- From Split to Screened Selves: French and Francophone Autobiography in the Third Person
Rachel Gabara begins her interesting and eclectic study, From Split to Screened Selves, by admitting that autobiography is a troubled genre. Certainly, there is no shortage of debate in this field, and scholarly discussion of the genre runs the gamut from the descriptive to the prescriptive. It is clear from the outset that Gabara herself does not aim to propose a new set of criteria which will define autobiography, but rather endeavors to promote a broader view of self-representation or life writing in both literature and cinema. In conjunction with her arguments for a more inclusive approach to textual autobiography, Gabara also emphasizes the importance of the visual for constructions of the self. Certainly, photographic and cinematic images play an important part in her study. In order to question the traditionally conceived boundaries of autobiography, Gabara proposes close readings of a diverse selection of texts and films by Roland Barthes, Nathalie Sarraute, Cyril Collard, Assia Djebar, David Achkar, and Raoul Peck.
While her corpus does introduce some fairly canonical authors (one could argue that Barthes, Sarraute, and even Djebar have gained acceptance in academic circles, while Collard's film enjoyed immense popular success), all of the works break away in some way from a traditional model of autobiography. Thus, they have often been marginalized, if not completely ignored, by theorists and critics of autobiography. The title and sub-title—From Split to Screened Selves: French and Francophone Autobiography in the Third Person —signal that the works studied are often distinct from a conventional first-person récit. The title and sub-title also evoke the theoretical and practical challenges that ensue when authors experiment with various strategies of [End Page 234] self-representation and self-reflection. However, the subtitle seems to limit these strategies to narrative techniques in the third person. In fact, while the third person is certainly a strategy used by the autobiographers studied, many of the writers Gabara explores also use the first person and the second person. The autobiographical voice is thus more varied than the title suggests. While this is a minor quibble, it is important to emphasize that Gabara's study of reflexive autobiography in literature, photography, and film delves into myriad topics and narrative strategies which expose the richness and the complexity of the genre.
The first section of the book, "Split Selves: French Autobiography in the First, Second, and Third Persons," presents analyses of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and Childhood by Nathalie Sarraute. The initial chapter on Barthes speaks largely about the textual constructions of a "split self." Barthes's text is complex since the author confronts his own ideas of écriture, commentary, jouissance, and distance. Furthermore, Barthes fragments his autobiographical narrator by adding third-person commentary to first-person narration. Given the theoretical issues at stake here, Gabara develops a convincing analysis of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. At the same time, a few passages in the analysis would benefit from further explanation, especially for the non-initiate.
The theoretical questions introduced by Sarraute's Childhood are also challenging. As Gabara puts it, while Barthes seems to struggle with the "auto"—that is, with defining himself—Sarraute's difficulty is in writing her "bio." In her second chapter, Gabara aims to redefine a form of autobiography that would fit with Sarraute's idea of tropism, of constructing characters from the inside. Gabara's scrutiny of Sarraute's text is interesting and convincing. In short, the analysis in the first two chapters sheds light on the strategies both authors use in an attempt to define themselves or write themselves into a text.
Entitled "Autobiography in Images: From Photography to Film," the second part of the study moves toward visual elements in autobiographies. In this section, Gabara first studies the relationship between Barthes's notes on photography in Camera Lucida and the photos reproduced in this work. Gabara is right to point out that while...