Jean Tortel: des livres aux Jardins by Catherine Soulier (review)
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Reviewed by
Jean Tortel: des livres aux Jardins. Par Catherine Soulier. (Poétiques et esthétiques xxe– xxie siècle, 16.) Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013. 280pp.

A reading of Jean Tortel’s influential poetic contribution would require consideration both of a large and varied body of work and of his activities as reader, critic, and correspondent within the poetic and broader literary fields over more than sixty years. Catherine Soulier’s study does justice to these elements by focusing on what she argues was a critical point of development in the oeuvre in the mid-1960s. This she sees as exemplified in the 1965 collection Les Villes ouvertes (the first of four published with Gallimard in the years up to 1973), in which the literary limits of the poet’s previous self-construction [End Page 414] are argued to have been broken through, not by a simple turn to the material world but through the exploration and incorporation of new (extra-‘literary’) textual sources, themselves more directly bound up in a logic of reference (history, ethnology, archaeology). At the same time, Les Villes ouvertes is thought to mark an end to a poétique du regard operative in the immediately preceding collections such as Élémentaires, thus problematizing any simple opposition between a poetry of text and one of things or materiality. In the enigmatic city-evocations of the new collection, the dominant emphasis passes away from the still occasionally encountered Je to an undecidable collective (the variably fictional or historic on or nous). This self-effacement within the text resonates with Tortel’s earlier engagements with the library: his development of a personal canon — a ‘lignée classique’ (p. 47) in which the key figures are Scève, the early seventeenthcentury baroque poets (seen as exemplary of an anti-Romantic lyricism), and, latterly, Mallarmé —which Soulier understands in terms of a Genettian ‘transtextuality’. At each stage Tortel’s readerly engagements (whether with the encountered work or the imagined city) act, in Soulier’s view, as ‘protection’ for the poet against the ‘temptation’ of a frontally lyrical self, a chant majeur to which he had on occasion felt himself prone. Les Villes ouvertes is thus taken to express ‘un parti-pris anti-lyrique’ (p. 149), yet in its closing stages Soulier still detects ‘une ambivalence décidée et définitive’ (p. 181) towards this same lyrical principle. It might be asked whether there is not significant practical room for critical manoeuvre beyond the theoretical alignment of self and song. This is, arguably, the basis of Tortel’s licence in the work under discussion. Hence, the delicate subject of the Je as it emerges in Les Villes ouvertes, and in the following collection Relations (1968), discussed in detail later in this study, is equally clearly at stake in the second figure of Soulier’s title— those ‘Jardins’ that connote not simply the real or material world in correspondencedialogue with that of the library, but also, in Tortel’s own case, the biographical stratum, ‘la propriété des Jardins Neufs, dans la banlieue d’Avignon, où l’écrivain vit depuis 1965, et que son texte renverse en figures’ (p. 186). It is, ultimately, this va-et-vient of the poetic text between the theoretical parameters of the book and the world, the textual, experiential, and historical selves, that also characterizes Soulier’s account — a balancing act full of overlaps, reversions, and echoes in direct sympathy with its elusive subject.

Michael G. Kelly
University of Limerick