- La Forme des jours: pour une poétique du journal personnel
An ordinary hero, an ordinary life, and an absence of structure other than one based on the fluctuations of an individual consciousness: these are the makings of most diaries. But can the journal, which reverses the recognized literary values inherited from Aristotle, really be called literature? That is the question that Michel Braud attempts to answer in his book, La Forme des jours.
Historically, the emergence of the private journal as a genre coincided with a reexamination of the traditional norms associated with the novel. And certainly Virginia Woolf's "an ordinary mind on an ordinary day" in her manifesto for modern fiction (Common Reader 1) sounds very like a description [End Page 756] of the journal. In a sense, the journal seemed to provide a non-fictional answer to some of the problems connected with the representation of human existence. Yet critics—from Ferdinand Brunetière (writing about Henri Frédéric Amiel's diary) to Julien Gracq (writing about André Gide's diary)—have been unwilling to grant the journal the status of literature, and one of Michel Braud's aims is to establish it as such. This is a large order, and one that Michel Braud dispatches with diligence and clarity.
Braud works like a surgeon, meticulously dissecting a body of work composed of published (or partially published) journals written in French during the last two centuries. His book is divided into three parts in which he examines the elements that all—or most—diaries have in common, and then discusses their literary implications.
He begins with the diary keeper's practices: the pronouns he or she uses (usually I, but also he); the material conditions in which he writes (in notebooks, or, like Stendhal, in the margins or on the covers of books); the interruptions from the outside world; the unique and unchanging point of view (except when there are two authors, as in the case of the Goncourt brothers). He then looks at the ways in which the author's "ivory notebook"—that is, his retirement, his withdrawal, his inwardness—allows him to contemplate the world and himself. Who am I? is always the central question, and the diary is always an attempt to get hold of an identity that constantly slips from the writer's grasp. Finally, the diary is a space within which the writer attempts to recreate a life in words, evoking the quotidian, the intimate, the emotional and bodily details of his daily existence. This, because the writer turns away from the world in order to keep his diary, is itself sometimes a form of "slow suicide," according to Henri-Frédéric Amiel. And indeed, death is an abiding theme.
Michel Braud then goes on to examine the connection between the journal and time. Most diarists complain of the fragmentation of the self in time (Louis Calaferte feels he is a series of selves). Many express a feeling of strangeness at being a self outside time looking at a self living within time. But more important, since most diaries attempt to transcribe the present, can it be said that these successive moments of being constitute a narrative? Not exactly, answers Braud. Instead, the journal is "a form conferred on the movement of life." Still, within this form there are elements of internal organization, such as repetition, "inserted" narratives (i.e., narratives reporting events between two entries), dated (and undated) entries, and rhythm. The diarist often rereads, and metadicursive commentary is apparently another constant fixture. Finally, the heterogeneity of experience is reflected in the journal by its discontinuity, open-endedness, thematic diversity, stylistic and [End Page 757] typographical variety, its use of foreign languages, and its inclusion of quotations, of letters and clippings, and of drawings and other documents.
In the final and most interesting section, Michel Braud relies more heavily on Gérard Genette's taxonomy and terminology (in particular Figures III). He discusses the various roles devolved upon...