Eduardo A. Febles. Explosive Narratives: Terrorism and Anarchy in the Works of Emile Zola.
Terrorism is a byword these days. It is helpful, then, to put the concept into perspective both historically and in terms of cultural production. Eduardo Febles does this skillfully in Explosive Narratives, by analyzing the "literary function" of the forgotten terrorist figure of the Belle Epoque anarchist in three of Zolas novels, Germinal (1885), Paris (1898) and Travail (1901). Febles selected these novels as representative anchor pieces from each of Zola's long-term, multi-volume series--Les Rougon-Macquart, Les Trois Villes, and Les Quatre Evangiles. They therefore form a "coherent trilogy" for tracking the naturalists "evolving views" (21) on anarchism. The conceptual premises of Explosive Narratives are that "the discourse on terror functions symbolically within a given social structure" (11)--in this case, Third Republic France; that naturalism's inclinations are "entropie," a framework opened up by David Baguley's work on that particular "vision" of naturalism; and that anarchy, by definition an unwilling participant in realist representation, challenges naturalist aesthetics. Methodologically, Febles pursues meticulous readings of the novels as they are interwoven with dialogue and indirect discourse that embed Zola's changing views on anarchism; there is also a hint of genetic criticism where Febles introduces to good effect elements from Zola's correspondence, preparatory notes and draffs in order to further disclose the novelists changing views on anarchism as he composed these novels. Febles argues that Zola, in three different ways, calls upon and then purges anarchism of its radical thrust. Explosive Narratives will thus be of interest to specialists of Emile Zola and Belle Epoque France, to be sure, but will also appeal to those interested in radical social and political movements, as well as to those drawn by the relationship between politics and aesthetics, particularly as they apply to anarchy in art and literature.
Carefully following more than two decades of Zola scholarship, Febles traces the fault lines that trouble Zola's treatment of anarchism. If Zola cannot be held responsible for his wariness regarding what he perceives to be anarchy's violent means, Febles demonstrates how Zola is nevertheless liable for misrepresenting, diluting and ultimately erasing anarchism as a political phenomenon of Third Republic France, after having exploited and then absorbed its allure into an alternative anti-bourgeois stance in his novels. Chapter 1, "Souvarine's Vanishing Act," traces the figure of this anarchist character in Germinal, the first instance of Zola's "effacement of anarchy" in his novels (36). It becomes clear that the novel suffers from its anachronistic depiction of anarchy, as well as from watered-down, popularizing and stereotyped versions of anarchism and socialism. Zola's ambivalence about both the utility and violence of anarchism leads not simply to the dismissal of the social movement, but to a strange smothering of it, as if he could have it both ways--playing up the radicalism of anarchism in parallel to his critique of bourgeois existence and social inequities, without adopting its most extreme tenets. Significantly, Febles attends to formal concerns, exploring for example how a naturalist mode of description positions itself complicitly in a stable, controlling point of view akin to the very bourgeois order Zola pretends to unmask (44). In addition, the moral authority of Souvarine, the anarchist anti-hero and "misanthrope" (49), is "undermined"; but so too, Febles argues, is an entropie depiction of the Voreux mine's destruction, a depiction in which elements of the fantastic stretch the limits of narrative stability and undermine realism (58-61). Ultimately, several literary strategies in Germinal spin out of control and erode any of the author's ideological sympathy for anarchism's cri de coeur.
In Chapter 2, "Anarchy as Narrative Capital," Febles's sustained reading of Paris, the climax to Les Trois Villes, provides a healthy update and sets a new standard for readings of this novel. Paris is the intermediate step toward the utopian register of Travail, yet as a novel recuperating the episodes of anarchist attacks in the early 1890s, it stands out in its own right as emblematic of Zolas evolving view of anarchism. Zola exploits a fascination with violence in the first section of the novel, narrating a terrorist attack committed by a disaffected laborer but made possible by a central character, the anarchist scientist Guillaume Froment. In line with his previous attention to form, Febles shows how the narration "los[es] control of its mimetic function" (94), suggesting that anarchy constantly threatens these novels. As in Germinal, Paris dismisses or "silences" each of the various strains of the "anarchist voice" (104) it purports to incorporate (Proudhon, Comte, Fourier, Guesde; 73). Here Febles's meticulous reconstruction of notes for Paris, interviews with Zola, and careful comparisons with primary source documents--which Zola himself failed to read--expose the novel's confused and superficial depiction of anarchist theory. In the end, Guillaume Froment, inventor of a powerful explosive evocative of dynamite, cannot remain a threat to society; the novel collapses his extreme position into a "contrived fraternity" that dismisses social antagonisms (101) and strikes the reader of its day and our own as wishful thinking--not because one cannot hope for peaceful resolutions to social conflict, but because such a contrivance lacks the very scientific credibility and logic to which Zola constantly lays claim. Likewise, in Chapter 3, "The Anarchic Commune as Worlds Fair," the radical utopianism in Travail that was ostensibly from Fourier turns out to be something different as well. Febles unravels the strands of Proudhonian socialist thought that Zola weaves into his late work rife with dire internal contradictions: "Fourier's highly systematized organization of life ... does not complement the anarchic dream of a state-less society" (128) or the "commune libertaire" (read: commune anarchique) that Zola uses to suffocate anarchist violence. Febles's study, by pitting utopian discourse against naturalist fiction, unpacks the very anarchy at play in Zola's work in a manner that exposes flawed naturalist assumptions.
The linkage between realism and a fragmented aesthetic, between a desire for positive knowledge and the catastrophe or collapse that threatens it, lends credibility to Febles's book. I have not attempted to cover all aspects of his study. There is much to be said, for example, for Febles's handling of entropie figures, thermodynamics, the machine, and the electrical age in these three novels. However, I emphasize that while adapting to each novel's original and critical context, Febles persistently attends to narrative form and anarchy as a larger concept. This affords a view of Zola's narrative form that forces a cleavage between the novelist's strategy and execution, leaving only a soft anarchism evacuated of its force. This is not in itself necessarily original in relation to Zola scholarship on, say, the novelist's gender politics. But it does shape our understanding of Zola's late work in particular, which continues to demand more analysis. Moreover, Febless introduction hints at a wider set of implications: the link between anarchism and art in Third Republic France. More work has been done on anarchy in the symbolist and modernist aesthetic, while ignoring its connection to realist and naturalist works that express the everyday of Third Republic France. Scholarship has tended to emphasize the tension between the spatio-temporal and narratological orderliness of the naturalist project, and not without reason, but it has left little room for the troubling unpredictability of the anarchist or other revolutionary politics. One of the book's goals is to make headway for an "integrated theory of anarchy and literature" (20) that discards the assumption that entropy reveals realism and anarchism to be mutually incompatible (27). For Zola's novels at least, Febles provides a useful corrective to that assumption (in Uri Eizensweig's Fictions de l'anarchisme, for example) by inviting us to rethink the relation between realism and anarchism, on both historical and aesthetic grounds.
As a final note, Febless work is solidly grounded in an understanding of by now well established thinking on the role of anarchism in this period and beyond. This includes sources such as Jean Maitron's exhaustive history of Le mouvement anarchiste en France, but also others dealing with aesthetic form and its relation to anarchy and anarchism, such as Richard Sonn's studies of anarchism in fin de siecle France, David Weir's study of anarchism in aesthetic modernism in Anarchy and Culture, and Alexander Varias's examination of Paris and the Anarchists. Published in 2010, it is something of a shame that Explosive Narratives was unable to engage with John Merriman's work The Dynamite Club (2009), in which we learn of Emile Henry's reading of Zola--might there have been a feedback loop at play here? At the very least the proximate appearance of these two works, one with a literary focus and the other historical, tells us that the discussion will proceed.
Daryl Lee, Brigham Young University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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