- French Fiction into the Twenty-First Century: The Return to the Story by Simon Kemp
Since the late 1980s, criticism of contemporary French literature has been preoccupied by a perceived shift of emphasis in literary fiction. Novelists are no longer predominantly concerned with textual experiment, but rather are prioritizing the traditional concerns of literature: storytelling, subjectivity, character, coherent plotting. The term "retour au récit" is used to refer to this development. In the introduction to this persuasive and engaging study, [End Page 298] Simon Kemp traces the history of the use of this term: his adroit synthesis draws on material from the mainstream and intellectual presses as well as from academic criticism. The introduction poses the questions which the term implies: "What exactly is this récit that we are returning to? Where are we returning from?" (2). The introduction, answering the latter question, provides a deft summary of the various versions of formalism that held sway in twentieth-century literary fiction: Gidian self-consciousness, Surrealism, the nouveau roman, Oulipian constraint, and the extremes of Tel Quelian transgression. It was in the 1970s, Kemp argues, that this experimentalism reached its "high water mark" as it coincided with the "apogee of theory as a cultural force in the humanities" (8-9). Though experimentalism has since been on the ebb, Kemp argues that contemporary fiction is nonetheless strongly marked by mid-twenteith-century formalism. His analyses of the work of Annie Ernaux, Pascal Qui•gnard, Marie Darrieussecq, Jean Echenoz, and Patrick Modiano in the five chapters of this study persuasively demonstrate how, in each case, the "retour au récit" practiced by these authors is accompanied by an innovative use of narrative form. These innovations are only possible in the wake of the experimenters' pugnacious explorations of new avenues in fiction. But the central interest of the new generation, in contradistinction to that of their predecessors, is to use these innovations to "write the adventure," rather than to prioritize the metatextual concerns of the "adventure of writing."
Kemp's analyses of his chosen authors are compelling. Skillful close readings are in each case accompanied by an account of developments in the author's career to date, and a judicious use of narrative theories. Throughout the study, Kemp draws on a range of currents in narratology, from Barthes to Brooks and Genette to Hillis Miller, applying snippets of theoretical concepts lightly but sure-footedly. His readings are thus both theoretically and thematically instructive. The first chapter, on Annie Ernaux's "narrating of time" employs terms used by Genette in "Discours du récit." Kemp argues that Ernaux uses the "time of narrating" (the temporal point at which the narrative is being constructed) as a means of exploring the qualities of time in remembered experience. There is a very interesting account here of Ernaux's hostility to fabulation and to any representation of herself as a writer in her work. Kemp shows that the objective and analytical goals of Ernaux's autofiction dictate its "occlusion" of her own career as a published author: "writerly contamination of the experience as the protagonist is experiencing it would damage its validity as 'evidence'" (46). Ernaux fails [End Page 299] to achieve her ideal of documentary objectivity in her work, but Kemp concludes that this failure is to our benefit as readers, as her problematization of narrating and narrated time provides a rich account of the contradictions of the self and of memory.
The shape-shifting work of Pascal Qui•gnard, located "at the fringes of narrative," is examined in Chapter Two. There is a nuanced analysis of how Qui•gnard's aesthetic of fragmentation is subtended by a concern with linkage, coherence and rationality. Particularly fascinating here is an account of the literary and cultural sources on which Qui•gnard draws in his work—a list "as geographically broad as it is long in duration" (73). Most compellingly, Kemp shows how Qui•gnard's work makes us problematize the concept of French fiction as a stable entity, by...