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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 119-121
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Armine Kotin Mortimer. Writing Realism: Representations in French Fiction. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xii + 254 pp.
The "persistence of the mimetic illusion, in our sophisticated times," Mortimer muses in her introduction, "is astonishing enough to demand explanation." Providing such an explanation motivates her study of selected French literary works published between 1559 (Marguerite de Navarre) and 1989 (Serge Doubrovsky). Two key concepts organize her investigation. "Mimesis" refers to the text's ability to "make us take part in a manifestly nonexistent world as if it were real"; "semiosis" is the activity of language that produces that illusion. Observing that "modern representation foregrounds writing," Mortimer argues that mimesis and semiosis are inseparable components of realism. She selects for study fictions where semiosis and mimesis meet: instances where "writing events" or figures of writing and reading call attention to the creation and functioning of the mimetic illusion. Her book's title thus points both to the writing of realism and to figures of the writing moment itself, where the mimetic is about semiosis.
Chapter 1, "Fiction and the Supplement in the Heptaméron," shows how the realism of Marguerite's frame story—especially the circulation of narrative authority among the various tale-tellers—is related to the content of tale 24, described as "a specular narrative that reflects and reflects on the entire Heptaméron." Mirror figures within that tale and between the tale and the frame extend, by a logic of supplementarity involving the necessity of avoiding both speech and censure, even to the situation that governed the work's composition. Chapter 2 builds on this discussion of truthfulness and deceit, hearing and listening, to explore mediated written communication in Diderot's La Religieuse and Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses. The chapter includes a discussion of the performative power of epistolary fiction and the consequences of being a naïve or a knowing reader. Or, as Diderot formulates the question, is realism better when it is truthful or when it is beautiful? When it is "sublime" or "devious"? The ethical implications of Diderot's question inform the rest of the book. [End Page 119]
Balzac, straw man of much twentieth-century experimental writing, is a crucial case study for, as Mortimer argues, "it is simply wrong to pay attention only to Balzacian mimesis and ignore semiosis, and not only because semiosis is not the opposite of mimesis." The chapter on three Balzac novels again spotlights epistolary writing, followed by such other mimetic figures of semiosis as inheritance documents and genealogies. Characters' dilemmas of self-creation through writing provoke confrontations of Balzac's characteristic dualities such as romantic ideals versus realities, spirituality versus materialism, and opposing ideas of womanhood.
Sollers' Femmes and Doubrovsky's Le Livre brisé pursue the possibilities of self-creation through writing to postmodern extremes, turning the text-world relation on its head and rendering the status of the text and the act of writing exasperatingly problematic. And dangerous. The protagonists of both novels, like their authors, are engaged in writing autobiographical novels. Moreover, the mechanisms and the consequences of realistic writing are each novel's central topic. Paradoxically, this extreme textual self-reflexivity reaches outside writing to bring back what Mortimer calls "the real referent." Mortimer shows how this sort of writing and the processes of reading it demands blur distinctions between mimesis and semiosis, novel and autobiography (creating Doubrovsky's "autofiction"), classical and modern, even writing and living.
Writing Realism is a book of ambitious scope, both in its choice of texts and in the questions it raises. In her zeal to account for many systems of analysis, Mortimer's own voice occasionally gets lost in a proliferation of sometimes confusingly overlapping critical terminology. For example, Lucien Dällenbach and Jean Ricardou have elaborated theories of mise-en-abyme to describe privileged moments of textual self-consciousness and self-reflexivity. Mortimer refers briefly to the most restrictive definition of this phenomenon, but it would have helped to know her understanding of its relation to her semiosis/mimesis axis and to...