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Swoboda, Marian J.; Roberts, Audrey J. / They came to learn, they came to teach, they came to stay
(1980)

Marks, Elaine
Chapter 14: Germaine Bree: a partial portrait,   pp. 81-84


Page 82

because she speaks and writes two and with rare bilingual fluency. The fact
which dominates the others, which is always present in Germaine Bree's
anecdotes and in all published interviews and summary chronologies, is her
Franco-British ancestry. I should like to extract from this fact tentative
ap-
proaches to Germaine Bree's intellectual disposition and to the magnitude
of
her success as a woman academic in the United States.
What is constant in the writings and lectures of Germaine Bre'e is her pas-
sionate concern with the primacy of human experience and her suspicion that
determinist theories and abstract reasoning mystify rather than clarify,
that
they are in the long run dangerous because they attract fanatical adherents.
In
her refusal to impose theoretical models on a literary text Germaine Bree
reaffirms her penchant towards English empiricism and common sense, her
aversion to continental theorizing. She does not share the contemporary
French need for a "systeme oiu tout se tient,"1 the total explication
of the
world as language and text. She does not exclude, in her reading of literature,
the amateur's love, the dilettante's delight, the pleasure that can be derived
from books. In a period of theoretical dogmatism, Germaine Bre'e has had
the
courage to defend eclecticism and pleasure against charges of "impression-
ism" and "bourgeois culture." There is also a sense in which
she might be
considered an "existentialist" both before and after the great
vogue of French
existentialism. (I understand existentialism as a world view and an aesthetic
that focuses on individual experience in an indifferent universe, that considers
human experience as unexplainable, but emphasizes the individual's freedom
of choice  within a given situation - and the individual's responsibility
for
the consequences of acts committed.)
The existentialist connection accounts, too, I think, for Germaine Bree's
critical strategies. In her major books on Proust, Gide, Camus, Sartre and
Camus, her central concern is how a writer struggles to order experience,
not
merely language, in the face of joy and suffering. She never loses sight
of the
complex dialectic between life and death, and the certainty of the outcome.
This perspective on human affairs may have been nurtured by her own
nomadic existence - from the south of France to the Channel Islands, to
Mirrnes, to Paris, to North Africa, to the United States (Bryn Mawr College,
New York University, University of Wisconsin, Wake Forest University), by
her experiences in the Second World War as an ambulance driver in North
Africa and as an intelligence officer with the French army in France, by
the
death of her youngest sister in childbirth and by her mother's death in 1944.
If I were to simplify what are intricate resemblances and affiliations, I
would suggest that, although Germaine Bree's affective attachments are to
France, her intellectual affinity is with England and that the mixture con-
tributed significantly to her reception in the United States and to her genuine
affection and sympathy for Americans. She was born in the Cevennes moun-
tain region of the south of France on 2 October 1907, the first of six children
of her French Protestant mother, the third of eight children of her clergyman
father, a British citizen. To be a Protestant in France is to be outside
of the
main tradition, to belong to a proud, insular minority for whom the sense
of
past is linked more strongly to moral virtues and memories of religious per-
secution than to religious beliefs. There is a high percentage of voracious
readers and active writers among clergymen's daughters, perhaps because
clergymen are such avid readers of the Book and because of the obligation
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