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Reviewed by:
  • Genèse et autofiction
  • Armine Kotin Mortimer (bio)
Catherine Viollet and Jean-Louis Jeannelle, with Isabelle Grell. Genèse et autofiction. Louvain-la-Neuve: Bruylant-Academia, 2007. 262 pp. ISBN 13 978-2-87209-817-0, 29.50 euros.

Philippe Lejeune writes:

"Mais qu'est-ce que la génétique? Non, ce n'est pas exactement l'étude des brouillons, ou "avant-textes": ils ne sont que les lieux ou les moyens, certes privilégiés, de la recherche, mais parmi d'autres possibles. Un "dossier génétique" peut inclure des lettres, des entretiens, des témoignages extérieurs, etc. Le but de la génétique est de comprendre pourquoi et comment quelqu'un a créé quelque chose.

[But what is genetic criticism? No, it's not exactly the study of first drafts or "pre-texts"; those are only the locations and the instruments—significant ones, to be sure—of research, among others. A "genetic record" can include letters, interviews, accounts by others, etc. The goal of genetic criticism is to understand why and how someone created something.]

This last sentence, in all its splendid generality, turns us away from the mechanisms, or the locations and the instruments, of genetic criticism, toward its role in interpretation. Genetic criticism in the service of interpretation: that is the ideal to which the approach illustrated in this volume aspires, applying this approach to the particular case of life writing known as autofiction.

And what is autofiction? The title page is followed by a complete quotation of La Fontaine's well-known fable, "La Chauve-souris et les deux belettes" ["The Bat and the Two Weasels"], in which the bat indexes hybrid form: "Je suis oiseau: voyez mes ailes" ["I'm a bird—see my wings"] or else "Je suis souris: vivent les rats!" ["I'm a mouse—long live rats!"]. Neither/nor, either/or: autofiction depends on the context. Or, as La Fontaine has the first weasel say, "Parler sans fiction" ["Speak without fiction"]. [End Page 285]

That is precisely what autobiographers today seem to be unable to do—and the corresponding bat-like stance on the other side of the genre would be that novelists of today seem to be unable to write without telling something about themselves. From the starting point of the creation of the word autofiction by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 to its use for an ever greater number of books, both present and past (even long past: Vincent Colonna claims Lucian of Samosta as a creator of autofictions), critics and creators alike have been struggling to identify this Frankenstein's monster of which the simplest and broadest—hence probably useless—form is to say that it covers everything between the novel and autobiography, no matter what genre the publication itself may specify.

The essays of Genèse et autofiction are the result of a one-day conference co-organized by the "Genèse et autobiographie" team at the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits modernes (ITEM), the Paris section of the CNRS that studies manuscripts, and a comparable team at, the all-embracing website for literary critical studies. Its great value lies in the genetic approach, which promises to help reduce the ambiguity of the autofictional genre. If, as Lejeune generalizes, genetic criticism can make us understand "why and how someone created something," we might at the same time approach clarity on the question of the genre. On this score, the "Présentation" by Catherine Viollet and the contribution by Jean-Louis Jeannelle are particularly useful. Viollet writes that "l'autofiction est une, voire 'la' forme post-moderne, c'est-à-dire post-holocauste, de l'autobiographie: même si, comme l'affirment [Doubrovsky et Federman], 'tous les détails sont exacts,' le récit est toujours réinvention du vécu, création langagière" (8) ["autofiction is a (or the) post-modern form of autobiography, which is to say its post-Holocaust form. Even if 'the details are all factual,' as [Doubrovsky and Federman] assert, the narrative is always a reinvention of lived experience, a creation of language"]. We are always reading a text, not a life, Doubrovsky reminds us. Genetic...


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pp. 285-289
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