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Reviewed by:
  • La Lettre tue: spectre(s) de l’écrit fantastique
  • Claire Whitehead
La Lettre tue: spectre(s) de l’écrit fantastique. By Philippe Met. Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2009. 267 pp. Pb €24.00.

It is widely recognized that the fantastic is a genre that tends towards self-reflexivity. Focusing on one aspect of this tendency, Philippe Met’s new book takes as its point of departure the observation that many founding texts of the fantastic make unusually frequent reference to, and use of, writings and documents of all kinds. More often than not, when the act of writing is depicted in such works, it functions as a trigger for the deleterious and sometimes deadly epiphanies experienced by their protagonists. Met proposes to use a ‘poétique lettrale’ (one of several neologisms found in his study) to ‘contourner’ (p. 14) the works of a selection of masters of the fantastic in the light of the role that writing(s) play therein. His analysis boasts impressive breadth by marrying a sustained focus on Prosper Mérimée, Jean Ray, H. P. Lovecraft, Guy de Maupassant, H. H. Ewers, Algernon Blackwood, and Michel de Ghelderode with more passing reference to numerous other practitioners of the genre, including Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Jorge Luis Borges (although the repeated qualification of techniques or effects as ‘proto-Borgesian’ suggests that Borges should perhaps have appeared amongst the cast of central authors). Met’s decision to shy away from discussion of the acknowledged generic masterpieces of these central authors in favour of an analysis of less well-known works also has much to recommend it. Thus, while recognizing the success of Mérimée’s La Vénus d’Ille, for instance, Met is able to concentrate on La Guzla and propose it as ‘l’origine manquante’ (p. 50) of the author’s œuvre. The book’s four chapters discuss various examples of writing(s) and their significance for the fantastic, including the role of translation in Mérimée and its [End Page 383] problematization of simulacra and reproduction; the discovered manuscript and the ‘livre maudit’ in Lovecraft and Ray, which suggest the importance of questions of literary legacy to the fantastic; and the fictional diary and ‘dead letter’ for Maupassant, Ewers, Blackwood, and Ghelderode, both of which represent attempts to achieve the impossible — writing in articulo moris. Met’s ability to trace and propose influences and associations across national boundaries and through historical periods succeeds in persuading the reader of the validity of his thesis. His readings also offer up a number of original ideas, such as the onomastic association of Maupassant’s title Le Horla with the Latin ‘hora’ (rather than the more common ‘hors-là’), which generates an analysis of the haunting from a temporal as opposed to a spatial perspective. However, Met’s analysis of an undeniably significant aspect of the fantastic would benefit from what he himself admits is lacking: a greater degree of synthesis. Crucially, the description of the various appearances of writing(s) demands to be accompanied by a more direct discussion of why the fantastic should be suffused with such ‘lettralité’ (p. 14) and whether this feature is one that distinguishes it from other literary genres. Nevertheless, this is a valuable new study.

Claire Whitehead
University of St Andrews


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pp. 383-384
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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