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  • Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction
  • Steven Ungar
David R. Ellison. Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. xiii + 196 pp. $32.50.

This cogent and convincing study assesses the postwar nouveau roman that, thirty to forty years ago, was taken by many to represent if not the total demise of traditional fiction as a practice, then at least a formidable impasse at the level of theory. Ellison builds his assessment as series of analyses that set the nouveau roman's heroic period of the 1950s and 1960s within an extended corpus ranging from Albert Camus's La Chute (1956) to Samuel Beckett's Compagnie (1980) and Claude Simon's Les Géorgiques (1981). He also departs from fictional narrative in a narrow sense in a chapter devoted to what he refers to as postmodern autobiographies by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, and Nathalie Sarraute. What lends coherence to the resulting assessment is an ongoing exploration of literary reference organized around a major hypothesis that "some of the most impressive experimental texts of the past thirty years are built on the tension between imaginary and real referents."

Ellison begins with an overview of referential functions in light of shift of epistemic field linked what he sets forth in his introduction as to the passage in fictional narrative from an inward turn associated with postmodern and poststructural theorizing. Dividing his study into two parts [End Page 417] devoted to metamorphoses of the referential function and the inevitably of reference, Ellison analyzes texts by writers usually—Robbe-Grillet, Simon, Duras, Sarraute—identified with the nouveau roman as well as others by more marginal figures such as Camus, Beckett, and Maurice Blanchot. Along the way, references to Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Proust, Kafka, Musil, Heidegger, Barthes, and de Man illustrate the extent to which the issues of referential function that Ellison analyzes in the nouveau roman extend toward wider reflections on the passage from modern to postmodern poetics as it evolves from the mid-nineteenth (Baudelaire and Mallarmé) century to the present (Blanchot and Derrida).

The chapter on postmodern autobiography reveals in particular the extent to which Ellison's critical stake in the problem of literary reference is grounded less in practices of writing defined by traditional categories of genre such as novel and narrative (récit) than in light of writing practices extending back in time via Barthes, Sartre, Leiris, and Proust (but why not also Joyce and Gide?) toward turn-of-the-century modernism in the wake of Mallarme. It thus makes all the more sense for Ellison to organize his final two chapters to Blanchot and Beckett, writers whose views on fiction, reference, and narration derive less from the nouveau roman in its own right than from the high modernist formulations grounded in Proust's Recherche.

The same two chapters also reveal the force of a topicality that opens Of Word and the World to aspects of reference that the first four chapters might not have prepared. The efforts taken at the start of "Blanchot and Narrative" to approach Blanchof's fictional narrative via his critical essays are tempered at the end of the chapter by a passage in which Ellison moves from a reading of L'Attente l'oubli as end point for a process of narrating metamorphoses of consciousness to more pointed remarks related to "irresponsible" exteriority and suspicion. With tenuous understatement, Ellison writes that "it may be that the immediate and anguished task of the next generation of literary scholars and philosophers, given the documented pasts of figures such as Heidegger, Blanchot, and Paul de Man, must become the examination of the temptation of that a purified notion of temporality represents for human beings who have reasons to deny time in its concrete historical reality." It is significant, I believe, that this aspect of reference is displaced to a lengthy footnote that borders on the very kind of confessional account to which Blanchof's narratives are taken to be antithetical. While it is clearly beyond Ellison's stated aim to contend this aspect of Blanchof's narratives, the personalized gesture that caps this chapter...


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