- Marie Cosnay's Roman-fleuve
Marie Cosnay's Villa Chagrin (2006), the third title in a body of work that now includes eleven books, may not be a roman-fleuve in the strict sense of that term (indeed it may not even be a novel), but a river most certainly runs through it, from first page to last. That river is the Adour, as seen from its right bank, across from Bayonne, in a place called Saint-Esprit. At some seventy-five pages, this text is certainly no Jean-Christophe, no Chronique des Pasquier. Nonetheless, it flows in full spate, picking up and melding along its way an impressive variety of narrative currents: the story of the painter Bram van Velde and his companion, Marthe Arnaud-Kuntz; an examination of the nature of disaster, conceived both as a collective phenomenon and as a personal one; a love story wherein absence looms far larger than presence; a meditation on the image and the fate of the image in representation; a parable of writing and its uses; and more besides. Like the Adour, Villa Chagrin is very fluid, very dynamic. Its author, a classicist by profession, is well placed to understand why a river seemed so apt to Heraclitus as a figure of time; and just like a river, this novel (for that is what I shall call it) is mutable in astonishing ways.
Michel Charles has argued eloquently for a vision of the literary text as an artifact constantly in motion, one that is difficult to apprehend in any way other than on the run, as it were.1 That way of looking at textuality is particularly productive in the case of a work such as Cosnay's, wherein a powerful continuity is achieved through a narrative technique that seems, on the face of it at least, constantly interrupted. The multiple diegetic threads that I mentioned contribute to that sense of interruption. More telling still is the fact that Cosnay structures her novel like a diary, with dated entries and a progressive intercalated narration. Maurice Blanchot reminded us long ago that any discourse at all relies in some measure on interruption for its coherence,2 [End Page 173] and in that perspective it is easier to understand how Cosnay enlists multiplicity in the service of singularity. The image of the river is also helpful in that regard, as is Michel Charles's characterization of literary textuality as "essentiellement un long discours, où le récit apparaît par intermittence" (199). One important consideration that such a manner of conceiving a work of literature suggests is that any reading we bring to it must strive to be as mobile as the text itself—a tall order, certainly, and one that inevitably calls us to attention.
The incipit of Villa Chagrin invokes both time and space, and appears to situate the narrative instance precisely: "Le 15 novembre je suis restée à la maison, évitant la brume sur l'Adour et le flot cotonneux aperçu la veille vers sept heures quarante cinq quand j'allais dans l'invisible, roulant vers le lieu le plus familier de la ville" (9). Yet that invocation relies significantly on imprecision for its effect, and the narrator insists upon phenomena ("la brume," "le flot cotonneux," "l'invisible") that serve to thematize the notion of imprecision. It is a technique that Marie Cosnay will exploit throughout her novel, and one that is deeply imbricated in the fluvial images that teem therein.
Those images are extremely various, and they serve a variety of purposes. From time to time, Cosnay personifies the river, in order to underscore the narrator's state of mind, either by identification or by contrast: "Le fleuve était imperturbable" (10). It is a thing both alive and reactive, whose spirits and modes of being change continually: "Non loin de la villa Chagrin, à Saint-Esprit, je regardais l'Adour. Il dégueulait un peu. Des ponts successifs le barraient. La brume est venue" (35). Like the narrator and every other human that she puts on stage, the river has traversed a significant span of both time and space in order to arrive at the here and...