A Word from the Editor
From time to time a hybrid genre falls into my lap, something in-between fiction and non-fiction. This is not standard academic scholarship but rather amateur history that revisits the past with a dose of journalistic flair. The inclusion of dialogue and minimal footnotes, the aim to entertain while also seeking to inform, pushes it, for the purposes of review, into the realm of fiction. We have seen the genre flourish recently through a retelling of historical “true crimes,” the sort that attracted vast public in their day. In this vein, Steven Levingston’s Little Demon in the City of Light revisists a sensationalist murder trial at the time of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair with plenty of lurid detail, but also including debates on hypnosis and personal culpability raised during the trial. Levingston draws his evidence from memoirs and the contemporary press, but also owes much to famed magistrate and specialist in causes célèbres Pierre Bouchardon’s 1933 La malle mystérieuse. I asked Professor Barbara Pope, herself the author of a trilogy of mysteries set in that period (see Charles Sowerwine’s review of her trilogy in Vol 3:5), to share her thoughts on the book. She generously emphasizes the book’s strengths while also questioning its rendering of scientific debates.
In her review of George Clooney’s Monuments Men, Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt shows us why we should be wary of films’ seductive reordering of fact. Although based on Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s popular history by the same name, Clooney’s version takes liberties that distort the group’s mandate and in particular the role of the French. Karlsgodt establishes the proper context for the Monument Men’s activities and the ways that “saving artworks” figured in the Allies’ as well as occupied countries’ plans, questioning Clooney’s a priori assumption that saving art meant saving civilization. The potential destruction of world-famous artworks such as the Ghent altarpiece, meant to encapsulate Nazi evil, ends up backfiring, despite the film’s conventional good intentions. The “horse-sense” that is being invoked with regard to art is the same used by the viewer to reject the premise that the civilization at risk during WWII consisted of a few masterpieces.
Julia Clancy-Smith regularly includes movies when she teaches North African society and she explains how she has incorporated the films Summer at la Goulette and the more recent What the Day Owes the Night in courses on colonialism, gender and empire. These films, she argues, bring nuance to students’ understanding of colonial and post-colonial Algeria and Tunisia, especially through their depiction of ethnic intermingling. This provokes students to revise some of their assumptions about imperialism as it was experienced locally and post-independence societies, and to develop new questions and areas of research.
This begins another year of Fiction and Film for French Historians. Over the coming months, you will find some familiar themes: the Occupation, the French Revolution, May 68, as these topics continue to engender new novels and films. April 2015 will revisit the Hundred Days to mark the end of the Napoleonic commemorations, but there are also surprises along the way. Scholars have begun to approach me with suggestions for reviews, rather than just the other way round, and I am always ready to consider them. Happy reading!
University at Buffalo, SUNY