Professor Alain Viala wins R. H. Gapper Book Prize 2009

The Society for French Studies is delighted to announce the award of the tenth annual R. H. Gapper Book Prize to Alain Viala for La France galante (Presses Universitaires de France).

The Society also commends the three further works shortlisted for the prize:

  • Celia Britton: The Sense of Community in French Caribbean Fiction (Liverpool University Press)
  • Margaret McGowan: Dance in the Renaissance. European Fashion – French Obsession (Yale University Press)
  • Gavin Parkinson: Surrealism, Art and Modern Science (Yale University Press)

The award, which is for the best book published in 2008 by a scholar working in Britain or Ireland in French studies, is made by the Society for French Studies together with Mr Richard Gapper, representing the R. H. Gapper Charitable Trust, on the recommendation of a Prize Jury appointed by the SFS. The Prize Jury for 2009 was composed as follows:

  • Chair: Diana Holmes (University of Leeds)
  • Simon Gaunt (King’s College London)
  • Alex Hughes (University of Kent)
  • Christopher Johnson (University of Nottingham)
  • Neil Kenny (University of Cambridge)
  • Roger Pearson (University of Oxford).

The R. H. Gapper Book Prize will be presented to Professor Viala at the next Society for French Studies annual conference, which takes place at Swansea University, 5-7 July 2010.

The winning book: La France galante, Alain Viala

This is a history of the rise and cultural prominence of galanterie, especially between the mid-seventeenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries, though sixteenth-century roots are also analysed. In the core period studied, the terms galanterie and galant(e) were applied to a wide range of practices (notably conversation) and cultural productions (multi-media court festivals or fêtes galantes, poems, dialogues, letters, maxims, novels, theatre, opera, paintings by Watteau and others). Many men and women styled themselves as galants/galantes. Alain Viala establishes convincingly that, far from being a marginal pursuit, galanterie was at the heart of high culture. By taking his cue from the period’s own language, he shows the anachronistic distortions that have at times arisen from the retrospective application to (the earlier part of) this period of other labels (‘classicism’ and ‘baroque’) that are not actually rooted in it.

This attention to the period’s own language means that galanterie emerges here as a complex, shifting, multivalent cluster of meanings and practices rather than a neat concept. To be galant was, variously, to be pleasing (especially but not only to women), pleasurable, good company, sociable, humorous, respectful towards others, natural-seeming, Moderne rather than Ancien, and part of a self-conscious elite. Galanterie often concerned love and eroticism, but its scope was broader still. One strand of galanterie went beyond eroticism into obscenity and licentiousness.

Viala provides a vast panorama of this phenomenon, and pulls off the remarkable achievement of combining an empathetic reconstruction of the aesthetics and stated values of galant culture with a historicizing analysis of its ideological functions. The book achieves this by periodically stepping back and analysing the socio-economic composition of the self-styled galants (a core of perhaps 20,000-30,000 in the late seventeenth century, including Louis XIV and many courtiers but also bourgeois parvenu writers in search of patrons), their absolutist, non-parlementaire, secularist ideology, and their meeting of the post-Fronde nobility’s need to develop new urban manners. In other words, Alain Viala develops his material within powerful analytical frameworks. These also enable him to bring out the contradictoriness of galanterie for women, put in the position of passive admirers of male galant performances or made the objects of the openly lubricious brand of galanterie on the one hand, while on the other hand being numerous and influential actors and voices in the sphere of galant cultural production as well as being granted at least notional autonomy within heterosexual relations.

The book is the culmination of twenty years of research, during which the author has published many articles on the subject. He also acknowledges that literary galanterie in particular has been well studied, notably by Delphine Denis. But this book clearly goes very far beyond existing work, by himself and others. It is the first study of this scope of French galanterie as a cultural phenomenon. It is written with exceptional communicative flair: a strong first-person presence chats to, cajoles, jokes with, charms the readers, managing to whisk them through immense scholarship without appearing pedantic. This is no coincidence — the galants would have approved.

Information about the 2010 R.H. Gapper Book Prize is available at http://www.sfs.ac.uk

 

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