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Never Say I: Sexuality in the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust, proposes that the problematization of the first person, which has been a central feature of twentieth-century French literature and critical theory, is particularly acute in writing that raises the intimate and controversial subject of same-sex sexuality. Taking the work of three major figures of early twentieth-century French literature, Michael Lucey’s book explores the convergence of formal innovation in first-person narration and social innovation in the depiction of same-sex relations. It is the first of two volumes that Lucey plans to devote to this topic. The second will consider a later group of writers whose first-person writing about sexuality occurs in the ambit of Colette, Gide, and Proust: authors including Yourcenar, Duras, Hervé Guibert, and Rachid O. The book’s title is taken from a 1921 journal entry in which Gide relates that Proust once remarked to him that: “You can tell anything, as long as you never say I (qtd. in Lucey 4).” Though the precise meaning of this admonition is hard to pin down, it suggestively evokes the intersection between reflection on the use of the first person and the description of same-sex sex, with its overdetermined potential for sociopolitical controversy, personal confession, and commercial exploitation, that forms the core of Lucey’s study. This injunction suggestively evokes the intersection of the description of homosexuality—with its overdetermined potential for social controversy, personal confession, and commercial exploitation—and reflection on the use of the first person, which is at the heart of Lucey’s study. [End Page 942]
Never say I reads what Lucey describes as “The social character and function of utterances about same-sex sexuality” (27), in the context of a reflection on the fundamentally intersubjective character of the first-person voice. Far from describing the solitary labor of individual writers, the book explores the social and intellectual ties that connected these literary contemporaries. The reader learns a great deal about social relationships and reciprocal readings between Gide and Proust, Gide, and Colette, as well as about these writers’ interactions with other significant interlocutors, notably Paul Bourget, Jean Lorrain, Roger Martin du Gard, and Rachilde. But Lucey carefully avoids representing these relationships as literary “contexts,” if this term is understood to imply a stable, relatively homogenous environment that exercises a determining impact on literary production. The model of interplay between texts and social exchanges deployed in Never Say I is dynamic and multidirectional, and Lucey portrays social groups as fluid and internally differentiated. He notes, for example, that open-minded attitudes to sex and gender roles do not necessarily correspond to progressive political attitudes, taking, as an example, the fact that members of Colette’s circle who liked to experiment with sexual personae were in many cases also fierce partisans of French national identity who regarded colonial regimes as a natural instantiation of the hierarchical order of race (116, 130).
Lucey’s focus on the construction of the “I” in relation to social milieu corresponds to his argument that attitudes toward same-sex relations, and the ways in which these relations are represented, are highly specific in cultural and historical terms. Refining, but also moving away from Foucault’s account of the paradigm shift in the late nineteenth century that laid the terrain for the perception of homosexuality as a social and personal identity, Lucey argues that ways of thinking and speaking about sex take shape in the interval between macro- and micro-sociological orders, that is, between personal understandings formed in the orbit of small social groups and “the larger, official, macrological understanding of that same question of classification” (20). If the representational history of samesex sexuality is framed in this way, it becomes easier to understand why, for example, behavior that seemed old hat to a small subset of avant-garde writers in 1907 seemed fashionably risqué to a different set of actors in the mid 1930s (130). Never Say I shows that attitudes toward sexuality...