Travel in Twentieth-Century France and Francophone Culture:
The Persistence of Diversity
by Charles Forsdick

Reviewed by Harry Gamble, The College of Wooster

In his recent book Travel in Twentieth-Century French and Francophone Cultures: The Persistence of Diversity, Charles Forsdick endeavors to map out the development of travel literature in a francophone context. This is a timely project, for, compared to its English-language equivalent, francophone travel writing has been slower to attract sustained scholarship. Other scholars will be interested to follow the footprints left by Forsdick in his walk through this selection of travel writers, which includes such figures as Victor Segalen, Michel Leiris, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Nicolas Bouvier, and François Maspero. While Forsdick gives a reasonably developed account of the position and influence of these particular writers, a flurry of other names are evoked so briefly that the reader fails to fully understand their place in his broader narrative. Forsdick’s book is not organized around individual writers, and those looking for new insights into any particular literary figure may well come away disappointed. Instead of an author-centered approach, Forsdick structures his book along chronological and thematic lines, many of which are suggestive.

Forsdick highlights the tension, present in much travel writing, between the quest for the exotic and the perception that the world is heading increasingly towards sameness. A stream of writers from Segalen to Lévi-Strauss sought to capture the exotic, even as they announced its contamination and impending demise. And yet, as Forsdick explains, these writers were misled on both counts. As critics from Edward Said on have made clear, Western travel writers have always been more skilled at “inventing” the exotic than they have been at “finding” it. Moreover, globalization has not produced the encroaching sameness that many travel writers announced. Along with James Clifford, Forsdick argues that globalization and the spread of mass tourism have led less to a global monoculture than to the reinvention of difference. As a result, in today’s world, the new and the exotic are to be found side-by-side with the familiar and the pedestrian. There is no pristine “other” to encounter, and there are few untraveled paths to take. But does this spell the end of travel writing, as some have suggested?

On the contrary, Forsdick rather convincingly shows how this literary genre is being reinvented in the francophone world. Whereas earlier generations of travel writers often reinscribed distinctions between a familiar and normative “home,” and an exoticized and essentialized “elsewhere,” writers such as Nicholas Bouvier and Édouard Glissant have overturned neat distinctions of this sort. Their writing points instead to a mosaic-like commingling of the familiar and the exotic. Others have turned away from speed and distance, in order to seek the “exotic” amid the proximate and everyday, thereby becoming “voyageurs de l’immédiat.” For Jacques Lacarrière, walking became the basis for a new kind of travel and travel writing, while for François Maspero, the RER (the commuter train that circulates in and around Paris) provided new trajectories for both travel and its textualization. Others, such as the writers associated with the “Pour une littérature voyageuse” group, still set out to discover and write about “exotic elsewheres.” This group does not shy away from a certain nostalgia for the travel writing of old, and the colonial itineraries that underlay it.

Of course, “exoticism” itself has become a problematic notion, as a result of its essentializing, hierarchical, and imperialist associations. Forsdick suggests, however, that a “postcolonial exoticism” is worth rescuing, since it could serve as “a site of contested meanings” that can “cast light on the instability of intercultural encounters.” Such an exoticism would challenge and move beyond earlier accounts, written around French travelers who left the metropolitan center to venture into the colonial periphery. As Forsdick points out, authors hailing from the colonies contested these accounts as of the 1930s – and, in a few cases, even earlier – by undertaking and recounting reverse journeys that lead from the familiar periphery to the “exoticized” metropole. But “postcolonial exoticism” would move beyond these center / periphery dynamics to suggest a more contested, indeterminate type of space and movement. In writing this book, Forsdick seeks to show how travel writers have contributed to the emergence of this postcolonial francophone space. Given his approach and analysis, one is surprised to find that francophone writers (i.e. those that write in French but come from beyond Europe’s boundaries) are – with a few notable exceptions – relegated to the book’s postface, where they receive only glancing treatment. With this arrangement, Forsdick does not adequately account for the emergence of a decentered, contested francophone space, in which many of today’s travel writers navigate.

Charles Forsdick, Travel in Twentieth-Century France and Francophone Culture: The Persistence of Diversity,
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
ISBN 0-19-925829-5 (HB) $76.00  xxiii + 255 pp.

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