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SubStance 35.3 (2006) 35-50

The Salvayre Method
Marie-Pascale Huglo
Université de Montréal
translated by Roxanne Lapidus

In the cartography of the contemporary French novel, Lydie Salvayre's oeuvre occupies a place apart—she affirms herself with a singular freedom of tone and a refusal of the serious. The laughter she provokes is neither high-brow nor delicate; humor resonates throughout, often descending into farce, caricature and vulgarity. Therein lies her singularity—in this almost offensive laughter, so distant from the "esprit" or wit from which she nevertheless borrows several traits. Salvayre's laughter is full of dark humor, but not in the least humorous; full of spirit but not in the least spiritual, making it problematic for the critic, in that it cannot be reduced to a predetermined type, even though it borrows from nearly all registers of the comic. Salvayre's liberated tone is farcical but not simply that, caricatural but subtle, vulgar but affected; it belongs to the polyphonic and clashing comedy she deploys. In the words of her "lecturer" at Cintegabelle (La Conférence de Cintegabelle), the comic is "this tearing apart" [écartèlement], this "vacillation" between a thing and its opposite (Conférence, 73). Among other effects, this makes it difficult for the critic to situate her. For the very logic of vacillation dictates that laughter must be countered by seriousness, and vice-versa, without ever becoming fixed. Thus comic accents correspond to those of refutation, of cogitation, of the lesson or the meditation that a priori have nothing funny about them, and thereby form discordant pairs. These paradoxical pairs are, in Salvayre's case, the only ones that "hold." Her "lecturer" understood this well: "Look at Don Quixote and Sancho, Tobby and Trim, my two little favorites, Ahab and his whale [...], Lucienne and me. Sublime couples. Impossible couples" (ibid., 67). Vacillation and opposites marry; they re-launch themselves from one end of the oeuvre to the other following an imperturbable logic—or rather, one that is infinitely perturbed.

But the constant vacillation of this prose does not render it unintelligible. The composite deployment of voices is still anchored in "the values of the world." The sophistication and baroque richness of Salvayre's phraseology participate in a form of engaged realism whose positions are forcefully affirmed. If Salvayre's oeuvre participates in [End Page 35] literature's renewed interest in History and memory (that of French collaboration during World War II, in La Compagnie des spectres, that of current events, that of books and deaths), if she plunges us with incisive realism into the unbearable mediocrity of "common life," this is done via a composition of voices that far exceeds the simple imitation of social discourse. Bouncing between typicalness and eccentricity, between formalism and realism, we find ourselves once again caught in a vacillation and opposition that we are gradually more able to situate. Salvayre's realism and her presentation of collective time and memory are representative of contemporary French literature, but they have this singularity—they unfurl the novelistic fan of a genre based on the unreal; they are satire.


As a "fecund and ill-defined form" (Duval and Martinez, 175), satire contains potential for metamorphoses that elude the accepted guidelines of the genre. Satire has the ability to ally itself with other genres, and constitutes a novelistic mode which, from Rabelais to Dostoyevsky, has unceasingly reinvented itself. In contemporary French literature, this comico-serious flow seems to have dried up, or at least to have diminished; who, since Gide and Beckett, has "satirized" the novel? It is into this space that Salvayre inserts herself—her oeuvre is conjugated like a vast satire, with the fluctuations and variations that this implies. Others like Philippe Murray, with his indictment of l'homo festivus, or Pierre Jourde, with his attacks on the indigence of contemporary literature, might belong to the select club of satirists were they not so focused on the denunciation of a generalized fault, making their work closer to pamphleteering virulence than to satirical distortions. No matter...


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