- Fiction as Cover Story in Sollers's La Fête à Venise
In a blend of fiction and essay highly characteristic of Philippe Sollers's so-called readable novels, La Fête à Venise (1991) tells the story of a stolen painting by Watteau called "La Fête à Venise" which is being transferred from one sailboat to another in the lagoon in Venice, on its way to an illicit buyer in the Middle East. The novel combines the "secret agent" strategy that has characterized Sollers's fiction since the 1980s with what I have called his essay-novel genre (Mortimer, "Philippe Sollers"; "The Essay"). The first-person narrator-protagonist Pierre Froissart, an amateur operative charged with overseeing the transfer, is also an "MRI" character, one of the "Multiple Related Identities" Sollers has given himself in his novels since the 1983 Femmes (Mortimer, "The MRIs"). With its focus on Froissart, whose name both indexes writing (because it recalls the medieval chronicler Jean Froissart) and subsumes art (because of the last syllable of his name), the story develops into a meditation on the nature of fiction and the apprehension of reality, seen through the medium of painting.1
Most comments about La Fête à Venise, including those by Sollers himself, focus on the novel's excoriating of the mercantilism of art. Among such readers, Pascal Louvrier observes that Sollers protests the financial speculation rampant in the art markets, which has masked the artist's work. Profit-seeking and price manipulations destroy the gratuity of the instant seized and recorded by the painter, according to Louvrier (158). The mercantilization of everything, including art, is the metonymic instantiation of what Sollers calls, in an essay about La Fête à Venise, a new grand Tyranny (Discours parfait 740). Hence the "thesis-novel" treatment of an often hidden reality of the art world: the booming traffic in stolen paintings, forgeries, fakes, frauds, and other deceits. Sollers has said that La Fête à Venise follows [End Page 189] the theses of Guy Debord's Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, which excoriated the autocratic reign of the market economy.2
But the nature and status of fiction are also very much a topic of the book. Sollers's view of Watteau's paintings cannot be said to resemble any standard account of the artist or his canvases; instead, the interest of his account lies in what it tells the reader about Sollers, about his use and understanding of fiction, and about his relentless critique of today's society. The fictional story of the stolen painting in the context of the underground art market provides the vehicle for the demonstration that a novel, patently a fiction, informs about real life better than a historical account does, a fundamental thesis of the Sollersian opus. Debord's 1967 Société du Spectacle opens with this well-known, pithy thesis: "Tout ce qui était directement vécu s'est éloigné dans une représentation" (online). When Sollers says he is following Debord's theses (as he often does, though usually at some remove), this takes the form of seeking wherever he can find it the evidence for life that can still be "directly lived." Paradoxically, in La Fête à Venise, he finds it in painting, one of the most spectacular forms of representation (in the double sense of presenting a spectacle to the viewer and participating in the market-domination of the Spectacle). How Sollers uses painting, specifically Watteau's painting, for this obsessive quest, ubiquitous in his writing, is the objective I pose.
Foregrounding the strategic use of fiction, the protagonist invents a cover story with fictional characters and events and invented chronology like a novel. Froissart thus takes cover under a fiction depicting himself as "l'écrivain-touriste, repérages pour un livre d'art, le photographe amateur, l'insatiable curieux des palais et des églises" (85).3 He claims to be writing; he dissembles: "La première chose à faire dans un cas comme celui-là: renforcer au maximum le dispositif de sécurité, la désinformation ambiante. Plus on est sur une affaire nouvelle et sérieuse, plus il faut se montrer détendu, vide...