From Our Bookshelf: Morgane Cadieu

Book cover: Morgane Cadieu's "On Both Sides of the Tracks: Social Mobility in Contemporary French Literature"
Maria Teresa Borneo

On Both Sides of the Tracks: Social Mobility in Contemporary French Literature, by Morgane Cadieu (University of Chicago Press, 2024) 

Morgane Cadieu, associate professor of French, specializes in twentieth- and twenty-first-century French and Francophone prose. On Both Sides of the Tracks offers a new perspective on class mobility as a literary and formal issue. In so doing, Cadieu introduces the concept of the parvenanta neologism drawn from parvenua character who shuttles between various social groups and unsettles the notion of a fixed social status. 

Maria Teresa Borneo: Where did the idea for this book come from?  


Morgane Cadieu: I wanted to change the narrative on class mobility, often studied from a sociological or testimonial vantage point that can sideline the specific labors of literature. The book’s epigraph, from Annie Ernaux’s 1993 diary, became my compass: “I realize that I am always searching for the signs of literature in reality.” The social climber’s eye and insights are irremediably tied to textuality, not simply to writing books in general but to detecting literary “signs.” Since parvenus climb the ladder through literature, reading and decoding constitute the core of their experience.  


As a specialist of French literature in the making, I also realized that the figure of the social climber was everywhere and could thus function as a compelling entryway into the intricate coordinates of the contemporary literary landscape and social field.  


MTB: How did the thinking and writing processes start?  


MC: The first chapter that I wrote became chapter five, “A Foot in the Door,” in which I uncover innovative metaphors and literary strategies used to convey a socially mobile journey, starting with the symbolism of doors as transit zones between classes and zooming in on intangible discursive thresholds between transclass writers and their family (namely reported speech and verb tenses). I had just reread Ernaux’s 1983 masterpiece, La Place, when I saw a call for papers for the annual twentieth- and twenty-first-century French and Francophone Studies Colloquium on the topic of “Gates.” That paper literally functioned as a critical threshold to embark on this project. Over the years, I came to appreciate how the constraint of a conference topic tilts the perception of a book in productive ways.  


MTB: What was a challenging aspect of writing this book? 


MC: It was extremely pleasant and rewarding to write my first book in English, to carve out sentences in a language that’s not mine by shedding French rhetorical habits. Each word had to be carefully weighed. The challenge, though, was not to use any French quotations, to avoid giving readers the impression they were missing out on core arguments if they were not French speakers. I wanted the book’s micro-analyses to be as accessible as the bigger claims, without sacrificing any aspect of the close reading. Most of my corpus of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century French novels and narratives had already been translated into English, but I kept encountering the same issue: the English translations veered off too much from the French formulations. Because my arguments rely on a detailed attention to the literary features of a text, I needed the quotes to be as close as possible to the French. To this end, I worked with a professional literary translator, so the quotes could remain grammatically correct, even if at times, they are on the line between idiomatic and non-idiomatic. It represented a significant amount of work, but I learned a lot about the logic of the English language, and the process reinforced my textual analyses, too 


The stories, knowledge, and acute reflexive skills of social climbers are themselves a challenge for literary criticism and interdisciplinarity: how can we socially approach texts already filled with sociological comments? And how can we keep literary forms in focus while engaging with fields for which social mobility matters a great deal, too, such as sociology, politics, and economics? The central question of my book is not what literature tells us about class mobility but how it does the telling. 


MTB: Is there anything that you would want to explore further?  


MC: There is a corpus of texts focused not on those who leave but those who stay behind, notably in rural settings; such parvenus leave a mark on the landscape of their childhood, revealing an environmental backdrop to social mobility.  


MTB: What should readers, both within and outside of this field, take away from the book?  


MC: On Both Sides of the Tracks demonstrates that socially mobile writers and characters serve as meeting points of class, race, sexuality, gender, and kinship issues. These overtrained readers of literary and social signs also challenge interdisciplinarity and the sociology of literature. In response, my book offers a new perspective on class mobility as a literary, formal question. It foregrounds a poetics of emancipation meant to address pressing social issues: Is upward mobility a matter of birth or becoming? How long does one remain mobile? Do social climbers emancipate others in return? How is reading a tool of emancipation? Through the neologism of the parvenant, we see that one-way success stories of upward mobility have been replaced by multi-directional trajectories of departure, arrival, and return, to a point where the idiom of the “social ladder” has morphed into the metaphor of the train. We see this in nonfiction texts and autobiographies, like Christine Angot, Maryse Condé, Didier Éribon, Annie Ernaux, Kaoutar Harchi, Édouard Louis, Abdellah Taïa, to name a few. 


In a sense, nineteenth-century types and tropes have returned in the twenty-first century, but with cross-class protagonists that have leaped off the page to write their own stories. 

Maria Teresa Borneo is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics, focusing on the study of meaning from a psycholinguistic perspective.