Caliban's literary canon
Anne: thank you for this fascinating introduction to Caliban. I'm interested in this idea of a literary digest as "panorama of the world", promoting humanist, internationalist ideals. Could you tell us a little more about the kinds of works that were enlisted in this cause, and what the editorial criteria were? Was this an exclusive canon, weeding out discredited French authors, and promoting alternative foreign voices? Or was it less programmatic in its selections?
Hello Tim, thank you for raising this issue which touches upon the very nature of Caliban’s complex internationalism. Its initial project was to educate their readers into the “soul” of other nations by providing them with the best in world literature. The idea that literature offers a view into a “nation’s soul” is part of national identity construction and cultural legitimization, and Caliban was no exception to the rule, even if its impulse was more universalist than comparatist. In its first phase especially (until mid-1949), its editors encouraged readers to reappraise French literature in a wider cultural context, by prioritizing foreign works chosen for their stylistic quality and universal appeal. Then, they gradually introduced national writers — with a strong preference for proletarian and engagés fiction — who were “internationalized”, so to speak, in the process. The ultimate goal was to blur the borders separating the domestic from the foreign, but also to debunk the distinctions between high and low, old and new, so as to foster belief in a form of modern “supranationalism” that would transform social and political life on both a local, international, transnational and global scale. This, perhaps naïve, belief in a radical deterritorialization of national literary cultures makes Caliban a fascinating document — especially in these days of closed borders and enforced protectionism. Works by French authors, including Louis Guilloux’s La maison du people (1929, Emmanuel Roblès’s La Forteresse (1942), or Vercors’s Les armes de la nuit (1946), were to be read alongside great world of world literature, such as Selma Lagerlof’s The Emperor of Portugallia (1914), Chekhov’s A Shooting Party (1884), Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929), or Pearl Buck’s 1930 East Wind, West Wind. The purpose was didactic not moralistic, as evidenced in the choice to reproduce Moravia’s Agostino (1942) and Richard Hugues’s High Wind in Jamaica (1929), or to reappraise long-censored writers such as Sade or D.H. Lawrence. It is also interesting to observe that the magazine’s selection was not dependent from prescribed dicta from publishers or critics. For instance, it did not reverberate the publishers’ and the critics’ fad for American hard-boiled crime fiction until the late 40s, when it had become mainstream. Moreover, none of the American writers (Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Faulkner) that were being canonized by French elite literary circles appeared in its pages. In this respect, the magazine offers us a good indication of the kind of foreign literature the public actually read. Tracing the transnational networked reception of writers such as Vicky Baum, Louis Bromfield, Thornton Wilder, or Pearl Buck across European writers in book digests and book series (I am thinking of Mondadori in Italy, for instance, whose role has been studied by our colleagues Irene Piazzoni and Fabio Guidali) would give us another opportunity to investigate further the relationship between modernity and nationalism across modernist magazines in Europe.
Dear Anne, thank you for your important paper on Caliban. I think that this ambitious cultural endeavor really gives a hint on the continuity both in the Leftist literary canon across Europe and in political approach from the early interwar period to post-WWII. Internationalism, cultural relativism and accessibility are all crucial elements. Could you please tell us a bit more about the ending of the publication? Maybe not by chance it did not go on after the early Fifties, when a new anti-European internationalism was more and more present in the European Left, especially in correspondence of the rise of the decolonization movement. Thank you in advance!
Dear Fabio, thank you for your pointed comment. Caliban folded in November 1955 for a number of reasons. In 1950, due an increase in paper costs, the magazine was faced with a disastrous rise in printing costs. Moreover, there were rumors of a take-over by the Hachette publishing company, which led to the resignation of its editor-in-chief, Jean Daniel. The takeover was implemented in March 1952, but the magazine never reappeared. While the journal openly supported the decolonization process, the issue of Algeria was a moot point for its editors and contributors, several of whom were born in Algeria, including Jean Daniel and Albert Camus. Your suggestion that the idea that the new anti-European internationalism of the 50s may also have accounted for the magazine’s early demise gives me food for thought.