For half a century, Wallace Fowlie has been one of the most prolific and influential American critics and interpreters of modern French literature. He has written studies of most of the major figures of the past hundred years or so of French literature, including Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marcel Proust, Paul Claudel, André Gide, and Jean Cocteau. He produced the first complete bilingual edition of the poems of Rimbaud, as well as translations of poems by Maurice Scève and St.-John Perse and plays by Molière and Claudel. He has also written books on surrealism, French theater, and Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320), and in recent years has published his own poems and autobiographical writings. In 1975, Grove Press brought out a volume of letters between Fowlie and Henry Miller. These writings would be ample enough achievements, but Fowlie has also been a gifted and inspiring teacher for many years at Bennington College, Yale University, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado, and, from 1964 to 1978, Duke University, where he was James B. Duke Professor of Romance Languages. Since his formal retirement from Duke, he has taught and lectured at a growing number of colleges and universities. Suffice it to say that he has exercised a significant influence on several generations of critics and teachers, whose love of French literature has been greatly intensified through contact with him.
Fowlie the dedicated writer, wedded to solitude, coexists with Fowlie the accessible, gregarious teacher. These and other contradictions and complexities of his personality have provided the central focus of the three remarkable volumes of autobiographical writing he has produced since the mid-1970’s—of which Sites: A Third Memoir is the most recent and most unusual. Other paradoxes of Fowlie’s temperament include—and this receives treatment here as well as in his other autobiographical writings—his profound Roman Catholic devotion in coexistence with his admitted fascination with the heretical, unorthodox, transgressive aspects of so much of modernist French culture, from literature to cinema. The Fowlie capable of identifying with the self-denial of monastic life is the same one who reports to us of what he would call his “sybaritic” indulgence in food, travel, and the arts.
In Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (1976), Elizabeth Bruss asserts that the first rule of autobiography is that the autobiographer is in the dual role of serving as subject matter for the book while at the same time providing the structure of the text itself. For most autobiographical writing, chronological narrative has been the standard arrangement: a narrative, one might say, that cannot be completed. It has become a commonplace in literary theory that the narrative devices available to autobiographical writing are necessarily identical to those of prose fiction.
Fowlie breaks out of the pattern to which he adhered in his two earlier books of autobiographical writing by shunning the chronological narrative of the “life so far” in favor of the thematic approach suggested by the places that haunt his memory. In Journal of Rehearsals: A Memoir (1977), the reader retraces with Fowlie the steps whereby he became devoted to French language, literature, and culture, and his taking on of the dual vocation of teacher and writer. Aubade: A Teacher’s Notebook (1983) concentrated on the years at Duke University (1964 to 1978) and the friends he made there. Its title, which can be roughly translated as “dawn serenade,” refers to his lifelong habit of rising before dawn, like a monk awakening for matins or lauds, to carry out his daily task of writing. In Sites, Fowlie follows an entirely different scheme that involves episodes in his life related to specific sites that illuminate aspects of his character. In the process, Sites becomes a work that makes a real contribution to both the theory and the practice of autobiographical writing. As a lifelong reader of Proust, Fowlie knows that memory follows no coherent chronology, and, like Proust, he makes the relationship between his writing and his life the central drama and recurring motif of his text. The essay “On Writing Autobiography” begins Sites in a thoughtful manner that calls the reader’s attention to the pitfalls of writing autobiography and acknowledges its quasi-fictional, constructed...
(The entire section is 1828 words.)