restricted access La lettre entre reel et fiction (review)
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Poetics Today 21.2 (2000) 470-473



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La lettre entre réel et fiction


Jürgen Siess, ed., La lettre entre réel et fiction. Paris: Sedes, 1998. 223 pp.

This collection brings together specialists in the language sciences and in literature to develop a theory of the letter in pragmatic, interactive, and narratological terms. It innovatively confronts authentic correspondence and epistolary novels, general definitions of the epistolary form, and a historicizing viewpoint specific both to a period (the eighteenth century) and to a work (Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses). [End Page 470]

In the first part, “Perspectives generales,” devoted to characterizing verbal communication in the epistolary form, Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni compares the exchange through letters to conversation: the same ritualized opening and closing sequences; the same norms of politeness, pregnant with meaning; the same alternation of speech terms. She also calls attention to the differences: improvised interview versus premediated, hence organized, letter; evolving interaction in the conversational exchange versus monological letter with no immediate response. The letter is also deemed a priori a beneficial action; its absence or delay is marked as a negative.

Jean-Michel Adam considers epistolary practice as a genre. He stresses both the informative role of correspondence before the advent of the modern press and the reluctance to accept the letter as a literary genre. The letter does respond to needs of social life and is characterized, like the conversation for which it appears to be the written substitute, by its variety and adaptability. In pragmatic and rhetorical terms, the letter can be subdivided into five generic tendencies: intimate (familial, friendly, amatory), socially distanced (professional, bound by social codes), business (commercial and administrative), public (open letter, readers’ letters, petition), and literary (argumentative writing or novel in epistolary form, letters inserted into other genres). The literary work reorganizes and complicates ordinary epistolary practices. The intersubjectivity of the correspondents is overlaid by the author/reader equivalent. Apart from letters marked by their literariness, the literary character of authentic correspondence is in the eye of the reader and the literary institution.

Dominique Maingueneau studies, in Pascal’s “Provinciales” and in the “Letter to All the French” circulated by François Mitterand during the 1988 election campaign, a particular variant of the epistolary form: writing that arises out of public debate. The personal letter, in the case of Pascal, is a fiction effacing the circumstances of the text’s production (the religious controversy) in order to invoke, by way of a fictive receiver, the authority of decent people, though it is directed toward a public engaged in the theological debate. For Mitterand as candidate, personal correspondence sets up a scene of familiar conversation, or assembled community, which moves away from the conventions of political marketing to bring out the persona of the text’s author.

Ruth Amossy compares the authentic love letter to its fictional homologue in the eighteenth century. Tied to both epistolary and amatory discourse, the love letter center in affective relations, favoring personal communication and interaction. The utterance aims to construct interdependent images of self and Other, sensitive to the play of mutual inluences and consistent with the stereotypes of a given society. The fictional [End Page 471] letter is analyzed from a pragmatic and narratological viewpoint. In the example from Claude Crébillon, a threefold instance of utterance (letter-writing character, fictive publisher, narrator) requires us to decipher three different interactions, each with its own presentation of self and its distinct type of addressee. Amid this multiplicity of pragmatic effects, the reader will strive to ward off vertigo by reconstructing an unequivocal interaction with the author.

By appeal to Benveniste, Françoise Voisin Atlani juxtaposes the epistolary form with the dialogue. The letter has to make its enunciatory parameters explicit, because there is no copresence. Hence the twofold functioning of the language, through marks of subjectivity that acquire their significance in context and through an objective and fixed reference. However, a text like Aurelia Steiner by Marguerite Duras destabilizes this twofold functioning: the marks of subjectivity are no longer associated with...


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