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Poetics Today 21.2 (2000) 465-467

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New Books at a Glance

Le style dans la langue:
Une reconception de la stylistique

Jean-Michel Adam, Le style dans la langue: Une reconception de la stylistique. Lausanne, Switzerland: Delchaux et Niestlé, 1997. 223 pp.

Jean-Michel Adam is well known for his works on narratology and on textual linguistics. But he is also interested in the relationship between linguistics and literature, the subject of his first published work, Linguistique et discours littéraire (1976). Returning to his first love, he now offers us a book with a dual ambition: to argue for what he calls a reconception of stylistics while presenting the results of research work he has conducted in this area. Quite a gamble, this, since it is never easy to put one’s own theories to the test.

The author shows his hand from the very outset: his book is “an attempt at reconceiving stylistics while questioning the artificial separation of the fields of grammar and stylistics” (8). He begins by drawing a picture of francophone stylistics, which he shows to be making a triumphant but, to his mind, ambiguous comeback (chapter 1). He believes in effect that most of this research preserves an unjustified opposition between the language system and the singularity of style in an inspired writer. The next two chapters develop this idea, reflecting in particular on the thinking of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who sees style as “a ramified variation of language,” and on that of the great Swiss linguist Charles Bally. With these two authors and a number of other writers, Adam affirms the need to “place stylistic variation at the very heart of the linguistic exploration of all the possibilities of language,” to “introduce diversity and variation into the description of language’s complex and open system” (45). He thus rejects an “applicationist” conception of linguistics versus literature. Chapter 3 proceeds to offer a more systematic study of Bally’s conception of style, which Adam expresses in five fundamental “theses”: (1) “Creativity goes much beyond the art of literature alone; (2) it is in ordinary language that the germ of style is best exposed; (3) all this leads to ‘sublime deformations’ which (4) arise less from the resources of a foreign language than from work done in the mother tongue; lastly, (5), literary art is characterized by a transformation of practical into aesthetic intentions, the means being transformed into an end” (55). [End Page 465]

The theses are nicely supported by reference to various literary works and writers’ observations: Marcel Proust, Julien Gracq, Victor Segalen, and so on. This is the path followed in chapter 4. Having cited comments on the style of the surrealist poet Max Jacob or of Gustave Flaubert, it lingers on the first phrase of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Une saison en enfer,” so as to consider what, in respect of a textual unit, “to have style” means.

Chapter 5 focuses on the study of a poem by René Char, “Sur le franc-bord,” which is presented in the form of a dictionary entry: more precisely, it plagiarizes the famous Dictionnaire of Emile Littré. Predictably, Adam is able to exploit to the full such a text, in which poetry is steeped in a discourse on language. Chapter 6 addresses “La colombe de l’arche,” a very unusual poem by the surrealist poet Robert Desnos, made up of a single sentence with multiple subordinate clauses and brought to bear on a unique language act: a performative curse. Adam quite correctly associates this type of utterance with ritual insults.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on studies of texts taken from novels of the twentieth century: L’étranger, by Albert Camus, and the much less widely known work Remise de peine, by Patrick Modiano (1988). The choice of the first text is not insignificant. In the wake of a few well-known passages by Sartre, this work has become one of the fetish objects of French stylistics, which is fascinated by the use made of the perfect as the...


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