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Poetics Today 22.3 (2001) 697-701
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Blueprints for Self-Writing
English, François-Rabelais, Tours
Philippe Lejeune, Les brouillons de soi. Paris: Seuil, 1998. 227 pp.
These two books are collections of articles by Philippe Lejeune, who started his scholarly career with L’autobiographie en France (1971) and is internationally known for the groundbreaking theoretical work Le pacte autobiographique (1975). Each book follows a different path while expanding the field of the current work on autobiographical writing and indicating directions for future research. Whereas Les brouillons de soi [Drafts of self] investigates how autobiographical writing ramifies when the text does not offer the definitive version (of the self or of the text), Pour l’autobiographie [In defense of autobiography] is a veritable manifesto. Surprisingly to anglophone readers, autobiographical practices are still under siege as they were half a century ago, accused of verging on the pathological, of lacking the necessary requirements to be considered as art. Autobiography is a resisting genre, a site of resistance, even if it is gradually being accepted. Lejeune surveys and assesses his own research, from the mixed import of structuralism and existentialism to Paul Ricœur’s impact. He finally concentrates on the diary, the last genre to remain unwanted in the canon of belles lettres, the final bastion.
From the backstage of autobiographical practice, Drafts of Self examines the distance between the various drafts of an autobiographical text and the [End Page 697] final version. The first three chapters scrutinize autobiographies that stage their own production. This investigation starts with the notion of “autobiocopy,” or how much an autobiographer can copy from another text, beyond intertextuality and with the notebook of personal quotations as the limit of that borrowing practice. It then traces the problematics of childhood narratives and of the musings of the self over what could have happened if. . . . It ponders the consequences of how one constructs a “turning point” in one’s life story. Suspicion is sincerity’s sister. The staging of doubt in childhood narratives (under the aegis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Stendhal, and Freud) has already led to the analysis of Georges Perec’s “W ou le souvenir d’enfance” (in La mémoire et l’oblique ) and Nathalie Sarraute’s Enfance, to which are here added Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) and Guy Bechtel’s Mensonges d’enfance (1986). The following section concentrates on a visit paid to writing workshops and the questions it provokes. What happens when one is asked to write one’s life, as in the handbooks for autobiography that proliferate in Anglo-Saxon countries? Is self-writing compatible with constraints, defined as “rules for textual production”? Lejeune draws upon the literary example of Perec’s Lieux and on the soft constraints Michel Leiris created as a writing ritual for La règle du jeu.
With the detailed study of these blurred textual selves behind him, Lejeune boldly enters the archaeological sites of three major contemporary works. He first verifies the hypothesis made in 1975 about the structures and breaks of Sartre’s childhood text, Les mots (1963), through a comprehensive analysis of the drafts, including a 1954 notebook recently found. This section of the book forms his contribution to the collective work conducted by the Sartre team at the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes (ITEM-CNRS), a long genetic study just crowned by the completion of Why and How Sartre Wrote Words (1996) under the direction of Michel Contat. Next comes a study of Sarraute’s Enfance, focused on drafts of chapter two, which the author lent Lejeune. Since Enfance stages its own genesis, the critic thus is able to compare the actual genesis of the work with the fictional genesis as it appears in the published text. The third and last site surveyed, that of the personal diary, is both extremely different and problematic. The diary is not a draft and has no draft, yet no diary has been published without being altered. (The question...