Despite counting a few examples of what one could call earlier stages of the stream of consciousness as a narrative method, it is Édouard Dujardin‘s “Les lauriers sont coupés” that develops this techniques in the same way it will be deployed and developed by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and other Modernist writers. As editor of the Revue Indépendante since 1886, Dujardin published the first part of this groundbreaking novel in 1888 but it was not as successful as one might believe it was.
Partially, this was due to harsh literary criticism, but what probably made it hard for the work to succeed in its first issue was simply the inadequacy of the reader to embrace and get familiar with such an intimate type of narrative. The nineteenth-century reader is used to being transported into the event that an omniscient narrator presents and builds for him, while the sensitivity of the stream of consciousness is more appropriate and therefore acceptable to the twentieth century reader, a specific time when the concept of reality itself is questioned. Dujardin was simply way too much ahead of his time!
What brought his ”Les lauriers sont coupés” to popularity was not just a consequence of James Joyce’s success with “Ulysses” in the 1920s, but an honest admission that the French work did serve as an inspiration. Joyce himself admitted to having bought a copy of Dujardin’s short novel at a market in Paris, in 1903. The plot of the novel itself is not particularly captivating in terms of action, but it is engaging if one approaches it with literary curiosity: the limited timeframe in which we follow the thoughts of the main character Daniel Prince are mainly focused on his attraction to a girl named Lea, who turns out to be an opportunist girl.
At a first glance, “Les lauriers sont coupés” seems to share more similarities with “The Dubliners” rather than “Ulysses“, but since the latter tends to be considered as the new narrative of Modernism at its best, the comparison is understandable.
However, the essence of Modernism is already there and Dujardin seems to have developed it in the same light as the Modernist have, but many years before English literature embraced new narrative concepts and forms. The limits in time and the echo of the actions are intended to isolate emotion for what it is, amplified and studied, critically analysed to enchant and engage the reader and make him part of the events, like Modernist fiction will be able to do in the following decades.
In terms of narrative flow, the text appears quite fragmented and short statements are deployed, probably to deliver a sense of discontinuity with the way thoughts are processed, which technically differ from what we could define as ‘stream‘.
Obviously, there are many ways to describe the concept of ‘thought‘ and when this applies to the literary field new levels of complexity in such discussions are a given. The interior monologue, as presented by Dujardin, is nothing but the raw material on which Joyce worked to produce his best works. But is it fair to always analyse things retrospectively? Can we really look at Dujardin’s novel for what it is, without thinking about the chronology of literature? Yes, it is a useful and fundamental experience to compare literary works, especially in the light of how one influences another, but how does this limit our ability to analyse the literary work for what it is?
Needless to say, it was only after “Ulysses” was published and the Modernist age of English literature had started that ”Les lauriers sont coupés” received a newfound interest from literary critics and translators, receiving the English title of “We’ll to the Woods No More” in the 1920s, many years before its original release in France.