of my francophilia-- so one of my interests in the book was to see this double-bind played out. As an Anglo, I have no problem with her characterization of Shakespeare (there were plenty of problems with this within Britain itself through history- nobody has a spotless history on perception of their own national culture or that of others.) Besides, I got this book from Spivak, and took credence in the conviction that there was plenty of Anglo-centrism going around in the British Empire. With 40+ lingua francas in the world (origin late 17th cent.: from Italian, literally `Frankish tongue.'), we ARE talking about the power of the center, for better or worse.

Certainly "the Spaniard's" negative point of view is a response to erasure of Spanish literature i.e. specifically from Spain in the model-- Casanova treats in detail several important writers in Spanish and Portuguese in the new world who seemed most suited to the outlines of her picture, on the RECEIVING end of the exploitive Spanish and Portuguese Empires. I am not faulting Casanova for the reflexive (tendentious) structure of her theory either- I accept Spivak's admission, that in criticism (and theory) you most likely will find what you are seeking.

"The Spaniard" talks of "a true comparativism", "a true comparativism [which] recognizes and enhances the distinctive greatness of all traditions, which recognizes a 'center' wherever there is human creativity." I agree with that on its face but Bourdieu probably wouldn't, seemingly substituting sociology for the arts. But where does this leave the "subaltern," to bring in Spivak, and moving up the scale to Europe to the outliers, the small areas that are not countries or do not have a language or much of a cultural patrimony (Kafka in particular)? No where.

I can call attention to a key word in the title of Casanova's book, and that is: REPUBLIC. What is lacking in Spain and Portugal in the time period considered is just that, a republic, and the requisite political will for such for such, and its literature of founding, which is the core of Casanova's thesis: Johann Gottfried von Herder publishes Treatise on the Origin of Language, 1772, supporting the German language and a baseline of cultural development toward a working nationality- indeed just as "the Spaniard" says-- old politically motivated .......nationalist imperialisms acting as literary arbiters...just so. But also, a build-up of literature as "cultural capital" (Bourdieu) and its divorce from politics to an autonomy of its own, beyond just freedom to speak and write.

Spain had its "illustrados" but they were betrayed during Napoleon's attack and the effects took 150 years to repair. Goya was a part of Spain's literature and he fled to Bordeaux. That reinstallation of a functioning regent had a long term effect on Spain's exclusion from French cultural development.

Spain can be counted under Casanova's heading: "The International of Small Nations," in part: "The special perceptiveness of contestants on the periphery enables them to detect affinities among emerging literary (and political(?)) spaces. There shared literary destitution leads them to take each other as models and historical points of reference...." (this part yes)..." to compare their literary situations, and apply common STRATEGIES, based on logic...etc." (this part no). Casanova forks off immediately with Herderian logic toward revolution...this is exactly what didn't happen, Spain's literature was perhaps self-satisfied, but lacking in desire for French values of democratic meritocracy, which really didn't exist in France either, France essentially being a plutocratic meritocracy until WWI.


In addition to detailed examinations of German and Irish literary development, Casanova also includes a picture of Scandinavia during the late 19th C. vis-á-vis French culture. Interesting in this context are several points about Germany's influence over Scandinavia, Norway's desire to shed its German connection prior to its independence from Sweden, the importance of Georg Brandes, and especially the trials of Henrik Ibsen in Paris with French translation and performance.

As she puts it, the Paris metropole radiated outward, raised everyone's desire, but did so passively, no strings attached. However, going to Paris, expecting something in return from the establishment there, was another matter. It tended to see outliers on its own terms.

Here again, most important for me is Casanova's big picture, which is the substance of the book supported by individual authors' testimony, which is authors on the periphery struggling to get into the PRESENT TIME of the center. It is a picture which completely swallows up Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence [ [[ASIN:B00BR5IVTY The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry by Bloom, Harold 2nd (second) Edition [Paperback(1997)] ]. Without mentioning him, it bypasses Bloom's literary influence theory and replaces it with firmly written history about cultural power issues Bloom never took into account.

For example, in reference to the painter Edvard Munch, we can look at Ibsen through Casanova's eyes. Shaw wrote an essay on Ibsen, and James Joyce even learned Dano-Norwegian in order to read Ibsen in its original text. Ibsen's success (être courant, avoir cours, au courant) in Europe had been tremendous, and had a tremendous effect on Munch's art-- but also his view of himself as an artist, as he was never able to match his fellow countryman's recognition and influence with his own, in confrontation with a French based painting culture.

I can't resist the thought taken from Casanova that never occurred to me about Edvard Munch and the "content" of his art, especially after the big Symbolist splash of the 1890's. From Casanova, writing about someone else, I could imagine that Edvard Munch "avoids being condemned to the condition of perpetual anachronism to which the 'rural [artist]' is evidently liable ...[by seeking] to escape from time, to establish himself as an artist outside of time, ever and always present, eternal, who submits neither to history nor to the vagaries of modernity-- with which in any case he could not pretend to compete." (Casanova, p. 245 on the author Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, Vaud, Switzerland, 1914) In this sense he parts company with both the indifferent French, and his German friends, becoming once again a national figure.


Authors worldwide are navigating numerous strategies to originate meaningful text and get published. Casanova's writing makes it easy for us accept the picture she creates up until now, but what of the future? Over 60% of the world's population is not in this model--not speaking any of the languages in the model--rather, Arabic, Chinese, and Hindi, and many many more, some without script. So many in the world without speech in a political structure. Their emergence should figure large in the future, but how? And who will help or hinder them in this process? Who will be heard in their own language, and who will become bilingual, "a primary and indelible mark of political domination" (Casanova) ?

Certainly their future histories, their view of their "Greenwich Mean Time" of the center, when it comes, their present time, their center, need not necessarily have anything to do with what we discuss here. Spivak gives a hint in "World Systems and the Creole," (AE, 2012). An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Interesting but repetitive. Aug. 30 2008
By Kelster - Published on
Format: Paperback
The book is interesting but repetitive. I agree with another reviewer who said that it could be shorter. Moreover, I think that it looks too much at the past just at a moment when, with the changes Internet is bringing about, the situation is changing very quickly. I did not have the feeling that I was reading about The World Republic of Letters as it is now but as it was some years ago.