Wanderings of the Subject, Wanderings of the Novel For a Comparative Approach of Novelistic Innovations Between 1890 and 1939

deadline for submissions: 
November 1, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)

Call for papers

Wanderings of the Subject, Wanderings of the Novel

For a Comparative Approach of Novelistic Innovations Between 1890 and 1939

Conference organized in Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium), on April 20-21, 2023

Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft [1]” wrote Marx and Engels in their famous manifesto. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” wrote William Butler Yeats in a poem considered as emblematic of Anglo-Saxon poetic modernism [2]. Critics have identified a series of upheavals which, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, caused certainties to collapse, what was established to weaken, and what was once taken for granted to evaporate. One can think of industrialization and the Great War (both of which led to social and personal alienation); of Schopenhauerian and Nietzschean assaults on the Cartesian cogito; of psychological and psychoanalytical discoveries that established new maps of the psyche; of the awareness of the epistemic limits of science; of the crisis of language, etc. Many early-20th-century’s literary manifestations illustrate how art reacts and answers to such mutations, for instance by calling into question the traditional forms of the European realist novel.

As it is impossible to consider all the aspects entailed by this change of episteme, this conference will pay attention to one macro-change in particular: that of the re-evaluation of the concept of identity, of the subject, at the beginning of the 20th century. As a result of the above-mentioned events, the conception of the subject found in many creators’ works has come to bear an unstable appearance, which consequently affects the form of the texts. Lost to themselves in a changing world that they no longer grasp either through language or science, modern individuals are implicitly and ontologically summoned to reconstruct themselves, to “find a language, a form”, even though it has to be the formless, as Arthur Rimbaud already put it in his 1871’s so-called “lettres du voyant”.

In this respect, can we say that the formal innovations that run through the literature produced between 1890 and 1939 strive to capture “that queer conglomeration of incongruous things” that constitutes “the modern mind [3]”? This is the hypothesis at the core of this two-day conference whose ambition is to question and examine the innovations stemming from this conceptual crisis. The privileged angle, less often considered for the period at hand [4], will be that of the novel, or perhaps more precisely of prose, since these new productions often show a more or less assumed endeavour to renew the genre by drawing on others, such as poetry (the critic Ralph Freedman, borrowing Hermann Hesse’s formula, describes certain works from this period as “lyrical novels”, a term reminiscent of Jean-Yves Tadié’s “récit poétique”) or theatre (Virginia Woolf was reluctant to call The Waves a “novel”, speaking of “playpoem” instead). One should also not forget to consider the numerous icono-poetic interactions that reflect visual arts’ influence on novelistic forms, or the power of fascination that the cinema and the new sound recording techniques (that emerged in the first decades of the 20th century) had on novelists, especially if it indeed helped them explore new says of expressing identity.

Ultimately, by interweaving external and internal approaches, the aim is to question the prose at the beginning of the 20th century by postulating an influence of this identity crisis induced by a series of major events, such as the Great War and the Freudian discoveries. The question will be how this crisis is translated in the works. What expedients and what forms does it take? What are the modifications of this subjectivity that have led the novel to draw inspiration from other genres (poetry, theatre, essays, etc.) or other mediums of expression (painting, music, etc.) to try to express it? Are there groupings to be made according to the authors’ geolinguistic situation? Do some of the labels used by national literary histories to describe the formal audacity of novels written between 1890 and 1939 work better than others to describe this identity crisis?

Within the framework of a historical poetics [5], we will then be able to question these innovations by reinserting them within the evolution of novelistic forms since the last third of the 19th century, when the first turn in the genre took place, notably under the influence of Huysmans. This kind of consideration will thus lead us to think of the production of the writers of the period as marked by different civilizational crises and to consider the way in which their practice of the novel has adapted to new ways of conceiving identity. What strategies enabled the authors to adapt to the tacit injunctions of an evolving field? Are the ruptures that split many writing careers during this period the consequence of both a crisis and a reconfiguration of identity, that of the author, as well as that of the novel?

This conference welcomes both monographic readings, dedicated to a particular author (regardless of her/his language of expression), and comparative or historical approaches, aiming to trace the evolution of a form. Proposals for papers (400 words max. in French or English), accompanied by a short bio-bibliographical note (10 lines), are due by 1 November 2022 at the following addresses:

adrien.chiroux@uclouvain.be  and maxime.deblander@uclouvain.be.

Event organised with the support of the Institut des Civilisations, Arts et Lettres of the UCLouvain.


[1] This quote was used by Marshall Berman for the title of his book on the experience of modernity, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, London, Verso, 2010.

[2] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” [1919], Michael Robartes and the Dancer, Churchtown Dundrum, The Cuala Press, 1921.

[3] To quote Virginia Woolf’s famous essay “The Narrow Bridge of Art”, Granite and Rainbow (ed. L. Woolf), New York, Harcourt, Brace and Cie, 1958, p. 18.

[4] Émilien Sermier has recently shown to what extent, in France, the novelistic production of the inter-war period had been obscured by historiography. Cfr, Une Saison dans le roman. Explorations modernistes : d'Apollinaire à Supervielle (1917-1930), Paris, José Corti, 2022. In other linguistic areas, the question seems to have been considered more, notably by Moritz Baßler who focused on Germanic expressionist prose.

[5] The expression “historical poetics” (poétique historique) should be taken here in the sense used by Alain Vaillant, namely that of a literary history which would be “capable of giving the most detailed account of the evolution of the forms of writing” [our translation]. Cfr. L’Histoire littéraire, Paris, Armand Colin, 2017, p. 10. We are then not far from the attention that critics like Michel Murat or Gilles Philippe pay to the evolution of artistic forms.



Bibliographie sélective / Selective bibliography

Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, London, Verso, 2010.

Christian Berg et al. (dir.), The Turn of the Century/Le Tournant Du Siècle: Modernism and Modernity in Literature and the Arts., Berlin, De Gruyter, 1995.

Anne Boschetti, Ismes. Du réalisme et postmodernisme, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2014.

Michel Décaudin, La crise des valeurs symbolistes. Vingt ans de poésie française (1895-1914), Toulouse, Privat, 1960.

Walter Fähnders (dir.), Expressionistiche Prosa, Bielefeld, Aisthesis Verlag, 2001.

Stephen Frosh, Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and the Self, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 1991.

Sophie Jollin-Bertocchi et Serge Linarès, Changer de style. Écritures évolutives aux XXeme et XXIemesiècles, Leiden/Boston, Brill/Rodopi, 2019.

Dominique Maingueneau, Le discours littéraire. Paratopie et scène d’énonciation, Paris, Armand Colin, 2004.

Jérôme Meizoz, Postures littéraires. Mises en scène modernes de l'auteur, Genève, Slatkine, 2007.

Henri Meschonnic, Modernité Modernité, Paris, Gallimard, 1988.

Joseph Mileck, « Freud and Jung, Psychoanalysis and Literature, Art and Disease », Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, 1978 (14: 2), p. 105-16.

Michel Murat, Le Surréalisme, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 2013.

Emilien Sermier, Une Saison dans le roman. Explorations modernistes d’Apollinaire à Supervielle (1917-1930), Paris, José Corti, 2022.

Jacques Poirier, Les lettres françaises et la psychanalyse (1900-1945), Dijon, Éditions universitaires de Dijon, 2020.

Marjorie Perloff, The futurist moment. Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of rupture, The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Michel Raimond, La Crise du roman. Du lendemain du Naturalisme aux années vingt. Paris, José Corti, 1966.

Anne Reverseau, Le Sens de la vue. Le regard photographique de la poésie moderniste, Paris, Sorbonne université presses, 2016

Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Destructive Element: British Psychoanalysis and Modernism, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1998.

Jean-Yves Tadié, Le Récit poétique [1978], Paris, Gallimard, 1994.

Aurore Touya, La Polyphonie romanesque au xxeme siècle, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2015.

Lionel Trilling, Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1955.

Alain Vaillant, L’histoire littéraire, 2eme édition, revue et augmentée, Paris, Armand Colin, 2017.


Organizing Commitee

  • Adrien Chiroux (UCLouvain)
  • Maxime Deblander (UCLouvain)
  • Helga Mitterbauer (ULB)
  • Anne Reverseau (FNRS-UCLouvain)
  • Hubert Roland (FNRS-UCLouvain)

Scientific Commitee

  • Franca Bruera (Università di Torino)
  • Adrien Chiroux (UCLouvain)
  • Maxime Deblander (UCLouvain)
  • Geneviève Fabry (UCLouvain)
  • Ortwin de Graef (KU Leuven)
  • Anne Reverseau (FNRS-UCLouvain)
  • Hubert Roland (FNRS-UCLouvain)
  • Christophe Meurée (Archives et Musée de la Littérature)
  • Marta Sábado Novau (UCLouvain)
  • Tiphaine Samoyault (EHESS)
  • Emilien Sermier (Université de Lausanne)
  • Carmen Van den Bergh (Universiteit Leiden)