Living in the Same Place: The Old Mono-Nationalism and the New Comparative Literature

“Living in the Same Place”:

The Old Mono-Nationalism and the New Comparative Literature

Marjorie Perloff

published in World Literature Today, 69, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 249-255. Translated into Serbo-Croat, in Transkatalog, 6/7 (1998): 76-84.

–A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.

–By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.

So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:

–Or also living in different places.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Leopold Bloom’s definition of nationhood is not as foolish as his fellow Dubliners in Kiernan’s Pub took it to be. As citizens of the United States we are, after all, “the same people living in the same place.” And when we travel or go abroad, thus living in different places,” we retain a good measure of our “Americanness.” Whenever I watch the bleary-eyed plane travellers divide into those two passport lines–U.S. and “Foreign” –at Kennedy Airport or LAX, I am aware that national identity still plays a marked role in one’s sense of self.

In his much cited essay “DissemiNation,” Homi K. Bhabha speaks eloquently of the inherent “porosity” of modern nation states, what he calls the “intermittent time, and intersticial space, that emerges as a structure of undecidablity at the frontiers of cultural hybridity.” [1] But when Bhabha adds that we are entering an era in which “The liminal figure of the nation space [will] ensure that no political ideologies could claim transcendent or metaphysical authority for themselves” (HKB 299), he is, I think, engaging in wishful thinking. The “nation space”–pace Chechnya and Serbia, pace the People’s Republic of China–shows no signs of opening itself up to the sort of dissolution Bhabha and like-minded critics desire. What is the case, however, is that the nation as we know it today can no longer be understood according to the nineteenth-century paradigm which continues to be regarded as normative, at least in the academy. [2] We still, for example, divide literary study into such areas as “Modern British Fiction,” “Victorian Poetry,” “French Renaissance Literature,” “the German Enlightenment,” and so on. And the most powerful literary subgroup in the academy, American Literature, together with its more socio-historical sibling American Studies, acts on the premise that our first (and often our last) obligation is to know those works that, however diverse the race, ethnicity, and gender of their author, have been made in the U.S.A. Hence the emphasis on Chicano rather than Latin American literature, on James Baldwin and Toni Morrison rather than on Aimé Césaire, and the exclusion of Canadian (both Anglo- and Francophile), or Australian literature from the canon.

This, I shall argue here, is where Comparative Literature can–indeed must– play a central role. For, given the migrations and emigrations, the exiles (sometimes voluntary, more often forced) that have created U.S. citizenry in the late twentieth century, how can we continue to take “American literature,” as it continues to be called in survey courses and textbooks, as a mono-national entity? And what about an earlier period like the Renaissance? Given the movement from nation to nation in that period, coupled with the exploration of the New World, is it meaningful to study, say, English Renaissance lyric in isolation?

I am thinking not so much about comparisons between national literatures–the old Comparative Literature, which was, in many ways, a natural response to nineteenth-century national paradigms– as about the simple reality that today the national literatures are themselves assemblages of many “other-national” strands, sedimentations where different national and hence linguistic elements won’t separate out, compost heaps, so to speak, in which nations of origin become curiously conflated. To understand this new situation, we must begin by looking at the nineteenth-century model of a “nation-space.”

Take a book all of us have come across, at one time or another, no matter what our speciality: the standard-bearing Norton Anthology of American Literature, used in freshman and sophomore courses from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Anchorage, Alaska as well as in nations around the globe. The Third Edition of the Norton (1989) includes forty-five writers in the nineteenth century (1822-1914) sections, writers whose names alone are revealing: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Edgar Allen Poe, Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington Harris, T. B. Thorpe, Johnson Jones Hopper, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, James Russell Lowell, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Rebecca Harding Davis, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Ambroce Bierce, Henry James, Joel Chandler Harris, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Booker T. Washington, Charles W. Chesnutt, Hamlin Garland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Adams, Edith Wharton, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa), and Henry Adams.

The Norton editors were, of course, making every effort to include women and minority groups: this edition has eleven women, one of whom is a Native American, and five African-American men. No doubt newer editions will feel called upon to include an even larger percentage of women and minority writers, [3] but this is not the issue that concerns me here. For what is fascinating, from the perspective of the Comparatist, is the national, cultural, and religious uniformity of the writers who really were the leading writers of the U.S. nineteenth century. Of the forty-five (so many of them Boston bred and Harvard educated), all but three were born and died in the U. S. Henry James and Edith Wharton lived their later lives abroad (London and Paris respectively) but their careers were very much formed in their native country as was that of Ambrose Bierce, who died in Mexico. And further: whether these writers were male or female, white or black, all but two (Kate Chopin who was Catholic and the Sioux Indian Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) were Protestant [Bonnin, for that matter, was brought up in a Quaker Missionary School]. Again, almost all the white writers here included were of English descent–an ancestry, by the way, that, judging from their middle names, includes both sides of the family. Theodore Dreiser, whose parents were impoverished German immigrants, is a grand exception.

A similar mono-nationalism characterizes English, French, and German writers of the nineteenth century. From William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and Felicia Hemans down to Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, English writers were, well, English writers. There are, of course, certain class and regional differences: Byron was aristocratic, Keats lower middle-class, Dickens a child of urban poverty. But ethnically and religiously, English writers of the nineteenth-century are an astonishly uniform English Protestant lot: when Gerard Manley Hopkins, following John Henry Newman, converted to Catholicism in the late 1860s, it was considered a major event.

There are three basic ways for literary critics and historians to respond to this situation. The first, and perhaps the most common in the age of multiculturalism, is to deny special status to, say, the six great Romantic poets in England or the American Renaissance writers in the U.S. and elevate to equal (or superior) status the work of “forgotten” women and African-American writers, to insist that these writers are “just as important” or “valuable” as are Blake and Byron, Emerson and Hawthorne and Melville. There are two difficulties here. First, the typical “forgotten” writer–say, Susan Warner– is often just as “authentically” Anglo-American as her canonical counterpart–say, Harriet Beecher Stowe. And second, sooner or later readers discover for themselves that Melville’s Moby Dick is, after all, a more interesting novel than Wide, Wide World.

A second response to the mono-nationalism of the nineteenth century is to retain the existing canon, as, say, Edward Said does in his 1993 Culture and Imperialism, but to reread Austen and Dickens and Thackeray for the light they shed on imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. This approach has generated a whole growth industry of nineteenth-century studies: I note that the prospective sessions listed in the most recent MLA Newsletter lists have a high preponderance of titles like “Race, Travel and Imperalism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Literature,” “Imperial Fantasies in German Nineteenth-Century Literature,” and so on.

But the Imperialist-Colonialist paradigm is already showing signs of strain as everything written has to be ground through its mill. And the irony for Comparatists, as the above titles suggest, is that these studies continue to be conducted along strictly national lines: those expert in British imperialism seem to know little about the German situation and vice-versa. A third –and to my mind more satisfactory–approach would be to recognize that our current drive to discover national porosity, hybridity, difference, dissolution, intersticial space, and all those other positives Homi K. Bhabha and like-minded critics speak of, stems, not from some kind of new and definitive theoretical paradigm, a new canon law, but from the simple and practical reality that the writers, artists, and composers of our own time who are “living in the same place,” no longer represent the mononationalism that really was the norm in the nineteenth century, and which hence inevitably influenced historians and theoreticians of the period. “Philosophy,” as Wittgenstein reminds us, “does not attempt to deal with questions which do not really arise” (LEC 1 74).

“The discipline of comparative literature,” writes Emily Apter in her essay responding to the Bernheimer Report, “is unthinkable without the historical circumstances of exile. . . . the psychic legacy of dislocation[4] Apter is referring, of course, to the first wave of Comparative Literature in this country, the European refugee culture of what she calls the “founding fathers”– Leo Spitzer, Erich Auerbach, René Wellek, Wolfgang Kaiser– and she argues that the American “converts to the field” in the fifties and sixties — Fredric Jameson, J. Hillis Miller, Neil Hertz– suffered from “Euro-envy,” an “ethic of linguistic estrangement, a secessionism from mainstream American culture” (EA 89). By contrast, Apter suggests, the “current generation of exilic critics–the generation of postcolonialists whom she regards as normative for the “new” Comparative Literature– “is often . . . deeply antithetical to their Eurocentric counterparts: non-German speaking, nonmetropolitan, nonwhite, antipatriarchal, and, in varying degrees, hostile to elite literariness.” (EA 90). And she cites Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, Anthony Appiah and Sara Suleri, V. I. Mudimbe, Edward Said and Rey Chow as examples (EA 94). The contemporary situation thus becomes, in Apter’s words, “a border war, an academic version of the legal battles and political disputes over the status of ‘undocumented workers,’ ‘illegal aliens,’ and ‘permanent residents” (EA 94).

This now-fashionable formulation is not without its ironies. For one thing, all the theorists mentioned above were themselves educated in elitist Western institutions and, in the case of Spivak and Bhabba, are the direct heirs of those European, which is to say, French and German, fathers (especially Derrida) Apter now takes to be so retro. But more important, the teleology proposed here (the “old” Comparative Literature must be succeeded by the “new” postcolonialism) replicates precisely the blind spot of the earlier model: it demands an exotic other (Pakistan or Nigeria replace France and Italy) in place of the literature close to home, the literature, that is to say, actually written in the United States today.

It is a commonplace that English literature on the eve of World War I was largely the creation of a few Irishmen (Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw), two Americans (Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot), a Pole, who knew no English before he was twenty (Joseph Conrad), and a second-generation German who changed his last name from Hueffer to (Ford Madox) Ford. And it is a second commonplace that after the War, dozens of American writers lived in Paris as expatriates, even as, in the World War II years, the flow was reversed, New York becoming the home for Andre Breton and Max Ernst, Kandinsky and Mondrian, Willem de Kooning and Hans Hoffmann, not to mention an entire colony of German exile writers and British expatriates like Auden and Isherwood living in New York and Los Angeles. But what is less well understood is that, by mid-century, the language of American poetry, to take just one example, had become something quite different, not only from its English model, but also from the Emerson-Whitman-Dickinson poetics which was its more immediate source. And here, I want to argue, a Comparatist approach is needed in order to locate the peculiar momentum of the work.

By 1910, according to the census, it is estimated that roughly one person in four in the continental U.S. learned English as a second language. Five years earlier, Henry James warned the graduating class at Bryn Mawr, that the new immigrants were destroying the “ancestral circle” of the American language, turning it into “a mere helpless slobber of disconnected vowel noises,” an “easy and ignoble minimum,” barely distinguishable from “the grunting, the squealing, the barking, or the roaring of animals.” [5] “The forces of looseness,” James warned, “are in possession of the field,” and they “dump their mountain of promiscuous material into the foundations” of the language itself (QS 43).

One such immigrant, herself to come under the influence of Henry James, as of his philosopher brother, was Gertrude Stein. Born in Allegheny, PA., to an affluent Jewish-German but wholly secularized immigrant family, she was eight months old when her German-speaking family moved to Vienna and stayed there until she was four and a half, when they moved to Paris (which they left when Stein was five). She grew up in Oakland, California (of “no there there” fame), attended Radcliffe where she studied with a great Anglo-Saxon Protestant American, William James, and then enrolled as one of the first women in the Johns Hopkins Medical School. But she did not matriculate and soon moved to Paris where she lived the now legendary life recounted in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, returning to the U.S. only once in 1934, on a very successful lecture tour.

How did Gertrude Stein respond to the “force of looseness” of immigrant, and then emigrant language? Criticism has been largely silent on this question. For all the discussions of her friendship with Picasso, her debt to Cubism, her place in the Paris art world and in the lesbian salon of Natalie Barney, and for all the talk of gender definition in her work, the actual determination of Stein’s language field remains largely misunderstood. The headnote in the recent Norton Anthology, which includes only Stein’s early and accessible “The Good Anna” along with the Introduction to The Making of Americans, informs us that, because of her Cubist connection, “[Stein] came to think of words as they were thinking of brush strokes on canvas, as tangible entities in themselves rather than vehicles conveying meaning or representing reality.” And again, “she treated words as things, carefully ignoring or defying the connection between words and meanings[6] In other words, her texts don’t really “mean” anything; they engage in what various scholars have called “non-referential play.”

Interestingly, French poets and critics from Jacques Roubaud to Emmanuel Hocquard have taken Stein’s meanings more seriously. In an essay called “L’Ecriture sans rature,” Françoise Collin remarks:

She has accomplished her depaysement once and for all by the age of twenty, taking up residence in a country where her language isn’t spoken. This is her only exoticism but it is a radical one. . . . Living in a foreign environment, Gertrude Stein distances herself from the language that she hears all around her–French–which is not her own, and which is for her an object of fascination to the point where she appropriates any number of its elements and formulae. But she is also distancing herself from her own language, American, which is not spoken around her, which has become the language of the other, even if it is the language of intimacy. The writing of Gertrude Stein is ex-centric with respect to two languages, according to different formulae: it is a third language. [7]

Once we become aware of the element of appropriation, many of Stein’s so-called impenetrabilities open up. Take “Ladies Voices: Curtain Raiser,” written in 1916 in Mallorca, where Gertrude and Alice had retreated from the war and were living the hotel life of the international set. Here is “Act IV”:

What are ladies voices.

Do you mean to believe me.

Have you caught the sun.

Dear me have you caught the sun.

In French (the lingua franca in Mallorca), to take the sun or sunbathe is “prendre le soleil.” Now one of the most common meanings of “prendre” is “to catch” as in “prendre un voleur” (“to catch a thief”). So “Have you caught the sun. Dear me have you caught the sun,” is simply Stein’s way of showing, as realistically as possible, what “ladies’ voices,” overheard in a beach resort, sound like and what they say. “Dear me, have you caught the sun” also contains a double entendre: when re-translated into English, it sounds as if the “you” has “caught” a disease. “Dear me, “have you caught the flu? Have you caught sunstroke?” and so on.

There is, in any case, nothing meaningless about Stein’s locution. At the same time, we find, in Stein’s “French-English, traces of childhood German as well: for example, in her predilection for “this one” (“dieser / diese”) and “one” (“Einer”).

But the larger question would be to explore why Stein felt so compelled to write in a “third language,” why the very fabric of language–its syntax, vocabulary, punctuation, and semantic possibilities–became such an obsession for her. The case of William Carlos Williams is similar. The son of an English father and a Catholic, Puerto Rican mother who had both French Basque and Dutch Jewish blood, Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. Spanish was the predominant language in the house when Williams was a small child; his mother, who shifted easily from Spanish to French, learned English only reluctantly. In Rutherford, the Williamses, who wanted very much to “belong,” joined the Unitarian Church and, although they were not affluent, they sent their son to an expensive private school (Horace Mann) in New York, even though the commute, which the poet has described lovingly in his Autobiography, took hours. One year, he attended a French boarding school at Anneçy, and later he did postdoctoral work in Leipzig. But in contrast to Stein, as to Eliot and Pound, Williams is always cited as the poet who “stayed home,” who practiced medicine in his New Jersey home town for the rest of his life.

Like Stein, Williams was aggressively American: In The American Grain, reconstructs American history as a kind of contest between redskin and paleface, and his long poem Paterson purports to tell the story of the quintessential American polis. But, again like Stein, Williams invents a language (though not as deconstructionist as hers), highly self-conscious in its representations of “authentic” speech idiom, as in the “retarded” language of the “Billy” section of Paterson 1, the stilted flowery language of “Cress” in 1 and 2, and the medical case histories throughout. Thus, whereas Americanists have emphasized Williams’s debt to Emerson and Whitman, his relationship with Ezra Pound and H.D., his close bonds with the art world of the Arensberg circle, comparatist critics have paid more attention to the “Carlos” strain and have read the love poetry against its Petrarchan and Dantean models. Not that Williams “translated” French or Spanish into English equivalents as did Stein, or that he relied heavily on foreign phrases and locutions as did Ezra Pound. But when Williams explains that his poetic practice is informed by prosodic adjustments, for example, the transformation of the five-line stanza

My shoes as I lean

unlacing them

stand out upon

flat worsted flowers

under my feet.

to a four-line one by eliminating the last line (“See how much better it conforms to the page, how much better it looks[8] one has the sense, as in Stein, of a peculiar linguistic self-consciousness, a struggle that would not take this particular form in the native speaker.

A third and especially striking example of the multinationalism of the interwar period is that of Mina Loy. Born Mina Gertrude Lowy in London in 1882 to Sigmund Lowy, a Hungarian Jew, and Julia Brian, she left England when she was seventeen to study art in Munich. At nineteen, she married a fellow artist and they moved to Paris where she changed her name to Loy and exhibited in the Salon d’Automne. In 1906, they moved on to Italy, where her children were born, her marriage dissolved, and she came under the spell of Futurism, having an affair first with Marinetti and then with the writer Papini. In 1916, when war was declared, she moved to New York, where she immediately became the center of New York Dada and had her fabled meeting with Arthur Cravan. By now she was writing poetry as well as producing art work; Eliot praised her in The Egoist and Pound chose her poetry as an example of the term logopoeia, the “dance of the intellect among words.” After the war, when Cravan disappeared mysteriously in Mexico, she returned to Paris and again became a “figure” in the literary and art world. But the last thirty years of her life (1926-53) were spent back in the U.S.; in these “silent years,” she more or less vanished from public view.

What nationality was Mina Loy and under what rubric should her work be studied? She wrote under so many anagrammaticaly and numerologically derived pseudonyms, and misdated so many of her paintings that in the twenties a rumor circulated around Paris that Mina Loy was not a real person at all, but some sort of hoax. Upon hearing this,” her editor Roger Conover tells us, Mina Loy turned up at Natalie Barney’s salon and declared: “I assure you I am indeed a live being. But it is necessary to stay very unknown. . . . To maintain my incognito the hazard I chose was–poet.” [9] This is, I think, an exemplary tale, for the title “poet” is always something of an incognito; in Loy’s case, especially so since she was fluent in English, French, Italian, and German. But–what is most curious–the English of her poems, as the “Love Songs” and her long poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” attest, is neither quite British nor yet American but a curious hybrid, a kind of café society overlay on an English “school-girl” base. And that hybrid– phrases like “conundrums of finance / to which unlettered immigrants are instantly / initiate” (LLB 115) — is now receiving the recognition it has long deserved, even though much U.S. scholarship has been stymied by its inability to read Loy’s work in its French and Italian contexts.

What we might call the “thick” nationalism of Loy, Stein, and Williams has become almost the norm today. In London, at this very moment, one might be able to see a play by Samuel Beckett (whose French / English bilingualism is now understood as a form –but a very individual form–of Irish speech), by Harold Pinter, born and raised in the East End in a Jewish household, or by Tom Stoppard, whose adopted Anglo name belies his Jewish Czech ancestry. Last season the West End had a production of Death and the Maiden by the Chilean Jewish writer Ariel Dorfman, who, incidentally, has been on the faculty at Duke University. And there is the further irony that Beckett’s later plays and his works for radio like Eh Joe and Quad have been more frequently produced in Germany and in Japan than in London or Dublin. Some forms of exile exact a price: at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, some years ago, I heard a well-known Irish professor declare that Beckett wasn’t nearly as good as the American poet John Berryman. What linguistic and thematic qualities, one wonders, create this kind of transatlantic flow?

Before one can make generalizations about British literary culture based on the theatre, one must come to terms with the fact that the poetry situation is, for various reasons, antithetical. After Pound, after Eliot, the English Establishment turned back to its own roots, Donald Davie memorably declaring in the seventies that the tradition of English poetry was not that of the Americans (Pound and Eliot, and certainly not “Carlos Williams,” as Davie dismissively called him) but of Thomas Hardy. Hardyesque poetry from Philip Larkin and Donald Davie himself to Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison seems all but incomprehensible to, say, U. S. as to French readers–incomprehensible not because it is difficult but because we have difficulty in seeing what its importance is. And surely this again has to do with the Englishness (old style) of these poets, an Englishness self-consciously assumed in imitation of the nineteenth-century model, vis-à-vis our own polyglot, multinational, multi-dialect poetry. And it explains why “Contemporary British Poetry” is not a popular subject in U.S. universities.

The opposite situation–and it is the one with which I want to close–is that of the French movement of the 1970s and 80s called

Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), whose leading figure is the late novelist Georges Perec. I say French movement, but how French is it? In his W, ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975, English translation by David Bellos, 1988), Perec gives us two alternating narratives–the two V’s of the double-V (W). The first is an allegorical adventure story about a sports Utopia, “a land in thrall to the Olympic ideal’; the second an autobiography, “a fragmentary tale of a wartime childhood.” [10] The latter takes its point of departure from Perec’s own history: his Polish Jewish father, who had emigrated from Warsaw to Paris in 1926 and worked as a hairdresser, was killed in the War when Perec was four, his mother, née Cyrla (then Cecile) Shulevitz, died at Auschwitz when her son was six. The double text traces the complexities of postmodern identity, using, as is typical of this novelist, the most seemingly scrupulous factual documentation only to make us more aware of the wide gap between fact and meaning. In Chapter 8, footnote 8, for example, we find this etymology of the name Perec.

My family name is Peretz. It is in the Bible. In Hebrew it means “hole,” in Russian it means “pepper”, in Hungarian (in Budapest, to more precise) it is the word used for what in French we call “pretzel” (“pretzel” or “bretzel” in in fact merely a diminutive form [Beretzele] of Beretz and Beretz, like Baruch or Barek, is formed from the same roots as Peretz–in Arabic, if not in Hebrew, B and P are one and the same letter). The Peretzes like to think they are descended from Spanish Jews exiled by the Inquisition (the Perez are thought to be Marranos, or converted Jews who stayed in Spain), whose migrations can be traced to Provence (Peiresc), then to the Papal States, and finally to central Europe, principally Poland and econdarily Romania and Bulgaria. One of the central figures of the family is the Polish Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, to whom every self-respecting Peretz is related even if it occasionally requires a feat of genealogical juggling. As for me, I am supposed to be Isaac Leib Peretz’s great-great-nephew. Apparently he was my grandfther’s uncle.

My grandfather was called David Peretz and lived in Lubartow. He had three children: the eldest was called Esther Chaja Perec; the second, Eliezer Peretz; and the last-born, Icek Judko perec. In the period between the first and third births, that is to say, between 1896 and 1909, Lubartow was, in succession, Russian, then Polish, then Russian again. An official hearing in Russian and writing in Polish, it has been explained to me, will hear Peretz and write Perec. But it is not impossible that the opposite is also true: according to my aunt, the Russians are supposed to be the ones who wrote “tz”, and it was the Poles who wrote “c”. This explanation signals but by no means exhausts the complex fantasies, connected to the concealment of my Jewish background through my patronym, which I elaborated around the name I bear, a name which is distinguished, moreover, by a minute discrepancy between the way it is spelled and the way it is pronounced in French: it should be written Pérec or Perrec (and that’s how it always is written spontaneously, either with an acute accent or with a double “r”0; but it is Perec, despite the fact that it is not pronounced Peurec. (W 36).

On the following page (footnote 12), the narrator recalls that in 1955 or ’56, he made the pilgrimage to his father’s grave: “seeing the words PEREC ICEK JUDKO followed by a regimental number, stencilled on the wooden cross and still perfectly legible, gave me a feeling that is hard to describe. The most enduring impression was that I was playing a role, acting in a private play: fifteen years after, the son comes to meditate on his father’s grave. But beneath the role-playing there were other things” (W 37-38), and the narrator goes on to extricate the complex feelings engaged in finally “put[ting] a boundary around that death which I had never learnt of, never experienced or known or acknowledged, but which for years and years I had had to deduce hypocritically from the commiserating whispers and sighing kisses of the ladies” (W 38).

Here, I want to suggest, is a Comparatist paradigm of our times. For if Georges Perec is a “French” author, his Frenchness must be read as the sedimentation of complex strata of Eastern European and Near Eastern cultural, national, and linguistic layers. When, for example, in the other narrative, the nameless narrator, having been mysteriously summoned to a meeting with the unknown Otto Apfelstahl at the Berghof Hotel in Hamburg, the following exchange takes place:

“Do you want some pretzels?”

“Excuse me?” I said not grasping.

“Pretzels. pretzels to eat with your beer.”

“No thank you. I never eat pretzels. Give me a newspaper instead. (W 16)

This takes place in Chapter V, before we have learned that the name Perec-Peretz is the same word as “pretzel.” Only when we reread W does the connection between “never eating pretzels” and the question of Perec’s origins become apparent. And indeed, the whole text is a language-game where clues are distributed in this fashion.

So far as I know, neither Derrida nor Lyotard nor Deleuze have ever written a word on Georges Perec, their “French” deconstructionist contemporary, and neither have the postcolonial theorists whom Emily Apter takes to be the Comparatists today. Nor is Perec’s work taught in courses in the contemporary American novel. Theory, the wisdom here goes, may–indeed must–be read in translation, but when it comes to literature, the line continues to be drawn in the sand. American means American, even as it did in the nineteenth century, right? And this despite the simple fact that nationally, culturally, and ethnically, Perec may well be closer to many contemporary Americans than he is to “the French tradition” and to the language in which he writes.

But the irony is that for U.S. fiction writers and to their students, Perec is now a kind of cult figure, that those “pretzels” constitute something of a hidden signifier, rather like the missing e in Perec’s La Disparition, just translated into English. And the ACLA thus has its work cut out for it. For if we are to place and understand literature as it is being composed at the end of the twentieth century, we must rediscover the simple truth that the U.S.A. is not an island and that its writing is not only ethnically and racially diverse but always already bears the imprint of the nations, not only of the exotic Third World, but, closer to home, of the nations in the neighborhood. To put it another way, in the age of the information highway, it is American Literature that must begin to “comparatize” itself.


Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 312. Subsequently cited in the text as HKB.

That the sense of collective identity which we call nationhood became dominant in the nineteenth century is the central theme of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on th Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983). But if this sense of nationhood was primarily an “imagined community,” as Anderson argues, the fact remains that the citizens of a given nation were much more identifiable as nationals than they were in earlier periods or than they are today.

As I was writing this essay, I received the new [1994] edition, and predictably two new names have been added to the 1820-1865 section: The Cherokee Memorials and the Native American, William Apess.

Emily Apter, “Comparative Exile: Competing Margins in the History of Comparative Literature,” in Charles Bernheimer (ed.), Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 86. Apter’s essay is subsequently cited as EA, and the collection as CB.

Henry James, The Question of our Speech: The Lesson of Balzac. Two Lectures. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1905), pp. 3, . 16. Subsequently cited as QS. I was put on to this amazing essay by Peter Quartermain, who discusses it in his seminal Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 9-12. The census statistics are found in Quartermain, p. 10.

The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 3d ed. , ed. Nina Baym et. al. Vol. 2 (New York: Norton, 1989), p. 1032.

Françoise Collin, “L’Ecriture sans rature,” in Gertrude Stein encore (Amiens: Trois Cailloux, in ‘hui, 1983), pp. 107-08. My translation. This whole collection is very important.

William Carlos Williams, I Wanted To Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet, ed. Edith Heal (1958), p. 66.

Roger Conover, “Introduction,” Mina Loy, The Last Lunar Baedeker (Highlands, N.C.: The Jargon Society, 1982), p. xviii. Subsequently cited as LLB. Conover’s edition, by no means complete, is the best text we have today and I have derived my biographical information from his chronology.

Georges Perec, W, or the Memory of Childhood, trans. David Bellos (Boston: David Godine, 1988), headnote. Subsequently cited in the text as W.