L’intertexte et le document : usages de la citation dans Le Lambeau de Philippe Lançon Authority of Prose – Democracy of Reading

Intervenant : Catherine Brun

Magdalen College, Oxford

This conference addresses the politics of interpretation in contemporary prose literature. It addresses the question how a certain type of realistic novel may occupy new positions in the ideological landscape, different from earlier kinds of ideological stance.

The contemporary novel increasingly moves towards documentary forms, incorporating actual events, people and historical processes. Blurring fact and fiction is not, however, just a challenge to literary scholars who worry about the meaning of words such as ’novel’ or ’realism’. Within this documentary trend, there is a tendency towards a new type of engagement with the reader, inviting him/her to participate in the fiction in a new way.

Jean-Paul Sartre talked about a ’literature engagée’. This would be very close to journalism, directly addressing ongoing events, clearly taking sides in a political and ideological conflict. The engagement of the reader in some contemporary novels takes inspiration rather from visual art, from l’art brut. The incorporation of referential elements into the universe of the text then no longer serves the purpose of making the text, and thus the reader, participate in an ideological conflict. The raw and unmediated presence of referential reality produces meaning effects in the fictional text of a very different kind : when fiction refrains from interpreting the referential element, it no longer reduces the meaning effects of reality, for instance through metaphor – or through narrative motivation of the characters’ actions. In other words, when the fiction no longer, fully, makes sense of the world, and when this world is present in the text as a political force field, the reader is called upon to complete the fiction, to fill out its interpretation of characters and their context.

This kind of minimalism and involvement of the reader can be contrasted sharply with another trend in the contemporary novel, beginning in Grass and Marquez, and continuing with authors such as Rushdie or Pamuk. This is an allegorical mode of national chronicle, recounting history on an epic scale – and explaining this history as an organic process defined by certain overarching themes. The allegorical mode invites the reader to engage with reality as being itself a kind of ideological text. The minimally realist text begins from an opposite assumption. It addresses reality before it has become mapped by ideology, before it has entered an epic national archive. Borrowing a term from Roberto Bolaño we call this minimalist style ’visceral realism’.

The reader of the visceral realist novel becomes directly engaged with those parts of the world that the text incorporates, but does not fully translate into the idiom of ideological message. The authors who perhaps best exemplify this movement are also its precursors : Roberto Bolaño and Peter Handke. Bolaño’s Savage Detectives presents characters’ whose desire to write avant-garde poetry in difficult circumstances is all consuming. It is a desire, which to us, to the readers, appears enigmatic as the characters are presented in medias res, without motivation, without a future or a past. The text shows their passion against the omnipresent, yet hidden, background of political persecution – but it does not make that connection meaningful, for instance through allegory. Peter Handke was involved in debates on Serbia during, and after, the civil wars in former Yugoslavia. In the course of this process, he wrote the novel The Moravian Night about the existential suffering of war. It has the form of a fairy-tale in which no action is explained. This novel stands in intertextual tension with the author’s own direct, and controversial, support for Serbia in some of his other writings.

Such strategies of representation are part of the novel’s ongoing rivalry with other discourses such as psychology, history, philosophy or journalism. Within contemporary documentary fiction, the stakes of this rivalry is no longer truthfulness of representation – as it may have been in earlier phases of realist writing – but the authority of interpretation. By claiming its own specific authority to address political events, the novel challenges the authority of other discourses, which in our world claim an ownership of those events. The novel thereby leaves the reader engaged in a non-scripted discursive place, a place from which he himself has to claim the authority to make sense of contemporary reality.