- Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century
Contrary to what its title suggests, this collection of essays on contemporary French writing is not an overview of the French Novel in the first decade of the twenty-first century. As Warren Motte explains in the introduction, his essays offer a sampling of personal readings of eight contemporary novelists from metropolitan France. The book does not reflect major trends, but rather Motte's personal taste (11). Four of the authors treated here are published by the Editions de Minuit, three others by the Editions POL, "the two most forward-looking publishing houses in France" (12). One of the writers appeared in the "Fiction & Cie" collection at Le Seuil. Together, these three publishers offer the type of fiction Motte prefers: "critical novel(s)" (12) with an element of metafiction and some degree of avant-gardism. "Critical novels" are not dominated by plot, event, logical causality, and linear narration. Rather, they digress, question themselves from within, provide comments on the writing and reading processes while displaying their complexity and plurality. The four male (Jean Echenoz, Christian Gailly, Gérard Gavarry and Patrick Lapeyre) and four female authors (Marie Redonnet, Lydie Salvayre, Hélène Lenoir and Christine Montalbetti) presented here are treated in individual chapters, largely through discussion of a single novel written in the first half of the last decade. Motte aims to illustrate the variety of this genre's literary experimentations in areas such as theme, voice and style. All the books discussed here share the heritage of the "New Novel" in that they demand reflection on the reader's part (11). They put their "literariness" into play, question prevailing literary norms, and constitute a vigorous cultural form. Rather than forming a critical synthesis of these works, Motte offers a series of snapshots via close textual analyses that are a pleasure to read.
In chapter one, Motte concentrates his study on Au piano (2003) by Jean Echenoz, a prolific writer who published his first novel in 1979 and who is well known for his experimentations with novelistic forms and meta-literary discourse. What interests Motte in this novel is a notable shift in Echenoz's career that is apparent in the manner in which the author interacts with the reader and stages that interaction as a game. Echenoz establishes a complicity with the reader, seems to create a path for his reader's inferences, but then constantly subverts them. This novel is devoted to the process of imagination and to the performance of that process. In this playful text, the reader is constantly invited to imagine things, which are then denied and transformed. Echenoz's interactive literature constructs the reader as an accomplice, who is invited to play the [End Page 144] narrator's game, but who will then be misdirected and redirected, through "narratorial negations" (29). Au piano returns to situations and themes exploited in Echenoz's previous novels, but which are then subjected to a double irony and even self-parody. Motte suggests that Echenoz is engaged in "a quest for an impossible novel" (37).
Motte's second chapter is devoted to Marie Redonnet's Diego (2005), which echoes numerous aspects of her fifteen previous works (naïve protagonist, struggle for personal identity, declarative transparency, for example), but which also marks a turning point in her career. The novel is presented as a deliberate effort by Redonnet to assume responsibility toward society and should be understood as a contribution to contemporary French political and social debates. The novel raises questions of hospitality and marginality in contemporary France through the story of a young political refugee, a character that leads Redonnet to revisit key historical moments such as France's collaboration in the Holocaust and its conduct during the Algerian War, and to examine the impact of both in the post-colonial present. Having an illegal immigrant such as Diego serve as the main character allows the narrator to view French society and interrogate its norms from the outside in. It is only...