French literature of the late eighteenth century offers few more intriguing, perplexing, and frustrating figures than Nicolas Rétif de la Bretonne. By turns prolix and repetitive, paranoid and bombastic, combining a sharp-eyed quotidian realism with flights of outrageous fantasy and moments of lyrical introspection, Rétif has, unsurprisingly, tended to elude attempts to categorize and encapsulate his work. The sheer quantity and variety of his 250-volume output, from the earliest epistolary novel La Famille vertueuse (1767) to Les Posthumes (1802), suggest a creative insatiability irreducible to an overarching interpretative stance. His extraordinary autobiography, Monsieur Nicolas, ou le cœ ur humain dévoilé, published in stages (1794–97) and running to nearly five thousand pages, displays all the characteristics of his earlier work while charting in obsessive detail the convergence of life and work. Experience and expression coincide as he re-enacts the dramas and incidents of his earlier narratives; writing about the writing becomes indistinguishable from writing about the life.
Gisèle Berkman's dense but rewarding study attempts to map a strategy for reading Monsieur Nicolas that acknowledges the immensity of this "texte-monstre" (19), its repetitions and its divagations, while tracing the process by which Rétif negotiates the distance that [End Page 189] separates the ill-educated child of peasant farmers—"moi, né de laboureur"—and the autonomous being, beholden to no-one—"fils de moimême" (183). Her approach is broadly psychoanalytical, with a range of references that embraces inter alia—in addition to Freud, Lacan, and Klein—Benjamin, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Sartre. In the first of three sections, she considers the complex and contradictory implications of the father-child relationship ("filiation") in Rétif's work. The tribute to his father, the estimable Edme, in La Vie de mon père (1779), for all its hagiographic celebration of paternal wisdom, cannot mask the problematical implications of the paternal name. The "poids écrasant du père" (144) calls to mind Sartre's knowing reference to Aeneas bearing the burden of Anchises as he derides the paternal link at the beginning of Les Mots. In noting Rétif's notoriously ambivalent and experimental attitude to the form of his name ("le nom d'auteur est ici à géométrie variable" ), Berkman underlines the dilemma, or aporia, implicit in the need both to acknowledge antecedence and to affirm an authorial individuality unhindered by the past.
The second section, devoted to "Réengendrement et reproduction," presents a necessary reminder of the paradoxical confrontation, in Rétif's narrative of selfhood, of the multi-generational genealogical fantasy with which he opens Monsieur Nicolas and the fantasy of self-creation that pervades the text as a whole. This latter aspect is productively linked with Rétif's Ma physique, which offers an extravagant cosmic origin myth based on procreation by autogeneration. What this theoretical underpinning for his autonomous authorial identity lacks in intellectual rigour, it makes up for in exuberance. In an interesting and, in welcome contrast, down-to-earth coda to this strategy of reinvention of self, Berkman provides a perceptive analysis of a series of similar incidents dotted throughout the text when Nicolas, at moments of extreme—usually sexual—emotion, loses consciousness. The act of procreation, temporary death, and rebirth thus coincide in a fainting fit: "Défaillir, c'est alors succomber à la Loi, s'ordonner au Nom-du-Père pour mieux se réengendrer" (264).
The third section proposes a fascinating interpretation of Rétif's incorporation of engravings—"estampes"—to accompany and illustrate his texts. Berkman refers to the distinction proposed by Walter Benjamin between paintings (viewed vertically, so that image and reality are in visual conformity) and book engravings (viewed horizontally, in metaphorical mode, and as mirror images to boot). This distinction is adduced to suggest a contrast between the multiple ugly and deformed self-images viewed by the infant Nicolas in the shards of a broken mirror...