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  • Excess and Transgression in Simone de Beauvoir's Fiction: The Discourse of Madness
  • Oliver Davis
Excess and Transgression in Simone de Beauvoir's Fiction: The Discourse of Madness. By Alison Holland. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. viii + 222 pp. Hb £55.00.

This study endeavours 'to read madness metaphorically' (p. 1) in four of Beauvoir's better-known works of fiction. The Introduction is emphatic about the distinction between this undertaking and any investigation into the mental health of Beauvoir or her characters; rather, '[m]adness is a useful conceit' (p. 1) for a range of mainly formal properties of the texts, including 'excess, transgression, instability, disruption, and incoherence' (p. 1). The study nods to contemporary literary-critical convention in [End Page 504] distancing itself from attempts to psychoanalyse either the author or her characters; yet, if madness in any substantial sense really is a feature of Beauvoirian textuality, then it must have come from somewhere and inhere in one or more people. Alternatively, if madness is no more than a metaphor, no more than a figure of speech or conceit, is to talk of the madness of Beauvoir's work to say something that could just as readily have been phrased in other terms? Fortunately, the methodological emphasis placed in the Introduction on madness as textual disruptiveness does not in fact preclude later consideration of the many characters who are themselves in various ways mad, even if for understandable reasons it stops short of probing Beauvoir's own wellbeing (although her tendency to analyse the reception of her fiction in her memoirs is described, in therapese, as 'a bid to restore control' and 'a defence against chaos', p. 19). A deeper engagement with psychoanalytic or psychiatric typologies of mental illness might have lent greater variety and precision to the understanding of madness, whether of characters or, 'metaphorically', of the text. The kinds of disturbance with which the study is almost exclusively concerned are mainly hysterical and borderline; comparatively little attention is paid, for example, to depressive forms of mental illness, which retreat from verbalization towards aphasia. The thematic and, arguably, also the formal presence of depressive mental illness in Beauvoir's memoirs are in intriguing contrast to the extravagant or excessive insanity of the fictional works examined in this study. The first two of the four main chapters present close readings of L'Invitée (1943) and Les Mandarins (1954). The study illuminates, through very close reading of textual detail, certain local continuities between these texts and the Gothic tradition as reinterpreted by the late Eve Sedgwick in particular. Analysis of the use of tense in Anne's narrative in Les Mandarins reveals instability and disorientation. Chapter 3, on Les Belles Images (1966), offers a particularly useful inventory of the repetitious texture of internal echoes within the narrative and a reflection on the way these contrive to work the reader into a state of discomfort. Chapter 4, on the short story collection La Femme rompue (1967), focuses on the way textual fragmentation stages incoherence and instability within the narrative. This study succeeds in focusing attention on the disruptive energies straining in the fabric of Beauvoir's fiction and in showing her writing to be anything but flat.

Oliver Davis
University of Warwick


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pp. 504-505
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