restricted access Les mots des autres (review)
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Poetics Today 21.2 (2000) 467-469



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Les mots des autres


Laurent Adert, Les mots des autres. Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1996. 301 pp.

In this work Laurent Adert examines the problematics of verbal alienation in the work of Gustave Flaubert, Nathalie Sarraute, and Robert Pinget. In Flaubert’s fiction, the commonplace enjoys a central position and appears as a verbal and ideological totalitarianism. The Flaubertian subject—the author as well as his characters—is faced with a drastic devaluation of his means of expression because the language that inhabits him and that he must use is not a system of neutral signs but the sum total of discourses about the world. In face of these strong doubts about the ability of the language to express anything of the peculiarity of the subjects, the question raised is how to make the “dissimilarity of feelings” heard under the “parity of expressions” to borrow Flaubert’s phrasing.

In Sarraute and Pinget, Adert traces the marks or echoes of the Flaubertian problematics of verbal self-expression. Their aesthetic and poetic answers are different. Where Sarraute openly declares her Flaubertian filiation, Pinget never mentions Flaubert. Sarraute picks things up where Flaubert left off, turning subconversation into a translation of the “dissimilarity of feelings” under the “parity of expressions”: here lies her answer to his problem. The connection between Flaubert and Pinget rests exclusively on [End Page 467] poetic considerations. The speech of the Other, of others, plays a decisive part in the Pingetian storytelling, as gossip that originates in hearsay, in a pluralty of voices, in an anonymous rumor. Pinget is as wary as Flaubert was of the subject’s self-expression and resorts to an oblique, aesthetic expression.

Laurent Adert is extremely meticulous in his step-by-step progress through a dense commentary of extracts from selected works and model readings, searching for the universal in the particular. This precision enables him—especially apropos Flaubert—to repair the discrepancies between theory and criticism that he has recorded. On the one hand, he rules out the common view that sees in Flaubert a magic burst of poetry, a novelistic “revolution” linked to a kind of metaphysical choice “not to say anything,” a refusal of expression that becomes the presumably unexplained—and unexplainable—property of modern literary experience. On the other hand, he virtually rejects any recourse to Flaubert’s correspondence, denying any continuity between the man and his works. Adert’s aim is always to restore carefully the logical relation between things: moreover, he considers works not as objects but as thought vectors. Nor does he draw any line between critical reading and theoretical effort: analyzing and interpreting go together. For instance, he connects the analysis of the logic of sensation with the analysis of commonplace and verbal alienation.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism is used as an implicit theoretical framework for the analysis of Flaubert’s works. In Madame Bovary, for example, there is a dialogical intertextual space that echoes literary and social discourse and a romantic love rhetoric. Adert examines the emergence of singular speech in the characters’ discourses and in the descriptions. The dissimilarity of feelings is indirectly marked through the diverse relationships that the characters keep with commonplaces; free reported speech, contrary to what one might think, does empathetically espouse the Other’s speech, since it is made up of the illusions the characters have about themselves and about others and of the stereotypes that feed their inner lives. Finally, it is between and below the words, through ellipses and silences, that the novel becomes most meaningful. Only indirectly can the unvoiceable be conveyed. We may already notice that the vacant space that Flaubert allots to the unknown is taken up by the modern novel, which explores the obscure as such. The solution to the Flaubertian aporia is eventually to be found in the abandonment of expression as a subject.

In Sarraute, the character’s identity (type) is built up within and by the commonplace (stereotype), which is always tensely connected with something else, another reality or another scene, suggested...


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