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  • The Intertextual Unconscious in François le Champi
  • Timothy Raser

It would be difficult to imagine a more compelling recommendation for a novel than the one found in the first pages of À la recherche du temps perdu, where Marcel Proust names François le Champi as the book that the narrator's mother read to him on the night of the drame du coucher. The book was one of several presents purchased by his grandmother, given to him early because of his sadness that night. What Proust says here about Marcel's grandmother is telling: she sought works that were as artistic as possible—the picture of a famous building, but not a photograph; rather, the building as depicted by a famous painter, and not a photograph of the painting either, but an engraving of the painting by a great engraver.1 Her idea was to build up layers ("épaisseurs") of art, the better to ensure the work's effect, and to guarantee Marcel's exposure to things of beauty.

When it comes to François le Champi, however, her logic is not altogether obvious: George Sand proclaims in its "Avant-propos" that the work was composed in response to a sort of wager, and that she is attempting in it to speak simultaneously to uncultured peasants and to cultivated Parisians. Rather than being ultra-artistic, the work is minimally so, between nature and art, so to speak, rather than to the far side of the latter pole. The question arises then: how can such a "roman champêtre" meet the grandmother's criterion?

In fact, of course, Sand's novel is a consummately artistic one. Its status as "roman paysan" hardly designates it as natural, even if it purports do represent a more natural world than that to which readers are accustomed. This point has been amply demonstrated by Béatrice Didier, who has shown just how much art is required to produce the illusion of a peasant language, and, furthermore, how this language [End Page 39] enabled Sand to avoid the constrictive clichés of mainstream novels (Didier, 150–1). This appreciation of Sand's language, however, does not address her claim that her intended audience was not a cultivated one.

An answer to our question lies in the circumstances of the gift: Marcel, it will be recalled, became upset when Swann's arrival for dinner prevented him from receiving his mother's good-night kiss. Unable to sleep, he sat at the top of the stairs until late, awaiting Swann's departure and his parents' own bedtime when he could once again ask for the kiss that his father had caused him to miss. Dreading the confrontation but unable to do otherwise, he was thus astonished when instead of being punished, his father told his wife to spend the night with their anxious son, and thus Marcel and his mother found an occasion to read Sand's novel together (Proust, I, 36–43). If the father's initial prohibition of the good-night kiss is a stereotypical implementation of the incest taboo, it must be accepted that, when he relented a few hours later, his father cast the time Marcel would spend alone in bed with his mother as a minor transgression of the same prohibition. Such an interpretation would be of little interest if it were not that, later, Marcel's preferred reading becomes Phèdre, which also deals with incest, and which is, to any Parisian audience, the intertext of François le Champi.

Furthermore, if Phèdre is about incest, it is about nature: the relations forbidden by incest are freely practiced only in the state of nature. Nature, conversely, is precisely that state where no taboo of incest exists. This state of course has disappeared, and thus incest can only be represented as a thing of the past, "un état où nous ne pouvons plus le voir aujourd'hui" (Proust, I, 40). François le Champi thus meets Marcel's grandmother's criterion, for it is the artistic representation of an artistic representation of a nature that no longer exists. It is the popularization, as it were, of a work best known by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1836
Print ISSN
0098-9355
Pages
pp. 39-50
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-31
Open Access
No
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