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43 Chapter Two The Clinamen The Discreet Eccentric Describing his proposed definitive anthology of fous littéraires, Chambernac, the protagonist of Queneau’s Les enfants du Limon, specifies that he will restrict his study to the nineteenth century because it is an era that is close enough for him to understand the mores from which his subjects are deviating: “Je me suis limité au XIXème siècle parce qu’au-delà, il devient extrêmement délicat de juger de la singularité réelle d’un récit. On doit tenir compte de ces modes et de ces mœurs” (Les enfants du Limon 121). Now that the twentieth century has come to a close, who are the modern eccentrics of French fiction? What types do they represent? How do they differ from their nineteenth-century predecessors? Just as Chambernac’s proximity to the end of the nineteenth century enabled him to truly discern the nuances of the types of situations his fous littéraires were reacting to, a contemporary look at eccentrics offers insights into modern manifestations of individualism. In fact, each type of modern eccentric represents a novel approach to nonconformity that, in turn, reveals separate societal symptoms the eccentric is responding to. A variety of archetypal representations of fictional eccentrics resurface in twentieth-century French fiction. They can be approached as though one were setting up a deck of Tarot cards. In place of such familiar figures as Death, the Fool, the Prophetess, the eccentric “gallery” includes: the bureaucrat (Duhamel’s Salavin); the white-collar executive (Toussaint’s Monsieur); the trickster (Des Forêts’s chatterbox); the lover (Etaix’s soupirant); the adventure hero (Echenoz’s Chave); even the modern Parisian apartment building (in Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi). In turn, the ex-centered position of each of 44 Chapter Two these types is creative in relation to the rest of society. The excentered position, in fact, is a privileged vantage point from which one can see and feel the world more clearly. Salavin, for example, embarks on a long soul-searching journey after a gratuitous act of rebellion against the bureaucratic structure he feels trapped in gets him fired. The eccentric lover, the soupirant , may not always get the girl in the end, but his ethereal and old-fashioned messages of love stand tall against the cruder representations of love that surround him. Echenoz’s adventure heroes seem at first to lead passive and hermetic lives until they find themselves in Verne-like situations that transcend the placidity of their routine environments. Just as myths are stories meant to disguise the truths within our collective unconscious,1 the eccentric’s inventive and creative outlook also points to certain truths that are repressed or overlooked by the rest of society. Thus the eccentric lover counterbalances the overwhelming lust exhibited by more familiar examples of modern love, and Echenoz’s unlikely adventure heroes provide amusing alternatives to the “ère du vide” proclaimed by Lipovetsky. If there is a thread that links each of these types of eccentrics , it is the keen inventiveness with which they approach life. Whether it is with gradual increments of self-awareness (the bureaucrat), narratives (the trickster), or sentiment (the lover), eccentrics irrepressibly create when others merely follow, repeat, or go through life as if by rote. A sampling of a variety of different representations of modern eccentricity makes it possible to delineate a set of new prototypes of eccentricity that differ considerably from the ones depicted in nineteenthcentury fiction and nonfiction. Yet these new eccentric archetypes need to be deciphered as though they communicated in a symbolic language reminiscent of what Joseph Campbell describes as the process by which ancient myths and religions can be unraveled: “The old teachers knew what they were saying . Once we have learned to read again their symbolic language , it requires no more than the talent of an anthropologist to let their teaching be heard. But first we must learn the grammar of the symbols” (viii). An equivalent attempt to learn the “grammar” that constitutes a modern eccentric’s repertoire of discourse, action, and thought allows the decoding of the dis- 45 The Clinamen tinctly modern morphology of eccentricity. Just as MonteCristo , Des Esseintes, and Fogg resisted certain drives that characterized the vast majority of their eras, modern eccentrics are no less imaginative in the ways they challenge the accepted trends of modern times. Their modus operandi, however, relies on a sudden discretion that manifests...


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