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In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830-1980.

In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830-1980. By VICTOR BROMBERT. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1999. ix + 168 pp. $29; 23.25 [pounds sterling].

Victor Brombert's name is well known to any student of nineteenth-century French literature, not only for his canonical monographs on Stendhal, Hugo, and Flaubert but also for important comparative studies such as The Intellectual Hero (1962) and The Hero in Literature (1969), and most recently, The Hidden Reader (1988). It is clear in everything he writes that he is a scholar of the 'old school', in the admirable sense of having both breadth and depth within the field of modern European high culture, being multi-lingual both geographically and historically. But (of course there is a 'but' coming) this book has an air of exhausting if not exhausted familiarity. We might be warned by the fact that is it his third book with 'hero' in the title. There is very little here that could not have been written by the critic Brombert was in the decade 1962-72, in which he published six of his main books.

'Ever since my student days, I have felt an aversion for all critical discourses that forced an arbitrary reading on a text without regard for how that text asked to be read', he wrote in 1988 (The Hidden Reader, p. 4). He says something similar in the introduction to this book: 'These chapters can be read as independent essays only insofar as they respect the specific and unique voice of each author. [...] I have been careful to avoid a definitional scheme or method of approach, preferring instead to remain attuned to individual authors and works' (p. 9). In this view, texts, like authors, are audible presences, self-identical, almost bodied. Everything follows from this position of existential humanism: the antihero is as solid a thing (more solid in a way, if we know our Sartre) as any hero of the swashbuckling sort could be. Between man and shadow there is hardly any space, and the space there is has already been thoroughly measured before.

These essays range across 150 years, from Buchner to Levi, via Gogol, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Hasek, Frisch, Svevo, and Camus: all the usual suspects. The antiheroes come in all shapes and sizes: some of them are working-class (the wily Schweik and saintly Felicite, for in the negative as well as the positive, 'the heroic concept extends to exceptional women' (p. 3)) and some of them, in the Italian texts, are Jews (the analysis gets more interesting, though still always safe, in these chapters), but for the most part, they are the kind of 'underground men' whose grouchiness, narrowness, and social refusal leads seamlessly to a diagnosis of 'the courage of failure experienced as the affirmation of fundamental honesty' (p. 6).

Fascinating problems glide out of sight. Anyone struck by the brutality, rather than the 'depressing banality' (p. 19), of Woyzeck's slaughter of Maria, the politics of Flaubert's style indirect libre, or the elision of the resistible, blamable enemy from Camus's plague-struck Oran will find no discussion of them here. Instead, Svevo offers us 'the courage of despair' (p. 69), Buchner is to be congratulated on the underlined declaration 'I have contempt for no one' (p. 15), and in Frisch, 'the anxiety about language and image-making is ultimately related to the mystery of the self and the problem of identity' (p. 83).

'Unsere Heimat ist der Mensch', concludes Brombert, via 'Frisch, like Camus' (p. 97). But if, in 1999, we cannot distrust Camus, Svevo, Dostoevsky, and even Levi, whom is it worth distrusting?

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Segal, Naomi
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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