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Reviewed by:
  • Soi-disant: Life Writing in French
  • Cécile Hanania (bio)
Juliana De Nooy, Joe Hardwick, and Barbara E. Hanna, eds. Soi-disant: Life Writing in French. Newark: Delaware UP, 2005. 125 pp. ISBN 0-8741-3932-5, $30.00.

This volume consists of eight papers in French and English presented mostly at the 11th Annual Conference of the Australian Society of French Studies, held in Brisbane and Ipswich in June 2003. The theme of the conference was "Soi-disant: Writing, Screening, Theorizing the Self in French." The purpose of this collection, stated in the introduction by the editors, is ambitious: to explore and question the uncertain frontiers and components of autobiographical manifestations through the complexity and diversity of several literary texts on selfhood.

In spite of French critic Philippe Lejeune's attempt to circumscribe and conceptualize autobiographical writing, autobiography does not refer to a specific genre or to a delineated process, but to a broad practice. It is an act or a "pact," as coined by Lejeune in Le pacte autobiographique, where the most crucial element is the coincidence between the author, the narrator, and the protagonist. This volume pays an ambiguous homage to Lejeune. Starting from his analyses in the introduction, and recognizing his contribution to the question by quoting him at length in more than one article, the main purpose of the collection is, however, to re-evaluate past assumptions on autobiography by submitting the question of textual selfhood to a multifaceted approach.

Taking this perspective, the introduction to the book by the three editors is an excellent and much needed synthesis of the articles developed in it. At first sight, indeed, the volume looks like a fortuitous collection of papers sharing the common denominator of a wide and vague topic—"Writings on the Self"—that has already produced extensive analyses and copious publications. [End Page 362] The collection assembles papers dealing with extremely varied authors (from Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau to Yves Navarre or Catherine Pozzi and Marie Bashkirtseff), genres (novel, diary, poetry, etc.), cultural backgrounds, perspectives, and intentions. The theoretical orientation of the papers is similarly eclectic. Psychoanalysis is employed in the article on Perec and Queneau, queer theory is privileged in both articles on Genet, while a feminist approach is deployed and debated in the article on Jeanne Hyvrard.

Whatever the authors and the methodology chosen by the contributors, all the papers share, however, a common point, as interesting as it is paradoxical. They deal for the most part with deceitful texts in which the "selves" of the writers—hidden, altered, distorted, or simply abject—displace the traditional author-narrator coincidence, and are not immediately or easily interpretable and accessible. This difficulty is reflected in the ambiguous title of the volume: "Soi-disant." The French expression can be literally translated by "self-saying." But it is also an idiom meaning "so-called." So-called autobiographies could thus be the topic of the volume, in which the readers can discover a progression from texts that elude or encode life inscription to works that display the author's self with such excess that they are similarly difficult to grasp and delineate.

Two articles provide the keystones for these antithetical manifestations of selfhood in literature. The first one, by Chris Andrews, which is also one of the best and most substantial essays in the volume, is devoted to two notable members of the Oulipo: Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau. The Oulipo movement is not, because of its formality, the most obvious mode of expression of the self. However, Andrews shows how Perec and Queneau choose to encode or partially reveal elements of their lives in their texts and epitexts, playing a game of "hide and seek" with their readers, through which life became for them, beyond the apparent playfulness of a literary game, a matter to decipher. On the other side of the spectrum, the novels of Amélie Nothomb expose with ostentation a hypertrophied and egoistic self, thus presenting another challenge, due to the parody-like aspect of her work. This form of autobiographical writing, or "hyper autobiography," according to the author of the article, Hélène Jaccomard, remains uncertain and is difficult...


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