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  • Authorial Shadows in Marcel Bénabou
  • Catherine Lorente (bio)
    Translated by Roxanne Lapidus

“Quelle est cette aventure? Et qu’en puis-je augurer?”

— Molière

Marcel Bénabou’s writing is multi-referential, invoking history, religion and personal memories, and becoming what he calls a “proliferating memory” (Genèse, 100). The result, while homogeneous in appearance, is an assemblage of fragments from various sources, reworked to form one voice, and where one textual element may refer to several authors simultaneously, as Philippe Lejeune has shown. 1 A closer look at Bénabou’s work, however, reveals an attitude towards literature and its past that distinguishes his work from the tradition of Lautréamont and the Surrealists and all of this century’s authors, artists and composers who have made recycling an important component of their practice. The past—literary and personal, historical and memorial—severely paralyzes Marcel Bénabou. Yet it is this very paralysis that allows him to write his first book, Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres (Why I have not written any of my books).

The Other is a Dream

His alleged impossibility to exist as a writer of fiction springs from an “obsession for singularity,” invoked through the voice of the narrator of Pourquoi (91). The book recounts the difficulties of a man at the mercy of his inability to finish a book, and how he transforms his handicap into a springboard for his writing. The narrative’s opacity is due to a desire to avoid the autobiographical genre and to say things without being explicit. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to understand that this “obsession” comes from two concurrent heritages, one familial and the other literary.

To understand the former, we must place ourselves in the context of nineteenth-century Moroccan society, where access to French culture was a deciding factor in differentiating people. Marcel Bénabou’s ancestors had received Pierre Loti in their home at Meknès: “this marked symbolically for us the new order of things” (Pourquoi, 85). 2 This visit differentiated the family [End Page 62] from their group of origin, while assimilating them to another group, which rendered the distinction completely relative: they differentiated themselves from one side, only to identify with another. Thus they could only define themselves by conforming to an other, but to an other who did not embody alterity, since it was an imagined, idealized other. Marcel Bénabou inherited this paradox, since his family saw him as the one who would prolong the destiny begun by Loti’s visit: “It goes without saying that the singular destiny thus promised to me was also a glorious destiny, and that a predilection for literature should play a principal role in it” (Pourquoi, 84). But for him the desire to be singular by identifying with an imagined other is even more complex, since it is enriched by a dual cultural identity—Judeo-Arabic through his family, and French through his schooling. Thus he finds himself with a dual “je” [“I”], forcing him to play a dual “jeu” [“game”], as the narrator of Pourquoi wittily explains (89). In order to escape from this cumbersome duality, he invents “a completely new me,” a “superb me of the heights” (Pourquoi, 90), a sort of dreamed self.

The second legacy, that of literary history, reinforces this problem. In his own way, Marcel Bénabou accepts the misleading post-romantic notion of “the work of genius,” which breaks with the classical aesthetics of admiration. 3 Since originality and invention are of prime importance, any recourse to imitation or pillaging is forbidden. One must be an original genius, one must create something new. Thus every author must be singular not by imitating, but by obliquely relating himself to the masterpiece, by placing himself next to it and on the same level. But herein lies the problem: the masterpiece overwhelms by its monumental presence. It gives the impression of being impossible to equal. 4 This implies that the author can only proclaim his identity in relation to the literary past, 5 which gives him a feeling of indebtedness and saturation 6 —feelings that the narrator of Pourquoi associates with French literature, not...

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pp. 62-73
Launched on MUSE
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