- Bénabou’s Family Epic: A Story in Perpetual Labor
Between Writing and Memory
Postmodernist conceptions of literature have laid claim to the inability of the text to come to terms with its own narrative objects. Thus, the text has come to be apprehended no more as a synthetic totality, as was presupposed by the Realist ideological configuration, but as an indefinite process of incompleteness, in that the narrative cannot see its own end, given that it consists of an endless productive activity. The writings of Marcel Bénabou, “the definitively temporary secretary of the OULIPO” (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), 1 pose from the start the question of their generic affiliation. There is no doubt that given their Oulipian literary dimension, they reinscribe the textual practices inherent in the post-modern text, to wit, fragmentation, deconstruction and suspension—the basic strategies so characteristic to the post-modern novel in general. Indeed, Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres and Jette ce livre avant qu’il soit trop tard, as well as his Epopée familiale —though in a less marked manner, 2 seem to be pure products of the Oulipian laboratory. They constitute, on the whole, metatextual elaborations on the activity of writing itself and its varied complex significations.
But Bénabou combines as well another primordial dimension. For beside the self-reflexiveness of the writing activity in his books, (or should I say novels, though they resemble none), there is an autobiographical aspect, an attempt to recapture or rather (re)create a past without falling into the temptations or traps of the classical autobiographical (or biographical) narrative. However, for Bénabou, the question is how to reconcile an autobiographical project that manifests an irreducible socio-historical, ethnic, culturally and geographically determined identity with not only the tools and modes of expression that attempt to circumscribe it, but also with the activity of writing itself, which remains unsurpassable and at the forefront of the narrative experience. In this sense, his writings are doubly autobiographical, first and foremost the autobiography that involves the present of [End Page 47] writing and, second, the autobiography of that past the text attempts to relay in a most uncompromising way.
For narration—and this Bénabou stresses time and again throughout his writings—cannot simply recover in a naive way the past that is presumably lying there waiting to be uncovered or recovered. That past is itself the product of the writing experience, and one cannot transcend this present of writing in order to get to that primary narrative content. This is why those memories at the bottom of the autobiographical venture are indissolubly connected to the very activity that seeks to render them. They are not only shaped by the writing experience; they simply have no being outside it.
Au fond, tout mon embarras venait de ce que j’en étais resté à la vieille idéologie de mes vingt ans, qui ne concevait la littérature que comme dévoilement.
Un livre n’a pas besoin d’être le reflet ou la transcription de quelque chose qui lui préexiste. Il est, tout simplement: on peut donc le créer de toutes pièces, sans crainte ni retenue, puisqu’il n’a d’autre justification qu’en lui-même. Pour contourner les obstacles qui m’avaient jusque là arrêté, il m’aurait fallu trouver un mode d’écriture qui ne risque ni de dévoyer ni de dévoiler son auteur. Une écriture en somme qui s’engendrerait elle-même.(P111)
Hence the reason that the text concentrates mostly on the difficulties it has rendering those primary experiences. Autobiography, in contrast to the Western Rousseauist model, is limited in Bénabou’s case, and I believe in the case of all Maghrebian biographical narratives, to the ceaseless suspension of a story that perpetually fails to become a story for the simple fact that the narrative consciousness cannot let go of its problematic colonial past and tell it for what it was or may have been. The reflection of that past is caught repeatedly and obsessively within the linguistic meanderings of the narrative consciousness. For the...