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Françoise Král, Sounding out History: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River

Nanterre, Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2017. 174 p. ISBN-13 : 978-2-84016-282-7. 12 €
Kerry-Jane WALLART
Référence(s) :

Françoise Král, Sounding out History: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River. Nanterre, Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2017. 174 p. ISBN-13 : 978-2-84016-282-7. 12 €

Texte intégral

1For all its titular emphasis on ongoing diasporic displacements, Crossing the River prominently weaves the threads of a reflection about pasts and memories spanning from the late eighteenth century to the 1960s – and even to the very contemporary period in the epilogue. Françoise Král attends to these temporal configurations as they are deployed by Caryl Phillips in his fourth novel, which has been included in the curriculum for the French exam of the agrégation externe. The present monograph aims at helping students prepare this exam and constitutes a remarkably helpful synthesis of the novel’s main themes, organized around the notion of History. Sounding out History takes in a number of enlightening examples of close reading and skilfully combines key concepts of postcolonial/ Caribbean/Black Atlantic theory along with relevant passages in the novel. For French students often insufficiently trained in poststructuralist reading the volume is bound to prove essential.

2Král’s grasp on the novel is centred around slavery, as fact and as traumatic memory, as presence and absence, and most importantly, as mnemonic process. She posits early on that “while it is important to stress the fact that Crossing the River is not thematically limited to issues linked to the slave trade […] it remains the case that the novel makes some crucial points which strike at the heart of the politics as well as of the economic rationale of slavery but also of anti-slavery movements” (45). The impact of History on artistic forms is ceaselessly foregrounded, especially so through the issue of genres and their re-working in the novel. This could have been the occasion to deal with the distinctive segmentation of a novel composed of several parts whose cohesion lies in the hermeneutic gaze of the reader, and to mention issues of audience response. This matter aside, Král pinpoints the repercussions of slavery across time and space and shows how non-linearity constitutes a constant relational matrix for fiction, here and in other works by the Black British writer.

3Král’s comprehensive investigations of what Phillips’s novel borrows from (neo-)slave narratives, travel narratives, diaries, the epistolary novel, and war fiction, are well-informed and fully convincing. These analyses are never merely descriptive and instead, feed the author’s argument against a postmodern interpretation of the novel: “rather than overusing the form and emptying it of its substance, Caryl Phillips adopts it […] before co-presencing it with another form, so as to bring out the epistemic tension inherent in the relation thus created” (86). This bold statement is recast over and again along the pages as Král takes in her stride such appropriate and timely thinkers as Arendt (on the banality of evil) and Levinas (on intersubjective recognition). While the various interpretations offered in the monograph are all framed by an attempt to retrieve meaning and re-direct fiction towards pressing political agendas, they also foreground the textual and even self-reflexive dimension of the novel in ways that are quite relevant to the scholarly frame of the agrégation.

4Král investigates like a historian herself and contextualises the novel through a number of elucidations which, among other dimensions of the volume, will prove rather useful to students. The subjugated fates of Black Atlantic diasporic existences are analysed through explanations concerning the American Colonization Society and the creation of Liberia, the life of John Newton, or the presence of Black GIs during WWII, among other topics. In this respect her convocation of Pierre Nora’s notion of “commemorative vigilance” (75) resonates in performative ways in the pages of Sounding out History. The New Historicist undertaking is strengthened by a theorization on the very discipline of History, as Král takes heed of such thinkers as Nora but also Paul Ricœur, Maurice Halbwachs and Paul Bergson. Generally, the monograph gleans material from an impressively wide range of discourses and works in order to create clusters of meaning; this can be frustrating for scholars expecting a one-directional reading of the novel but will certainly help students glean material in their own discussions of Crossing the River for the very specific purpose of the preparation to the agrégation.

5Sounding out History is organised into three parts of decreasing length, which is structurally unexpected and tends to leave the reader wanting to know more about the “post-genealogies” with which the third part is concerned and which owe much to Deleuze’s definition of the rhizome as ‘anti-genealogy’. Král looks at the diverse literary influences to the novel as ‘co-texts’ and “ghost narratives” (52), two categories which recur in the volume and constitute the backbone of her intersecting memory and literary practices. She also approaches the vexed site of Phillips’s archival borrowings from John Newton’s writings and takes the matter far beyond the possibilities of the pastiche and the parody. The inspirational third chapter in the first part investigates the notion of “prosthetic memory” (picked up again on page 152 around the character of Joyce). The chapter notably circumnavigates the dialectics between the self and the group, the personal and the collective – indeed one of the most central interrogations of Phillips’s fiction. The study finally proceeds to an insightful analysis of Paul Gilroy’s reliance upon tradition as a complex and sometimes paradoxical (or even negative) mediation towards Black modernity; generally speaking, Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, published the same year as Crossing the River, is mentioned at all the right moments in this first part.

6The second part broaches generic matters (‘Literary Filiations’) before returning yet again to the notion of historiography in its relation to minor voices (‘Voicing history’). The first chapter offers a shift from filiation to affiliation which resonates throughout the novel from the most literal to the most symbolic/metaphoric level and focuses mostly on Joyce’s silences and ellipses. The second chapter grapples with the polyphony at work in Crossing the River; the fertile and homophonic notions of “chorality” and “co-orality” are explored, even though they somehow brush under the carpet the centrality in the novel of the written text (letters, diaries, logbooks, even newspapers) and the resulting tension between the oral and the scriptural.

7In the last part an engagement with notions of belonging, rootedness and genealogy allows Král implicitly to situate the novel with respect to Black British fiction and its interrogation of Englishness and its peripheralities (including in their rhizomic dimensions). The argumentation goes on engaging with the literary strategies at stake and make for a precious textualist take on a novel sometimes taken as a pre-text to theoretical discussions, regardless of its intense metafictional stance. Král identifies the pattern of a quest for some sort of home and relates it to Butler’s recent conceptualisation of precarious lives (incidentally, Butler’s former work on gendered performance and performativity could have provided a starting point for an analysis of the gender issues underlying enunciation and power relations in Crossing the River; this is possibly the only dead angle in an otherwise staggeringly comprehensive study, given its length and precipitated publication. A passing mention of women’s history in the very first chapter might not be paying enough attention to the convoluted specificities of female selfhood and agency throughout the novel).

8Unlike what has already been published on Crossing the River, Král’s discussion of the novel makes repeated incursions into the world of the visual arts, past and present. Although Phillips makes no explicit mention to these various works (Turner, Gbaguidi, Hyber, Kitenge Banza), they somehow illustrate and corroborate both the visibility and invisibility of the novel’s characters – including the slaves mentioned by James Hamilton in his logbook, the very slaves whose (re-)elision from view has been seen by some critics as problematic or objectionable. Also taken on board are a wide range of references to other texts which come into play with Crossing the River. These clusters of literary echoes confirm the diasporic fluidity of language in Crossing the River, notably as it is masterfully deployed in the epilogue. The author is careful to signpost lines of investigation and of flight without pigeon-holing any dimension of a novel which is precisely intent on suggesting fluidity, ambiguity and open-endedness.

9Although it remains a volume written for the oddly specific purposes of the agrégation and despite its being focused on one of Caryl Phillips’s novels only, this volume will be of some interest to scholars in the field of Caribbean and/or diasporan literatures at large. It offers an interesting reassessment of this novel and provides a prism through which to go back to the rest of Phillips’s oeuvre. Král’s critical imagination opens up new “routes”, to borrow Gilroy’s reactivation of quests for “roots”. Beyond the topical interest for Caryl Phillips’s novel this volume of versatile literary analyses will provide readers with urgent interrogations around precarious subjectivities and agencies, especially in relation to their needs for, and performative practices of, renewed historiographies.

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Référence électronique

Kerry-Jane WALLART, « Françoise Král, Sounding out History: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 09 juillet 2020. URL :

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Kerry-Jane WALLART

Sorbonne Université, VALE EA 4085

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