Of all the pre-textual bits and pieces lying like speed humps in the road of an impatient reader - epigraphs, 'author's notes', prefaces, expansive acknowledgments to a full address-book of expert peers, talented editors and fond next of kin - the one we are least likely to slow down for is the book's dedication, a kind thought directed offstage that has nothing to tell us about the contents ahead. This is not the case with Jules Vallès. The dedications to the three books by which he's mainly known are not meant kindly, are hard to avoid because they are printed directly underneath the title, convey the gist of what is coming and set the tone for the language it comes in. They are addressed not to some admired individual - Vallès did not go in for admiration - but to all the many in 19th-century French society who might have had the same bad experiences as he had. Into his dedications can be read the resentment he felt towards the ideological apparatus that he saw as working to suppress liberty in France while purporting to secure it: the family, schools, the army, bourgeois culture, society as a whole, in fact, and the political arrangements, whether monarchical or republican, that sustained it.
LRB 9 February 2006 | PDF Download