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  • Casting the NovelReferences to Actors in the Work of Jean Echenoz
  • Lucas Hollister

J’ai le tic de parler comme si je faisais du cinéma, mais d’une certaine manière j’ai quelquefois l’impression d’en faire.1

—Jean Echenoz

Although many scholars have remarked upon the importance of cinema in Jean Echenoz’s œuvre, relatively little attention has been paid to the numerous references to film actors in his novels.2 This is somewhat surprising given the abundance of such references in Echenoz’s fiction, and the ways in which they inflect his appropriation of the stylistic and thematic features of popular novelistic genres. Describing a character by means of a reference to a popular actor is, after all, a common practice in late-twentieth-century crime fiction. While this operation has a variety of potential uses, the most conventional instrumentalization of references to actors involves the supposition that they help readers “visualize” characters. When, for example, the narrator of one of Didier Daeninckx’s stories says of a character that “elle ressemblait à Adjani jeune” (Daeninckx 41), this description invites the reader to visualize that character with the features of the well-known actress Isabelle Adjani. At the other end of the literary spectrum, when Alain Robbe-Grillet’s narrator comments that “[s]a voix chantante et son aspect androgyne évoquent, pour moi, l’actrice Jane Frank” (Robbe-Grillet 13), this “ungrammatical” reference to a fictional actress—who has the characteristics of Jean Seberg but the name of a real artist (Jane Frank 1918–1986)—complicates potential “visual” reading, moves beyond the “utopie linguistique” (Hamon 6) of nomenclaturism to something like significance (Riffaterre 22). In Echenoz’s novels, references to actors occupy an uneasy middle ground between the strategies of genre fiction and those of metafiction. They produce a tension between critical and celebratory gestures, between modes of reading which cultivate critical distance and those [End Page 63] which are immersive, “naïve,” representational, or, in the terms that we employed for Daeninckx’s description, visual.3 The question of what Echenoz’s novels do with these references to film actors opens, therefore, onto larger questions concerning the relationship between descriptive practices and representational reading, and the complex genealogies that these novels establish with popular novels and with traditions of experimental fiction. The present study will argue that while Echenoz’s references to actors do explore the ways in which descriptive reference can exceed its function as a straightforward prompt for visualization, the practice of “casting” actors in his novels also emphasizes how a shared cultural experience of cinema allows text to produce vivid effects of visual presence.

The broad devalorization of representational ambitions, emerging from a long tradition of anti-mimetic thought, creates problems for descriptions that aim to promote visualizations of characters that are potentially reliant on knowledge of film actors.4 Anti-mimetic literary theory often views immersive descriptive fiction as guilty of rendering the reader susceptible to an uncritical reception of ideology (usually masquerading as “nature” or “the real”), and privileges metafictional forms which, in laying bare their conventions, “de-doxify,” undermine the naïveté or “illusions” that ground more conventional fictional practices.5 It is precisely this dichotomy between popular, ideologically suspect representational fiction, and serious, epistemologically rigorous literature that many recent theoretical works on mimesis and fictionality have sought to problematize. Abandoning a rigid conception of mimesis as simple imitation or surface isomorphism, Stephen Halliwell suggests an alternate interpretation—based in a reading of Aristotle’s Poetics—which would view mimesis not as a sub-category of fictional activity (corresponding to “realism”), but rather as fiction’s equivalent:

[Aristotle makes a case] for treating artistic mimesis as equivalent to fiction, if by “fiction” we here understand the modeling of a world whose status is that of an imaginary, constructed parallel to the real, spatiotemporal realm of the artist’s and audience’s experience: imaginary, in that it rests on a shared agreement between the maker and recipients of the mimetic work to suspend the norms of literal truth; but “parallel,” in that its interpretation depends on standards of explanatory and causal coherence that are essentially derived from and grounded...


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