Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.
February’s post features Claire Eldridge, Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Southampton. Claire’s monograph Wars of memory: Contesting and Commemorating the History of French Algeria, 1962-2012 will be published by Manchester University Press later in 2015. Claire will be giving the key note at the French postgraduate study day on 7 March 2015 at Exeter; her paper is entitled ‘The Local, the Global and the Colonial: Connecting Memories of the Algerian War of Independence’. Details about the programme and how to register can be found here.
In one sentence, what is your research about?
I’m interested in the interplay between empire, memory and migration, primarily in relation to settler culture and colonial conflicts, as a way to examine the often fraught processes by which communities and individuals seek to define themselves and establish a stable sense of belonging.
Yes, I write in long sentences…
What was your motivation for researching French history?
I was a real bookworm growing up, and for me history is simply the most engaging story. It’s always different: you can go back to the same moment again and again and always find something new. There are so many different perspectives to explore and approaches to take, each of which can help to reveal a different part of the picture. That’s why I first got into history in general.
The hook for French history, or more specifically French colonial history, was Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers (1966). I saw it as a second year undergraduate and I was just mesmerised by it and wanted to know more. I was struck by how little I knew about this globally significant event and about the two countries involved, despite the fact that one of them is just next door to Britain.
If you could travel back to any historical period or moment, when would it be?
I think I’d like to be present at a moment when something amazing was discovered; the moment Marie Curie figured out radiation, or Marconi invented the radio. Or, rather, I’d like to be there when those discoveries began to take effect, when people more widely began to experience them for the first time. That’s what interests me: not so much the events themselves but their afterlives and their ramifications for ‘ordinary’ people. So that’s my dodge on this question.
Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?
I like the idea of one point of commonality. You want your dinner party guests to have plenty to talk about, so I’d like to have a group of people who knew Algeria in different epochs and who had very different perspectives of it. Narrowing it down is the problem…
First on my list has to be Camus, which is perhaps a bit of a cliché, but I want to know whether, when he died, he still thought about Algeria in the same way as in his 1958 essay. As well as what he’d make of what has happened since then. Which is true of all my guests. I’m not inviting Sartre because I don’t want the evening to be dominated by him arguing with Camus. Instead, I’d partner Camus up with Mouloud Feraoun, Larbi Ben M’Hidi, General Jacques Massu and Henri Alleg (who is a bit of a cheat since I was lucky enough to meet him when he was still alive, but he was such an engaging and generally lovely man that I’d definitely want him at the table). I’d add in the anti-establishment lawyer Jacques Vergès whose defence of Djamila Bouhired during the Algerian War tends to get eclipsed by his later clients Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal, because I think he could always be relied upon to say something controversial if the conversation was flagging. Plus, maybe one of the other guests can succeed where Barbet Schroeder failed and pin Vergès down about where he really was during the missing years of 1970-8. But I’d also want guests from the pre-war and pre-colonial era, people like Abd-el Kader, Isabelle Eberhardt (the explorer who dressed as a man and managed to drown in the desert), Dihya Kahina the seventh century warrior queen, St Augustine…
This is turning into quite a large dinner party. I’m not cooking.
Which French History monograph do you wish you had written?
There are so many that are models in different ways. Whenever I finish reading a good monograph I usually wish I’d written it. It happens too often to be able to pinpoint individual ones. If I absolutely had to pick one, I’d go for Jim House and Neil MacMaster’s Paris 1961.
Which book(s) are currently by your bedside?
There’s always a teetering pile of books by my bedside, but the ones that currently have bookmarks in are Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty; Farid Boudjellal’s bande dessinée Le Cousin Harki; and Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle.
What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates / early career academics?
Enjoy having the time and the freedom to pursue your own research in your own way. It’s a luxury.
A few quick-fire questions: choose between…
Foucault or Furet?
Both and neither.
Archives Nationales or Archives Départmentales?
Why must we always fetishize the archive? The most innovative histories tend to have broad and creative source bases so as to draw in the broadest range of voices. Not everything is in the archives.
Monograph or journal article?
Horses for courses. It depends on what you want. Done well they’re both valuable. Why would you choose between them when you can have both? And let’s not marginalise the edited collection. Sometimes only a good edited collection will do.
Politics or culture?
It’s a false dichotomy.
Pick a century?
I was always resolutely been a late 20th Century historian, but recently I’ve found myself being seduced by the 19th Century…
Éclair or saucisson?
Saucisson. With a nice glass of red wine. Red wine doesn’t go with éclairs. Surely the wine is the important bit?
Many thanks to Claire for taking the time to answer our questions.
If you’d like to take part, or suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know!