Pascale Casanova: A French champion of Irish literature

To the late critic, Ireland had managed against the odds to win world recognition

Pascale Casanova: More than her evident talents, it was her ambition and bravery that won her work huge recognition

Pascale Casanova: More than her evident talents, it was her ambition and bravery that won her work huge recognition


Pascale Casanova, the distinguished French literary critic, died on September 29th last year aged 59. She was an innovative writer on Beckett and a major theorist of world literature; her death ought not to pass unnoticed in Ireland.

Casanova was a student of the French cultural sociologist and anti-neoliberal activist Pierre Bourdieu and worked as a successful radio producer for France Culture before devoting herself full time to scholarship. Her first book on Beckett was published in French in Editions du Seuil in 1997 and translated into English as Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution by Verso in 2006. In a career increasingly bedevilled by illness, Casanova taught as a visiting professor at Duke University and continued to publish several other works, including Kafka en Colère (Seuil, 2011), translated as Kafka, Angry Poet (Seagull Books, 2015), and her last book, La Langue Mondiale Traduction et Domination (Seuil, 2015).

But it was her second book, La République Mondiale des Lettres (Seuil, 1999), translated into English in 2004 as The World Republic of Letters, that won Casanova a deserved international fame. Since the end of the “theory era” in literary studies in the 1990s, there have been few books of literary criticism that have mattered so much as this work, the fruit of her dissertation with Bourdieu. And just as Casanova’s first book was on Beckett, this second work accorded a central role to Irish literature. Roving freely across European, American and postcolonial literatures, Casanova accorded an entire chapter to modern Irish writing. Ireland was, for her, the exemplary case of a “minor literature” that had managed against the odds to win itself world recognition, thus escaping the secondariness and neglect that is the fate of the literatures of so many small or dominated nations.

What won Casanova’s work its huge attention? More than her evident talents, it was her ambition and bravery. In a time when so much criticism is pitiably pettifogging, Casanova thought boldly. But though she was unafraid to take risks, neither was she an attention-seeking controversialist. Rather, what Casanova possessed, and what lent her work its panache, was a generous literary scope, an interest in translation, and, above all, a powerful synthetic intelligence. While clearly indebted to Bourdieu, Casanova struck out on her own, exchanging her teacher’s Francocentric frame for an internationalism interested in how the wider world of literature is organised and how those writing in smaller languages or from the margins of large world languages can overcome systemic constraints. To do this, she argued, writers in such situations need to grasp the constitutive logic of world literature, the unwritten rules of the game.

Polished letters

The World Republic of Letters proposes that Europe’s literary world was dominated throughout the medieval period, and for centuries afterwards in the universities, by Latin and Greek, the classical languages of the church, law and higher education. When the great absolutist states emerged, however, the European intelligentsias began to challenge Latin’s dominance and to cultivate their own vernacular languages and literatures. The French, she contends, gave the lead, translating the classics into their own language and establishing academies to regulate what constituted a polished French letters. Thus promoted, French began to rival Latin for distinction. Frenchness became in time not only a diplomatic and transactional lingua franca but also a byword for taste and sophistication, spoken by the nobilities and educated classes of Europe from Madrid to Moscow. Paris, under the reign of Louis the Sun King and later as the city of Enlightenment and Revolution, became the world literary capital of capitals, the place where its brilliant intellectuals, translators, writers and salons arbitrated what was deemed “modern,” worldly and worthy, what démodé.

But actions provoke reactions. To compete with French gloire, England and Germany, France’s rivals, were impelled to develop their own modern vernacular literatures. Inspired by Herder and the Romantics, these countries developed cultural nationalisms that stressed that literature should be rooted in folk cultures and the national-popular, thus challenging French neoclassicism and universalism. But as Germany and England cultivated their literatures, so too their neighbouring countries or distant colonies felt impelled to develop their own. Accordingly, 19th-century Irish and American literary nationalists worried that their literatures were simply impoverished provincial variants of English literature and worked hard to lend them greater ambition and distinction; similarly, the northern European nations strove to assert their distinctiveness from German culture; the Spanish colonies in South America struggled to demarcate their literatures from Spain’s, and so on, This process, Casanova claimed, has continued into our own era as the Asian and African nations broke free of European imperial control and set about developing their own modern literatures, these now often conceived in terms of European templates.

Naive view

This might seem like a monotonous story of endless literary declarations of independence. But Casanova’s argument is more complex and argues that even as new national literatures compete for prestige, they are incorporated into the world system, widening its scope, deepening its logic. For her, the literary world might pretend to be an even playing field of national literatures where the better writers simply rise to become national figures and the best to become world figures, but this is a naive view. All sorts of amicable exchange can of course take place across nations, and writers of one nation might well admire and promote the works of others elsewhere, but in the world republic of letters, power was always centralised and regulated, and in our contemporary era of massive publishing conglomerates and the wildfire spread of “global English”, it is perhaps becoming more rather than less so.

Credible? Many scoffed. Casanova’s world, they retorted, predictably, was too Paris-centric. Others objected that she thought of things crudely like some kind of literary Olympics, each nation fielding its best team of writers to challenge another. What about the humanist benevolence that fired Goethe and Mann, Tagore or Joyce? As her other works on Beckett or Kafka suggest, Casanova had a genuine love of great writers, and a strong and perhaps French bias for modernist, experimental ones, and she tended to champion those from small countries or linguistic minorities, especially those wily writers who somehow overcame all obstacles to become “world” figures. To many, this seemed to prove that Casanova was all at odds with herself, a supposed champion of the literary underdog who really only valued those successes canonised by the metropolitan literary capitals whose monopolistic cultural capital she pretended to expose and oppose. And then there’s the fact of a canon itself: in a time when canons are unfashionable and literary classics automatically suspected of patriarchal crimes, Casanova’s attraction to writers like Joyce and Faulkner, García Márquez and Walcott, Beckett and Kafka, was certainly untimely.

Bravura work

But Casanova’s remarkable achievement outweighed any limitations. The World Republic of Letters is a bravura work of international literary sociology and a new kind of historical materialism. The great left-wing critics, from Lukács to Jameson, have always sought to locate the “politics” of literature in the symbolic form of the literary work itself. But for Casanova, as for Bourdieu, there is also the politics of the wider literary field in which texts circulate and acquire meaning, a power regulated by complex language hierarchies, consecrated by prize-giving academies, determined by fluctuating value systems. She did not think this world could be changed by simply adding to or subtracting from existing canons or pretending to abolish them. She believed that the most ambitious writers possessed not only astounding literary talent but also a canny sense of how to win prestige by complying with the rules of the system. But the writers she admired most also possessed an uppity ability to break the rules and make the system more elastic, though it could never be transcended or abolished altogether.

Anyone who doubts Casanova might want to ask why so many Irish writers – from Congreve and Sterne to Swift and Burke, or from Wilde and Shaw to O’Casey or Bowen, and not overlooking Yeats himself – made their careers in London, spending far more time there (or wishing to do so, in Swift’s case) than in Dublin. Or why Joyce and Beckett won fame first in Paris, and were then made “world” figures by American, French and British critics, before being partially “re-Hibernicised”. Or why a contemporary generation, including Eavan Boland, Colm Tóibín or Paul Muldoon find themselves making careers in American universities. Or why Booker or Nobel prizes command such attention. Like their counterparts in peripheral nations almost everywhere, Irish writers have always flocked to the western literary metropoles to find more prestigious publishers, wider readerships, more famous reviewers, fame and fortune. The Irish literary embrace of global English, sealed in the early 20th century, was in many ways a golden pass to Anglophone reach and prestige that has paid off handsomely, in other ways a Faustian pact. The fame and prizes immediately followed that pact, perhaps the price is coming due a century later. Casanova’s remarkable book, whatever its flaws, has offered new ways to think about the globalised and profoundly capitalist literary world in which we live.

Casanova married a Joycean omnivorousness to a Beckettian modesty. May she rest in peace.

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