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Acquisto, Joseph. Crusoes and Other Castaways in Modern French Literature.

Acquisto, Joseph. Crusoes and Other Castaways in Modern French Literature. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2012. Pp. ix + 269. ISBN: 978-1-61149-406-8

At the beginning of his illuminating study, Joseph Acquisto recounts that when Virginia Woolf first picked up Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, she did so with great enthusiasm, anticipating the intellectual pleasures to come. Unfortunately, by the end of her reading she was staring at nothing but "a large earthenware pot" (2). The English Robinson is remarkable for his lack of introspection; the shipwreck has altered his life without affecting his way of seeing the world. All that matters for him are practical matters. Yet the adventures of this middle class Englishman, cranky, canny and dull, have engendered a plethora of offspring in a variety of cultures. Acquisto sets out to examine the permutations of Robinson's "solitary adventure" (3) in France.

In his "Introduction," Acquisto quickly establishes some criteria about the French Robinson which have persisted from the eighteenth century to the present. Generally speaking, the French have tended to focus less on Vendredi, and essentially ignore Robinson's life before and after the island episode. Also, if the British stress the activities of Robinson, the French tend to interiorize his adventures and turn them into fodder for self-reflection. Thus the British easily link Robinson's travails with their imperial adventures, while the French, with an occasional exception, prefer to minimize the colonial implications of the castaway's activities.

Acquisto provides an intriguing gloss on the notion of "solitary adventure" (4), which he associates both with the experiences of the abandoned hero, and the act of reading. As the French Robinson comes closer to the twentieth century and beyond, he becomes more contemplative, and as such parallels the reader whose adventure is most often solitary, as she leaves behind the familiar in search of "new and perhaps dangerous textual worlds" (133), places where the reader, like the castaway, must be active rather than passive in her approach to the island/text.

Acquisto credits Rousseau with popularizing the Crusoe story in France, but very much on his own terms. All that mattered for him were the island adventures and the reason he approved of these passages was that they provided instruction in the practical and the ethical. Yet if Rousseau's influence was enormous in the nineteenth century among popular writers, it was implicitly contested by more serious ones. The most fascinating nineteenth-century version of the Crusoe tale was Balzac's Louis Lambert, which contains only a passing reference to Defoe's novel. Lambert inhabits no physical island, but he is very much a prisoner of a mental one; he is a man who lives in his mind, or more specifically through the books which feed his imagination. Acquisto quotes Defoe as saying that the capacity for solitude can have little to do with physical isolation (124), and that is certainly Lambert's case. He is a solitary adventurer who cannot survive the loneliness he experiences in the world around him.

Acquisto devotes a long and instructive chapter to the robinsonnades, those popular variations on the Robinson motif which tended to follow Rousseau in stressing the moral implications of the tale. In discussing Emma Fauchon's Le Robinson americain (1850) Acquisto offers a critique that seems applicable to all the robinsonnades he mentions. These works fail as literature because of a hero who approaches the world with fixed values, and never allows reality or experience to alter his essentially complacent view of life (76). The great exception to these tales of self-satisfaction was Jules Verne's L'isle mysterieuse (1874-1875) where the technologically-gifted castaways subdue their island even better than Robinson did until the place explodes at the end, a catastrophe Acquisto associates with the end of the era of patronizing robinsonnades.

In terms of twentieth-century versions, Acquisto gives pride of place to Tournier's Vendredi, but his treatment is far from canonical. He points out that despite the title, the focus remains on Robinson and his island sojourn, and the novel has its own, idiosyncratic ethical dimension. From this perspective Tournier's work reaffirms, rather than challenges the French tradition.

The concluding chapter deals with even more contemporary versions of the solitary adventure that Acquisto describes in large measure as reactions to Tournier and which particularly call into question his rather fuzzy notion of "solar sexuality."

In Crusoes and other Castaways Acquisto provides a well-written and intellectually-stimulating account of the Francophone world's enduring fascination with a cranky, unimaginative eccentric whose solitude nevertheless stimulated the imagination of many.

William Cloonan, Florida State University
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Author:Cloonan, William
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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