Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 371-373
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French Fiction in the Mitterrand Years:
Memory, Narrative, Desire
French Fiction in the Mitterrand Years: Memory, Narrative, Desire, by Colin Davis & Elizabeth Fallaize; 160pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, $24.95.
Like the Mitterrand era itself, Davis and Fallaize's French Fiction in the Mitterrand Years is somewhat uneven. The election of François Mitterrand in 1981 as the President of the Fifth Republic was a milestone in modern French history. After the conservative politics of the 1960s and 70s, the election of a socialist president and legislature seemed to offer the possibility of a new political and intellectual atmosphere. Indeed, the first two years of Mitterrand's presidency brought sweeping reforms. However, several scandals, continued economic problems and later "cohabitation" with a right-wing legislative majority muted the original verve. Mired in partisan politics, the government often appeared ineffectual.
As with the political arena, French fiction of the 1980s was produced under the shadow of another long-standing French institution--the nouveau roman. Again we find a new direction, a turning-away from the past during the 1980s. Yet there was no outright refusal. There were no manifestos or polemical articles written by budding novelists, no claim to Literature. As Annie Ernaux describes her work Une Femme (1987): "Mon projet est de nature littéraire [. . .]. Mais je souhaite rester, d'une certaine façon, au-dessous de la littérature" (My project is of a literary nature [. . .]. But I wish to remain, in a certain way, beneath literature (p. 144).
This lack of pretension is important, for it helps us better understand the writing of the period. As Davis and Fallaize point out, in the fiction of the Mitterrand years we find a return to history, to the subject, and to storytelling, three areas disdained by the new novelists of the 1950s and 60s (pp. 12-15). But at the same time, there is not an elegiac return to the conventions of the past. There are no didactic tales of Lucien de Rubempré's lost illusions. A good example of this is Patrick Roegiers's Beau Regard (1990), the account of a dinner during which hardly anyone speaks, told by a narrator who knows no one else at the table. Davis and Fallaize note: "In these novels the event is merely an incident, the story no more than an anecdote, and the anecdote merely a fait divers" (p. 147). Although not inconsequential, argue Davis and Fallaize, there is an unquestionable modesty to these texts.
In the introduction to their work Davis and Fallaize write: "The aim of the current book is to analyze some of the most important and interesting directions in French fiction through detailed discussions of a selection of texts, all published during François Mitterrand's period as President of the Fifth Republic (1981-95)" (p. 1). This is exactly what they accomplish, selecting six novels--Duras's L'Amant (The Lover, 1984), Pennac's Au bonheur des ogres (The Scapegoat, 1985), Semprun's La Montagne blanche (1986), Echenoz's Lac (Lake, 1989), Guilbert's A l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauvé la vie (To the Friend Who Did Not Save [End Page 371] my Life, 1990), and Ernaux's Passion simple (Simple Passion, 1991)--and spending one chapter on each. They also discuss some of the important features of the era's fiction including memory, especially of World War II, contemporary culture and postmodernism, and autofiction.
However, the book's limited goal also leads to some of its problems. As a whole, the work lacks cohesion. Chapters often read like individual essays. Moreover, although some chapters are well-grounded critically and contextually, others are not. Finally, the conclusion is too brief to synthesize aptly the various topics discussed in the previous chapters. The reader does not have a solid grasp of the fictional landscape of the Mitterrand years, but rather, as the introduction indicated, knowledge of "some of the [. . .] interesting directions in French fiction."
One of the most illuminating chapters considers Daniel...