Biography 29.2 (2006) 364-367
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The past fifteen years or so have seen a marked growth in critical interest in the journal intime in France. While the genre was certainly not ignored by the French critical establishment prior to the 1990s, the studies devoted to it focused on the journal as text and not as practice: thus, on the one hand, the journal was represented as a means of extracting valuable insights into an individual's character (Leleu), or into the status of society as a whole (Girard); on the other, the genre was analyzed through reading habits cultivated through a long acquaintance with literary narrative, and labeled—perhaps inevitably—as passive and lacking in structure (Didier). The publication in 1993 of Philippe Lejeune's groundbreaking Le Moi des Demoiselles effected a welcome shift in focus, positioning the journal not as the suspicious "other" of literary texts, but as a cultural practice that signified within a context of other daily practices—for the jeunes filles whose diaries he carefully reads, such practices might range from performing their daily toilette to embroidering linen. [End Page 364]
Françoise Simonet-Tenant's monograph inscribes itself within this shift of focus. This is in fact the second edition of Le Journal intime. Genre littéraire et écriture ordinaire, the first having been published in 2001 by Nathan. The new edition is prefaced with a foreword by Philippe Lejeune, and represents an updated and slightly expanded version of the 2001 edition. The addition of a fifth chapter, comprising interviews with three contemporary diarists, serves to remind readers of the enduring nature of the activity of diary writing, even as it points to the ways in which new media and technology are currently serving to inflect the practice. The scope of the 2001 study has been maintained: Simonet-Tenant limits her corpus to hand-written, typed, or printed diaries that have been written in French. This does not however preclude mention of other diaries that have become either exemplars of the genre (the diary of Anne Frank) or that are commonly perceived as constituting something of a watershed in the evolution of the practice (the diary of Samuel Pepys).
From the outset, Simonet-Tenant makes it clear that the diary is to be considered at once as material object, literary genre, and daily writing practice. She is interested in the journal as a cultural phenomenon that has its own history to be told and its own performativity to be explored. She thus begins with a careful charting of the various factors and conditions—both material and philosophical—that converged in the late eighteenth century to produce diary writing as a practice commonly engaged in by the literate. These include the widespread use of the annual calendar and the invention of the "body clock" in the eighteenth century, a new emphasis on sensory experience via the writings of Condillac, and new reading habits which centered upon identification with the protagonists and which were fostered through the growing popularity of novels such as Bernardin de Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie and Rousseau's La Nouvelle Hélo<ïse. By setting technological advances side by side with changes in the perception of the self's relationship to the world, Simonet-Tenant not only points to the historically constructed nature of intimité, but also emphasizes the extent to which the development of the genre is inextricable from the material conditions of its production. Throughout Simonet-Tenant's text, we are in fact constantly reminded of the importance of the means and conditions of daily writing in determining not only the development of the practice over time, but also what is made of each individual diary entry. Thus on the one hand, the disappearance of the inkwell at the end of the nineteenth century, and the widespread use of the internet at the end of the twentieth, can...