Referential writing as an object of academic interest has reemerged as a dominant problematic in the last three decades. In her edited volume, the fruit of a conference that took place in May 2006 at the University of Paris-XIII Villetaneuse, Françoise Simonet-Tenant takes up the bold task of exploring the nature and singularity of referential writing—what is "proper" to it. The volume is divided in four sections: autobiographical writings today; autobiography beyond the self: theater and the epistolary; perspectives on life stories; and Francophonie and self-writing. The title Le Propre de l'écriture de soi is itself an echo of Dorrit Cohn's Le Propre de la fiction (Seuil, 2001), reflecting [End Page 486] an authorial desire to isolate the specific characteristics that define referential writing, emblematized in the genre of autobiography. Simonet-Tenant expresses her indebtedness (a sentiment felt to some measure by all the contributors) to Philippe Lejeune, whose works (notably his Pacte autobiographique of 1975) have helped shape the field of autobiographical studies, if not determine its hermeneutical horizon. Yet despite dedicating the volume to Lejeune, Simonet Tenant underscores the non-hagiographic quality of the studies at hand. To be clear, this volume is not an apology for autobiography and its norms (as delineated by Lejeune), but a genuine attempt to deal with the genre's ambiguous status, addressing head-on the difficulties (still) facing the study of referential writing.
While evocations of Roland Barthes's death of the author thesis may have declined in recent criticism, there remains a certain degree of uneasiness about referential writing, even a suspicion about its alleged ideological complicity—"le mot lui-même est suspect" (19). Who is this autobiographical subject who narrates his or her life? How has a faith in the subject survived not only the onslaughts of the postmodernists but also those of the post-Marxists? How does this return to the subject avoid, for example, what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to as biographical mystification, duplicity with a "genre convenu et illusoire" (qtd. 20)? One way is suggested right from the start. In the preface, Simonet-Tenant insists on the need to rethink autobiography, to expand our understanding of the autobiographical, and to theorize it as a "practice" "où le sujet s'explore, s'essaie et s'approprie son histoire" (15).
Situating this return to autobiography within a climate more receptive to matters of referentiality, Simonet-Tenant, in her contribution, highlights the divergent trends among contemporary autobiographers, which tend to favor hybridization and reflect a taste for the fragment. Jean-Louis Jeannelle explores the controversial category of autofiction by putting it back in dialogue with Lejeune's notion of the autobiographical pact. Catherine Viollet and Marie-Françoise Lemonnier-Delpy, for their part, investigate the origins or beginnings of self-writing, outlining its complex and divergent operations, while Vincent Ferré pursues the affinities between the essay and the autobiographical genre. Shedding more light on this affinity, Christophe Pradeau examines the autobiographical essay of Pierre Pachet. Closing the first section, Véronique Montémont's piece brings into focus the relation between text and image through an analysis of the role of photography in contemporary autobiographies.
The second section begins with Anne Coudreuse's account of the epistolary as genre existing "à la frontière de l'autobiographie" in its analogous privileging of "le 'je' et l'expression de l'intimité" (65). Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac explores the conditions for the emergence of the epistolary-autobiographical [End Page 487] "I," while Brigitte Diaz looks at its manifestation in several nineteenth-century authors. The next four contributions address theater in autobiographical terms. Coudreuse introduces the question of "un théâtre autobiographique" (83), whereas Françoise Le Borgne, Sylvain Ledda, and Geneviève Jolly explore more specific examples of the intersection between theater and autobiography, ranging from Adam de La Halle's medieval play Le Jeu de la Feuillée to the nineteenth-century romantic plays of Musset.
The third section assesses...