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Virginie Pouzet-Duzer. L'Impressionisme litteraire.

Virginie Pouzet-Duzer. L'Impressionisme litteraire. Paris: Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 2013.350 pp.

L'Impressionisme litteraire belongs to the genre of ekphrastic criticism that is dedicated to dialogues and debates between text and image and, in this case, dialogues (direct and indirect) between writers and painters. As should be the case for a study of this nature--but rarely is--the book is beautifully illustrated with both black and white and color reproductions of the paintings it discusses.

L'Impressionisme litteraire is peopled with many of the usual nineteenth-century suspects--Manet, Degas, Renoir, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Zola, etc.--and much of the historical and anecdotal material will be familiar to art historians as well as literary dix-neuviemistes. But Virginie Pouzet-Duzer approaches the artists and their work with a particularly compelling set of questions regarding the nature of aesthetic labels in general and the label "impressionist" in particular. As Catulle Mendes insisted in an interview in 1891: "Ne me parlez pas d'ecoles, c'est horripilant! Il n'y a rien de miserable, de petit et de deprimant comme ces querelles sur une etiquette." (p. 316) Whereas Impressionism is one of the most familiar classifications of French painting in the late nineteenth century--arguably outstripping Romanticism, Realism, Symbolism in recognizability--it has never had equivalent currency for French literature or literary criticism. And yet, who has not used the term "impressionist" to describe the poetry of Mallarme or Verlaine? Virginie Pouzet-Duzer's book asks the question: what then is literary impressionism? To answer the question, she mobilizes the discourses of art history, literary history, cultural history and stylistic analysis and, in the end, leaves the reader with a rich cultural snapshot of an epoch.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One is built around two of the best-known artists of the latter half of the nineteenth century: Edgar Degas, championed by the critic Edmond Duranty as "l'impressioniste ideal" (p. 29); and Edouard Manet, the exemplary artist in Stephane Mallarme's reflections on Impressionism. Emile Zola looms large in the chapter on Manet, as he does in the famous portrait Manet did of him that Pouzet-Duzer discusses in detail. The pages on Manet's portrait of Mallarme are equally suggestive, as is the analysis of Manet and Mallarme's collaboration on a translation and edition of Poe's "The Raven." Here Pouzet-Duzer touches on a rich French tradition of collaborative work between painters and poets that extends well into the twentieth century.

If the first half of the book is devoted to the intellectual and biographical overlappings of a generation of French artists, the second half looks at questions of impressionist style. Mallarme, who figures prominently in Chapter One, as subject of an impressionist painting by Manet returns as the impressionist poet par excellence, the poet haunted by silences and white pages that may also be blank canvases. This is where Pouzet-Duzer carefully develops and posits her argument: if French literature was (and continues to be) taxonomized in oppositional terms like romanticism/realism and symbolism/naturalism, impressionism in literature is that category that is beyond oppositions and defies categorisation. It is marginal, fragmented, and elusive. While this final statement is demonstrated convincingly, I do hesitate about some of Pouzet-Duzers premises; for even as she asserts the slipperiness of the term impressionism in the literary context, she seems to retain other "-isms" as stable aesthetic constructs, minimizing the nuance and contradictions that are built into them as well. Such hesitations notwithstanding, L'Impressionisme litteraire is a finely argued book. Pouzet-Duzers erudition is impressive and wide-ranging but does not weigh down this very readable and beautifully illustrated book, which I fully expect to become a standard for students and scholars interested in the rich exchanges between authors and painters, texts and images in late nineteenth-century France.

Sima Godfrey, University of British Columbia
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Author:Godfrey, Sima
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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