- Spaces of Belonging: Home, Culture and Identity in 20th-Century French Autobiography
This book is not really about autobiography, since the authors studied—Serge Doubrovsky, Hervé Guibert, and Régine Robin—have written auto-fictions, that genre that is even more slippery and difficult to get hold of than autobiography. The book is a reworked thesis, and it shows. After the “obligatory” theory chapter in which the author discusses postmodernism, home space, [End Page 355] and the links between geography and literature, she gives us a general introduction to contemporary life writing, followed by in-depth analyses of her three writers and a chapter on postmodern cartography. The theory chapter is long and could have been better related to what follows. The author tells us that space will be analyzed “in relation to each author,” and that the analysis will be “inspired by the literature itself, rather than by a pre-existing body of theory.” One might have wished that this program had been followed from the outset. Strangely, there is someone missing from the first chapter as well as the rest of the book: Proust. The great novelist and Georges Poulet’s seminal work, L’espace proustien, could have made for a good starting point. À la recherche du temps perdu is generally considered an autobiographical novel, although there are significant differences between Proust and his narrator—for example, their sexuality. In auto-fiction the autobiographical pact of Philippe Lejeune is deconstructed because the writer, narrator, and main fictional character are one and the “same,” although each of the authors studied by Jones further problematizes this difficult equation.
The choice of writers is excellent, and there are many points of comparison, since Doubrovsky and Robin are both practictioners and theorists of auto-fiction. As for Guibert, Jones is right in his case to cast auto-fiction in the larger context of Foucauldian spaces of power. Travel as a form of resistance to sickness is certainly pertinent to À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie, Guibert’s first novel about AIDS that was to make him famous.
Spatial dislocation and identity construction are also discussed and at greater length in relation to Doubrovsky’s first auto-fiction (really the founding text of the genre), Fils, and Robin’s La Québécoite. In both of these novels, the Holocaust is a major theme, as are rootlessness, the experience of being “in between” (l’entre-deux), and the unsaid. For these two Franco-Jewish writers and academics who make North America their home (Doubrovsky in the USA, Robin in Québec), space and culture intertwine necessarily. The lack of belonging is a major theme in Fils, as the character Doubrovsky seeks a home of his own, whether in New York and the psychoanalysis associated with it, or in the Paris of his youth where he and his family had to hide from the French police in order to avoid deportation to Nazi death camps. The same lack of belonging is true of Robin, who invents imaginary scenarios, locating her heroine in various neighborhoods of Montréal, as she seeks to ground herself in a culture and a country that remain at once familiar and strangely foreign. Exile is embedded in La Québécoite, as the narrator frequently returns to a litany of Paris Métro stations, ending with Grenelle. Jones mentions deportations, but should have explained that the reason the Grenelle station is so important (although this is not stated overtly in the novel) is that the Vélodrome d’Hiver was located near it. It was to this sports arena that thousands of Jewish men, [End Page 356] women, and children were taken in the summer of 1942 during what is termed the “Big Roundup,” la Grande Rafle. The unsaid (le non-dit) leads to non-lieux, non-places, as fiction takes up the terrible trauma of loss.
Jones does better on the theme of monstrosity, so crucial in Guibert, as well as...