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New Left Review 8, March-April 2001

Should relations between nationalliteratures be conceived on the model of international competition between states? Christopher Prendergast assesses a bold French attempt to analyse the historical dynamics of the ‘world republic of letters’, from the Renaissance to the present day—with Paris emerging as an unexpectedly durable capital. Were national determinations of literary projects always so predominant, and what of cross-cultural variations in the meaning of literature itself?



La République mondiale des lettres is a brave but flawed book. [1] Pascale Casanova, La République mondiale des lettres, Seuil: Paris 1999, 493 pp., 202 035853 0. Pascale Casanova enters the game, increasingly played out not only in literature but also in literary criticism, nowadays routinely known as going global—although to her great credit she refuses to traffic in the term ‘globalization’ and its tacky Third Way idées reçues. In the pages of the NLR and more extensively elsewhere, Franco Moretti has sought to map literary history onto ‘geography’, space onto time. Space inflected by time, moreover, yields a geography that is fluid rather than fixed. As borders blur, nation-states implode and the ‘world’ both speeds up and contracts, ‘migration’ has become the new buzz-word. Re-writing the literary map against this background calls for special ways of thinking and seeing, whose own borders are, necessarily and often productively, also blurred. The customary starting point for this project is the idea (and the ideal) of Weltliteratur, sketched by Goethe as the dream of ‘a common world literature transcending national limits’. ‘We hear and read everywhere’, Goethe wrote, ‘of the progress of the human race, of the wider prospects in world relationships between men. How far this is the case is not within my province to examine or to determine: for my part I seek only to point out to my friends my conviction that a universal world literature is in process of formation.’ What Goethe imagined here was a kind of grand cosmopolitan gathering of (some of) the literatures of the world to engage in what an influential commentator on Goethe calls ‘an international conversation’. [2] Fritz Stich, Goethe and World Literature, Port Washington, NY 1972. See also Franco Moretti, ‘Conjectures in World Literature’, NLR 1, Jan–Feb 2000, and Atlas of the European Novel, Verso: London 1998.

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Christopher Prendergast, ‘Negotiating World Literature’, NLR 8: £3

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