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Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures, London, Continuum, 2008, 170 pages. by Maurizio Ascari

In the early 2000s several scholars have felt the need to develop new interpretive tools to come to terms with the rapidly evolving conditions of production, circulation and reception of books in the age of globalisation. As a result, a large number of studies on world literature – as well as on literature and globalisation – have been recently published, thanks to the critical efforts of authors such as David Damrosch, Pascale Casanova, Christopher Prendergast, Theo D’haen, Franco Moretti, John Pizer, Suman Gupta and others. Mads Rosendahl Thomsen’s Mapping World Literature is part of this lively theoretical debate. Right from the title, the book reveals the author’s intention to systematise a field of study that is still magmatic. Thomsen aims both to trace a history of the concept of world literature, which was famously coined by Goethe in 1827, and to explore the global dimension of our present. Contemporary literature may be deemed transnational in terms of creativity, due to the hybrid identities of migrant and bicultural writers, but also of circulation, since translation plays an increasingly important role in cultural exchanges and new novels by major authors often appear in various languages simultaneously. Assessing this phenomenon, creating an appropriate critical jargon, is by now a ‘must’… Needless to say, the tension between each critic’s cultural position and his/her cosmopolitan effort at crossing borders to ‘comprehend’ otherness is one of the big issues at the core of the world literature enterprise. Being pragmatically aware of the fact that one cannot aim to perceive and understand world literature as a whole, Thomsen starts from his situated perspective with the aim to investigate “how world literature is structured and evolving in the Western world.” (2) This inevitably ‘partial’ investigation proves able to unveil some fundamental aspects of present-day culture, which calls for new critical approaches, since “national canonization has a different logic and different values than international canonization.” (3) The relation between the development of world literature, as a critical concept in the making, and the two pre-existing critical disciplines that aim to cross national borders – comparative and post-colonial studies – is


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Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures, London, Continuum, 2008, 170 pages.

discussed in chapter 1. While world literature is actually more pragmatic, in its transnational dimension, than the national and comparative paradigms, this new critical discourse has been accused of being both “too idealistic and almost void of any methodical ideas.” (5) Developing a method is the challenge world literature scholars face today. Tracing a geography of contemporary world literature is no easy task. What phenomena should be identified as generating significance and therefore assessed? Thomsen mentions “production, readers, preferences, translations, critical valuations” (34), leaving the list open ended… In spatial terms, Thomsen advances the flexible theory of temporary sub-centres, such as the late nineteenth-century Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky or the Latin America of Márquez and Vargas Llosa. The critic also highlights two different authorial attitudes, distinguishing those writers who rely on their immediate local experience from those – such as Borges or Karen Blixen – who “have a world orientation towards a variety of cultures and histories” (44). Although the latter attitude seems to facilitate an author’s reception within a wider context, this cosmopolitan outlook cannot actually be considered as a “prerequisite” (47) to international canonization, as is shown by Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s Recherche… What Thomsen importantly claims is that “national and international canonization realistically can be seen as separate if connected systems” (54). Several works which have been “nationally canonized” have actually “had little impact on the international scene” (56) and the opposite is also true. In his attempt to mediate between the two extremes of “seeing an individual work as nearly unique, or just a representation of more general properties in a larger system” (58), Thomsen invokes Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances” (58), setting the ground for his next two chapters. This marks a transition within the book, which thus proceeds from the discussion of existing theoretical stances to the proposal of a new approach. Right from the introduction, Thomsen asserts that “The international canons consist of several constellations of works that share properties of formal and thematic character.” (3) This idea is the starting point of his critical venture, which aims to identify transnational subsystems of writers and works, such as “Holocaust writers, migrant writers and instantly translated authors.” (23) Two of these categories are discussed in chapters 3 (“Migrant writers and cosmopolitan culture”) and 4 (“Ethics and aesthetics in traumatic literature”). After highlighting the role migrant writers are playing in creating a “postnational literature” (61), Thomsen traces a short history of migrant literature, notably in the modernist period. He then divides contemporary migrant writers into three categories: “the post-colonials, the political exiles and the voluntary migrants.” (85) This


Maurizio Ascari

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section examines figures such as Milan Kundera, Michel Houellebecq and Gao Xingjian, but many other authors are mentioned, ranging from Isabel Allende to W.G. Sebald and the Bosnian Aleksandar Hemon. Needless to say, other names could be added to the lists Thomsen provides, with no claim of completeness, but several books have been published on migrant literature and Thomsen’s is obviously interested in ‘mapping’ as a ‘method’ rather than as an inventory. Thus, the critic perceptively underlines that “a number of migrant novelists have integrated an essayistic element as an important part of their narratives” (98) and expatiates on the “double perspective” that marks their outlook on life, since they are “both at home and away at the same time.” (99) Chapter 4, focusing on the thematic and formal aspects of traumatic literature, opens with a discussion of the Holocaust as “the first object of historical memory that is truly cosmopolitan” (103), as Daniel Levy and Nathan Sznaider argue, a position which other scholars criticise. Thomsen also deals with the ethical import of aesthetically representing “the horrors of history” (105), as discussed by Adorno, and examines the process of universalisation that has turned the Holocaust into a metaphor of other genocides. He also takes into account the formal aspects of Holocaust literature, which crosses the boundaries between genres and also overlaps with testimony, with all the representational problems this poses. The author interestingly describes the function of genocide literature as “the renunciation of the evil ‘other’, in a universal humanistic view of the world order that, in many cases, has replaced a religious view” (113), but he also discusses these works as “linked to the fascination of the social sublime” (114), which has supplanted the divine and natural sublime. Studying Holocaust literature within the wider framework of genocide literature, the critic takes into account writers such as Primo Levi, Georges Perec, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Fourevitch, Aleksandar Hemon and Philip Roth. At the end of the book, Thomsen utilises the critical term constellations – which is implicitly derived from Walter Benjamin’s theory of history – to describe ‘transnational subsystems’ such as migrant and Holocaust literature. Four attributes make this label fit for critical use. Constellations are realistic, since they result from a “process of selection, or canonization, whose complexity is overwhelming” (139). They are innovative, insofar as they find “similarities in works that are usually not thought of belonging together” (140). They are pluralist, since they “connect less circulated literature with the most internationally canonized works” (141). Finally, they are didactic, being aimed “to establish a point of view and reduce complexity” (142). One can possibly see a faultline running between the first and third of these attributes, since when dealing with constellations a critic has inevitably to decide whether to trace connections that link major and minor works 3


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Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures, London, Continuum, 2008, 170 pages.

– an attitude Thomsen seems to regard as truly pluralistic – or to follow the well-trodden paths of the received international canon. What matters, however, is that this critical stance confirms the attitude Thomsen advocates right from the beginning of his volume. No one can presume to embrace world literature as a whole. Its canonical dynamics can be studied only by means of case studies. As we can see, this work is grounded on a solid theoretical awareness and reveals a no less solid architecture. To systematise the field, the critic has adopted a bird’s eye view of world literature, following in the footsteps of his Danish compatriot Georg Brandes, whose essay ‘World Literature’ (1899) is included in this book as an appendix. Although readers of Mapping World Literature are sometimes left with the desire to know more about the single texts Thomsen deals with, details have understandably to be sacrificed. The aim of such a wideranging, comprehensive study is precisely that of developing methods of analysis and to outline ‘cultural containers’ in order to provide other critics with the tools they will then apply to a closer scrutiny of text. At the end of this complex itinerary we are simply grateful to Thomsen for his intellectual clarity and for all the energy he put into the daunting enterprise of mapping world literature.

Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Mapping World Literature  
Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Mapping World Literature  

In the early 2000s several scholars have felt the need to develop new interpretive tools to come to terms with the rapidly evolving conditio...

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