- Consuming Autobiographies: Reading and Writing the Self in Post-War France
Claire Boyle’s Consuming Autobiographies analyzes and participates in prevalent recent debates on life writing, and offers thoughtful and original readings of some important post-war French autobiographers. Boyle explores claims that autobiography is dead, pointing out along the way that this is in itself a paradox given the increasing interest in testimony narratives remembering the wartime past, and asks more specifically why autobiography might have been declared dead. This question leads Boyle to her main preoccupation in the book: “how far does a fear of appearing to offer up one’s selfhood for the consumption of others (an anxiety which twentieth-century intellectual preoccupations with the subject’s loss of autonomy can only reinforce) influence the standpoint writers take on whether autobiography can continue to survive or not?” (2). The thesis of the study, then, is that autobiographers such as Sarraute, Perec, Genet, and Cixous are all troubled by the “prospect of being treated as a consumable commodity,” and they all seek to fend off a certain devouring attitude in the reader (1). They express anxiety towards the very autobiographical project in which they are engaged, and intermittently deny that their texts conform to the autobiographical genre at all. [End Page 763]
The first chapter explores the status of autobiography in recent French theory, noting for example the shift in interest away from Lejeune’s “pacte” to Doubrovskyan “autofiction.” The importance of Doubrovsky’s intervention, according to Boyle, is that it “throws down a particular challenge to its readers” (19). In Doubrovsky’s model the reader cannot assume that she gains access to the “truth,” and is called upon to play an active role in interpreting the autobiographical text. The freedom of the reader, however, is precisely a source of anxiety for the authors examined in the rest of the study. In Sarraute’s work, for example, language is presented as an obstacle to autobiography. Language can cause misunderstandings and hinders communication. Moreover, Sarraute’s autobiographical writing establishes a conflictual relationship with the reader, and “if autobiography engenders conflict, it is because, for Sarraute, it sets up another tug-of-war: one which is waged against the reader, with the autobiographical self as prize” (32). Sarraute’s narrators suspend the relation with the reader in an attempt to deflect the other’s devouring gaze. In the following chapter, Boyle explores the presentation of the self in Perec’s autobiographical writing as “dispossessed,” noting in particular that Je me souviens inserts a distance between writer and reader even if W ou le souvenir de l’enfance still appears to convey something of an autobiographical self. If Perec’s self is dispossessed, however, then the narrator also expresses concern towards his lack of control over the reader’s response. Next, Genet is presented as the author “who does most to contest the notion that by reading the autobiographical output of an individual, one can read and ingest, not only a text, but a person” (98). Nevertheless, even in Genet, Boyle finds an adherence to some of the laws and principles the author sought to reject. Finally, Cixous’s writing of the self is characterized as a process of self-estrangement. Even the apparently more conventional narratives of Les rêveries de la femme sauvage and Le jour où je n’étais pas là question the ethics of a relation with the readerly other based on fusion.
Boyle’s thoughtful and sophisticated study of autobiography brings an original focus on the role of the reader, and on the ways in which readers are interpellated and caricatured by, or even excluded from, certain forms of autobiographical writing. The notion of readerly consumption is both compelling and imaginative, and imports a new framework for understanding the psychology of the writing self. One of the dangers of the book might be that Boyle can fall into ascribing sentiments and thought processes to writers, or at least to narrators, that...