Pascale Casanova: World Citizen of Letters
Pioneering scholar of world literature Pascale Casanova died on 29th September at the age of 59. This essay by Xavier de La Porte originally published in L'Obs, looks back at her life and her work.
On 30 September we learned with great sadness of the death of Pascale Casanova, at the age of 59. She leaves behind two major literary contributions.
First of all, the programmes she presented on France Culture across some fifteen years (L’atelier littéraire and then Mardis littéraires), on which she hosted pretty much all of the most interesting authors of this period.
Pascale Casanova was not a journalist but a researcher, and that was the basis on which she questioned these guests. She posed them the questions that she was asking herself. It was pointed, demanding, sometimes in-depth, but always exciting.
For years 'going on Casanova's show' was a form of coronation for writers. Those who had been invited on in the past, and suddenly found this was no longer the case, knew that their book was a failure. Pascale Casanova was not in the business of being chummy, and she had no concern for the logics of publishers and their promotions. Her choices strictly owed to the interest she saw in a work, including poetry and the most formalist of writing. Countless discoveries of both French and foreign literature owed to her; she had them read and commented on by a club of columnists who had the warmest admiration for her.
Added to that, Pascale Casanova left behind a major work which earned her invitations to the most prestigious universities in the early 2000s, namely her 1999 book La République mondiale des lettres (Le Seuil; published by Harvard University Press as The World Republic of Letters). In this work, which sweeps across the continents and centuries, she showed that an author's choice of a language and the passages from one idiom to another obeyed the logics through which that author positioned themselves within the vast battlefield that is world literature.
What went for the authors of the French Renaissance (choosing French to the detriment of Latin) also goes for African authors today who decide to write in their mother tongue rather than in English. Here, Pascale Casanova introduced into literature some of the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, to whom she was very close. Translated into many languages, The World Republic of Letters - in its ambition and originality - is one of the reasons why Duke University offered her a post as visiting professor.
She also published Kafka en colère (Le Seuil, 2011; 'Kafka Angered', a sort of literary-sociological biography whose title brought a smile to the faces of those who knew her, given the degree to which anger - with its excesses and its beauty - seemed to be a motor for her. Her final book, La Langue Mondiale (Le Seuil 2015), delved into a red thread that ran throughout all her work: translation. Given her intense curiosity and love for the texts she could have extended this oeuvre further, had only she been left more time.
French academia doubtless failed to understand that Pascale Casanova was a rare personality capable of changing our perspective on bodies of work that had already been well tilled. Happily, this radical woman, so elegant in her thought, found other paths to achieving that. And for that, we shall be forever grateful.
Translated by David Broder