- Whose Story? The Game of Fiction in Early Eighteenth-Century French Literature
Seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries imaginary journeys, pseudomemoirs, secret stories, and even heroic and humorous novels have in common their claim to “adhere exactly to historical truth”1, to “have all the characteristics of a true story”2, or to describe “the naked truth”3. Certain authors, dissatisfied with the general nature of the presumed veracity of their works, even go to considerable lengths to cite their historical sources4, for instance, or refer to themselves as the editors5, translators, or correctors of forgotten manuscripts6. In short, these fictional works are presented, through all sorts of devices, as authentic documents.
And yet, the hypothesis I wish to defend in the following pages is that the claim to truthfulness expressed at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries must be understood as a “game” and the relationship between the author and the reader considered as playful. More specifically, examined in the light of the important and pioneering work by Jan Herman and his fellow researchers7, the claim to truthfulness is grounded on what Philippe Lejeune calls a “pact”8 between author and reader, whose aim is not to deny the fictional character of the work but rather to emphasize it9. [End Page 195]
Thus understood, any member of the reading public would not be fooled by the claims to truthfulness in prefaces, the usual location where the “game” begins. On the contrary, he would recognize a rhetorical strategy at work and be conscious of the fundamentally ambivalent nature of all fictional writing10: the author’s aim is to tell a fictional story, which the reader well knows, but he nonetheless requires that it be told “as if it were true”. A great number of works of many genres used similar devices (or devices that a reader might presume are similar, but actually are not). For example, a foreword by a fictional editor was very common in the eighteenth century, as can be seen in certain philosophical works of a satirical nature—Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721)11 is a good example—or later on, in epistolary novels whose supposed aim was “moral,” such as La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761)12 or Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782)13.
I have, however, chosen here to focus on two works that exemplify two fictional models, which are usually contrasted. By comparing the strategies used in the prefaces to Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité qui s’est retiré du monde (1728–1731) by Antoine François Prévost and La Vie de Marianne (1731–1742) by Pierre de Marivaux, I aim to distinguish certain narrative processes and rhetorical devices adopted by those writers in order to play with their readers’ expectations.
Prévost and the Role Assigned to the Reader
At first glance the Abbé Prévost, as a novelist, does not seem to seek original means for “proving” the authenticity of his narratives, given the frequency with which he uses such traditional devices as the topos of the discovered manuscript or the preface attributed to a fictional editor. Such is, in any event, the case of the two preliminary texts that precede his Mémoires et aventures d’un Homme de Qualité. The first of these preliminary texts is the “Letter from the Editor” (“Lettre de l’Éditeur”), which can be found at the very beginning of volume 1, published in 1728. This text is a fictional preface, in which a character not figuring in the narrative presents the story as the true memoirs of the Marquis:
Cet ouvrage me tomba, l’automne passé, entre les mains, dans un voyage que je fis à l’abbaye de … où l’auteur s’est retiré. La curiosité m’y avait conduit. […] Tous ceux qui ont quelque commerce avec les Pères … ne sauraient ignorer le nom de cet illustre aventurier: je serai néanmoins fidèle à la promesse que je lui ai faite, de ne le pas placer à la tête de son Histoire. Je ne l’ai [End Page 196] obtenue de lui qu’à cette condition ; et l...