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Reviewed by:
Leah D. Hewett. Autobiographical Tightropes: Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras Monique Wittig and Maryse Condé. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 259 pp. No price given.

The introduction to Autobiographical Tightropes situates this work in relation to other relatively recent writing on autobiography, and on women's autobiography in particular. Hewett aims to by-pass the ultimately unresolvable problems of the distinction(s)—if any—between autobiography and fiction, by focusing on a series of works by French women writers which illustrate various degrees of one or the other.

The first, Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, serves as a chronological point of departure and generic point of reference, since it illustrates a relatively naive concept of autobiography as an accurate and sincere account of one person's life, told by that person. Nevertheless, the female subject is represented/constructed as ambivalent. In this case, autobiography is perceived as the paying of a debt, by the author, to her friend Zaza whose death motivated de Beauvoir's birth as a writer.

Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras are part of the same literary generation as de Beauvoir and like her were marked by existentialist concepts of the self and of the relationship of literature to life—in particular the challenge of political engagement for intellectuals. Unlike de Beauvoir, however, they both turned to formal experimentation to express innovations in perception and representation. Hewett traces aspects of their fiction associated with the nouveau roman in examples by both writers of what is now known as nouvelle autobiographie. In Sarraute's Enfance the dialogue form enables the writer to adopt three personae: actor, storyteller and also critic/reader of her text. The last is shown to adopt a male voice, a phenomenon which Hewitt relates to Sarraute's refusal to be seen as a woman writer, let alone a feminine or feminist one. This desire for a universal androgyny in writing is connected to Sarraute's relationship with her distant writer-mother. Feminine affiliations are nevertheless discernible in Sarraute's treatment of "tropisms."

The reluctance of both de Beauvoir and Sarraute to acknowledge their femininity is in marked contrast with the emphasis in Duras' work, often cited as exemplary of an écriture féminine. Hewett's discussion of The Lover treats this text as autobiography, in relation to the more obviously fictionalized earlier version of some of the same events in Barrage contre le Pacifique. This comparison would be enriched by inclusion of the later version, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord, which was presumably not yet available when this study was completed. The originality of Duras' version of autobiography lies, for Hewett, in her paradoxical depersonalization of the genre, and in the interweaving of the events related to one early episode [End Page 191] in the author's life with apparently unconnected elements belonging to such later periods. The common thread is an experience of foreignness shared by a number of women who figure in the text.

In Wittig's Across the Acheron (Virgile, non), depersonalization goes a step further, since this is classified as a work of fiction, although the protagonist bears the name of "Wittig." Her exchanges with Manastabel, her instructor, nevertheless (according to Hewett) "enact the dramatic split in the autobiographical subject." As well as being an intertextual reworking of Dante's model, this novel also refers to Wittig's confrontation with the feminist collective Questions féministes in 1980, over the oppressive nature of heterosexuality. Autobiographical fiction emerges as a privileged means to conduct a debate incorporating the personal as both political and relevant to intellectual debate, as has since been illustrated also in Julia Kristeva's Les Samuraîs.

Wittig's personal/political autobiographical fiction/allegory is juxtaposed with Maryse Condé's Heremakhonon, "a female identity quest that focuses on the intersections of . . . race, gender, politics, and history in the construction of the self." The heroine becomes representative of all Antillian black women. In contrast to Simone de Beauvoir's female Bildungsroman model, in which the androgynous individual triumphs over (and because of) her bourgeois origins, here a doubly colonized collectivity struggles to acquire a sense of...


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pp. 191-192
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