Isabelle H. Naginski and Gerard Gasarian

Isabelle H. Naginski and Gerard Gasarian
© Mark Morelli

A dual stroke of good fortune for French professors

Consider it the academic equivalent of lightning striking twice.

Two Tufts French professors have each received a research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Competition for the grants is fierce, so the receipt of two fellowships by colleagues within the same department is noteworthy for the university—and a delightful surprise for the faculty involved.

Isabelle H. Naginski and Gerard Gasarian, both associate professors of French, will each receive up to $40,000 from the NEH, to be used during the current academic year. Both will use the fellowship to complete work on a book.

Neither was prepared for the dual stroke of good fortune.

"We thought that at the very best, only one of us would receive this grant," Gasarian said. "So when we each got the good word from the NEH, the joy of success was initially tempered by disappointment on the other colleague's behalf, and a bit of awkwardness."

"Gerard comes into my office, with a sort of sheepish look on his face," Naginski recalled. "I said, 'Gerard, what's the matter?' and he said, 'I received the NEH [fellowship],' and I stood up and yelled out, 'Moi aussi!' ('Me too!') I was so pleased, and he looked at me in disbelief…"

Stiff competition
The fellowship program is one of the most competitive funded by the NEH, with grants going to one in 10 applicants, according to NEH spokesman Jim Turner. "It's definitely a great honor to get an NEH fellowship," Turner said. That Naginski and Gasarian work within the same academic arena did not influence the independent reviewers who judge the fellowship applications, he said.

"What the NEH is interested in is advancing knowledge in that field. That clearly two highly qualified professors have track records that won recognition from our reviewers is really coincidental, but it's a great feather in their cap," he said.

Both Naginski and Gasarian have received NEH grants before—Naginski in 1987-88 and Gasarian in 1995-96. Researchers must wait five years after receipt of a grant before they can apply for another.

Both have already completed a substantial portion of the research for their proposed publications. "Part of the application is a six-page, single-spaced proposal, so you have to be about halfway through with your research to be able to articulate your project," Naginski said.

"The NEH jurors have a flair for detecting those projects that are close to completion, or not," Gasarian said. "These projects have been simmering in us a long time."

'Forbidden Love'
Gasarian's new book, Forbidden Love of Words, deals with modern French poetry from 1850 to the present, starting with the work of Charles Baudelaire. "It's a survey of the entire span of modern French poetry since Baudelaire, with the idea in mind that most French poets only reluctantly admit to being in love with words and having a passion for words," Gasarian said.

"Usually, they say they are aspiring to grand ideas, utopian reformation of morals and social order…their passion for language is denied, dismissed, but it makes its way back to the forefront of poetic expression in an indirect manner." Whenever these poets talk of love, they are disguising and also addressing their love of lyric poetry, Gasarian said.

"This is extremely relevant to French poetry," Gasarian said. This paradoxical relationship with self-expression carries across a century-and-a-half of poetic literature, from Romantics like Baudelaire to Surrealists like Andre Breton.

Scandalous lives
Gasarian has written widely on Baudelaire. His first book, De loin tendrement (Honore Champion Editeur, 1996), takes its title from a line of Baudelaire's verse—it means "From far away, tenderly."

Much of the current perception of Baudelaire, at least in the public imagination, stems from tales of his bohemian lifestyle and unconventional behavior. "There is lots of celebration of his scandalous life," Gasarian said. Baudelaire conducted and wrote about his love affair with a black woman; he was fascinated with prostitutes; he experimented with drugs. "That has been responsible for the way his life has been interpreted. And that affects the interpretations of his poems. There is a focus on pre-conceived ideas."

Academics and literary critics need to fight against these perceptions, and examine the work apart from the notoriety of the artist's life, he said.

Naginski knows this well. She is a scholar of the 19th-century novelist George Sand, whose work is also often buried beneath her colorful reputation.

"If you go to the library and look up George Sand, you'll find about 75 biographies that look at her life, at her famous lovers, how she wore men's clothing, smoked cigars," Naginski said. "She wrote about 100 novels and letters that fill 25 volumes. But her notoriety has become more important in the cultural sphere than her writing. One thing I want to do is get away from the life.

"She had close to 20 lovers, which for the time was quite scandalous. The tendency now is to be fascinated with those love affairs, as though that explained her genius."

In 2004, the literary world will celebrate the bicentennial of Sand's birth. "There will be lots of activity, and it's important that these activities focus on the writing, as opposed to the living," Naginski said.

Myths for a Romantic Age
Naginski's previous book, George Sand: Writing for Her Life (Rutgers University Press, 1991), is considered one of the volumes that helped establish Sand scholarship in the United States. Her new project also focuses on Sand.

"What's remarkable is that when most scholars finish a book on a given writer, they often say, 'I don't want to see this author again,' " Naginski said. "But I felt like I couldn't let go. I continued writing papers, articles, was involved with a journal." Eventually, she became fascinated with the idea of Sand's use of myths and hit upon the topic for her next book: George Sand, Mythographer for the Romantic Age.

"One of the ways George Sand talks of problems and aspirations of her age is to recast them as Greek or Christian myths," Naginski said. The heroine of her 1833 novel Lelia, for example, "is a romanticized, feminized Prometheus—a Promethea."

"Why did she go back to the Greeks for a model?" Naginski asked."In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many philosophers, thinkers and social theorists were talking about creating or articulating a new religion or philosophy for the post-Revolutionary age. They needed new models, and that's what fascinated me."

Sand was grounded in the Romantic idealist movement, Naginski said, and her novels are infused with utopian ideas and sociological analyses of her society.

And, "of course, Sand wanted to do things for women," Naginski said. "She was constantly trying to bring women back into the public sphere, to create a role for them, a future for them. She was interested in women's education, in women's role in society. Her novels try to bring onto center stage groups that were traditionally marginalized—women, peasants, the proletariat. She is determined to expand the social stage and to give a voice in her writings to those who have been silenced."

Research and teaching
Both professors are on leave for the 2002-03 academic year while they complete their NEH-sponsored work.

"I'm grateful to Tufts, which has always been supportive of research endeavors," said Naginski, who has been at the university since 1985. She received tenure in 1988 and has served as chair of the Romance Languages department for the past six years.

Gasarian came to Tufts in 1989, and received tenure in 1996. "I can't stress the importance of research for a university professor," he said. "I'm among those who think that good research provides good teaching.

"It's important to do good research. It's good for the university, and it's good for the students as well. When I return, I will be better equipped to teach them. What I know, I will know better, and I will know more."