Most singular aides-mémoire

Realms of Memory

May 29, 1998

The English-language version of the second volume of Pierre Nora's wide-ranging Les lieux de memoire contains 14 chapters, grouped into three broad sections: "Models", "Books" and "Singularities". It follows the volume devoted to political, social and cultural differences within French society ("Conflicts and Divisions"); and precedes that, yet to appear in translation, titled "Symbols". The first section deals with "The Land", "The Cathedral" and "The Court", and affords a persuasive opening panorama: the land is evoked both as the land mass of France and as the place of French agricultural endeavour, with duly unsentimental attention given to the desertion of some regions and to the phenomenon of the neo-ruraux. The cathedral is identified in terms of its status as a local and national point of focus, a "repository of memory" enduring into a dechristianised age. The court is of necessity only approximately analogous in its status, although the widespread perception of some recent heads of state of the Fifth Republic as monarchical affords a clear if satirical bridge between the ancien regime and the present day. The approach in these chapters is broadly diachronic, although, here as elsewhere, the amount of time devoted to earlier periods, while independently fascinating, is hard on occasion to relate to the broader thesis.

Three of the four chapters on books, which constitute the second section, are of more narrowly French interest, dealing as they do with the pedagogical manuals of generations of school-children, two devoted to geography and one to history. They are however among the most convincing chapters in terms both of their inter-relationship (especially as the two disciplines are traditionally studied together) and of their immediate pertinence to the volume's title, describing as they do such tangible landmarks in the French collective memory.

The first piece, which in common with its companion studies reads more like an academic article than many of the other chapters, is devoted to the originally anonymous and didactic Le Tour de la France par deux enfants, whose first edition in 1877 inaugurated a publication history that was to last for more than a century, with 8.5 million copies printed by 1976. Equally single-minded in its republican ideals, was the historical manual nicknamed Petit Lavisse; and, chiming with the business of the first chapter in its examination of the geographical coherence of the French nation, a study of Vidal de la Blache's 1903 Tableau de la geographie de France completes the triptych.

It is, however, the final chapter in this section, devoted to Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, that is the most remarkable of the whole volume. In it, Antoine Compagnon eloquently presents Proust's masterpiece as the quintessential lieu de memoire of French literature, not least because of the absolute centrality of memory to the novel's conception and thematics. But in addition to this, the work's exceptional impact is attributed to the simple fact that its author "has durably imposed his view of the world", so that "what is recovered or redeemed is (I) the truth of the past"; and such a claim is in turn endorsed by Proust's "perception of the world itself as a kind of lieu de memoire". In all respects, this splendid essay lies at the centre of the entire project.

The remaining sequence of chapters is more diverse again. Marc Fumaroli's opening survey of the Academie Francaise (of which he is a member, a fact that goes modestly unmentioned) offers the greatest problems, not only because of its length, but also because of its allusiveness and of the manifest difficulties that the translator experiences with some key rhetorical terms. The whole essay is still a tour de force in defence of the academy's institution and durability, and leads to an outrageously sustained analogy between the buildings and spirit of the Institut and those of the Vatican, with the great 20th-century Parisian publishing houses introduced, as a final conceit, in the role of Reformation Geneva.

The next two chapters are the most easily linked, dealing sequentially with the variety of forms and purposes of French monuments to the dead of the two world wars, lieux de memoire in the most literal sense, and with the good soldier Chauvin, in an essay affording a particularly circumspect and persuasive history of term and concept. The next chapter, on street names, errs on the side of narrowness (would place names not have been a more obvious subject?) while providing some enlightening explanations before the emphasis returns to literary, or at least rhetorical matters in a survey of the tradition of eloquence in the pulpit, at the rostrum and at the bar. The concluding pieces deal with more popular dimensions of the phenomenon, examining the tradition of gastronomy and of a specific gastronomic discourse that interacts with culinary traditions; and the role of the Tour de France bicycle race as a national property that touches the collective consciousness. In a probably undeliberate way, we thereby revisit the borders of the national territory as defined at the outset of the volume, and travel through the same provinces that were discovered by the children of the schoolbooks. The most surprising omissions from this in other respects very varied section could fairly be summarised as wine, women and song.

The volume is copiously illustrated with grainy black-and-white prints, although their disposition within the text is somewhat erratic; and whereas their occasionally poor quality may convey a nostalgic impression of imprecision, it does scant justice elsewhere to the visual enticements of examples of nouvelle cuisine. The bibliography, endnotes and indexes are excellent; and the translation of the whole sequence of chapters, with one exception, is a considerable achievement in its own right.

Two broader criticisms should be addressed in conclusion. The first concerns the paradox that, despite the volume's governing brief, the whole question of what exactly is constituted by a lieu de memoire does not receive an entirely satisfactory answer. The title of the translation is attractive enough, but clearly not sufficiently close for the translator to resist reverting to the original whenever the term occurs in the text; elsewhere I have seen it defined as "morceaux de patrimoine"; but perhaps the nearest approximation to the French concept to occur in the essays themselves is offered by the phrase "mnemonic sites", allowing as it does for a similar plurality of resonance. The concept's untranslatability does not necessarily reduce its validity, but it does place some onus on the general editor to clarify to a greater extent than is the case.

Second, despite or because of the great distinction of its contributors, the collection is of uneven interest to a non-French reader. It is probably best enjoyed as the eclectic pot-pourri that it is: sufficiently heterogeneous as to offer some appeal to an audience of francophiles; sufficiently scholarly to be recommended to students (haute vulgarisation would be a fair indication of the overall pitch); and sufficiently readable to convey and interpret certain central aspects of "Frenchness" to a more detached public. The ambitious claims made for it as a totality are harder to sustain.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past. Volume Two: Traditions

Editor - Pierre Nora and Lawrence D. Kritzman
ISBN - 0 231 10634 3
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 591
Translator - Arthur Goldhammer

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