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  • “J’entendais l’abîme”Sound, Space, and Signification in Marie Darrieussecq’s Tom est mort
  • Leslie Barnes

Marie Darrieussecq is part of a generation of contemporary writers in France faced with the task of formulating the possibilities of literary expression in the wake of various strands of twentieth-century French and Francophone literary experimentalism and in response to increasingly vociferous complaints about the decline of French literature.1 In an interview with John Lambeth, Darrieussecq retorts: “ça pèse beaucoup sur l’Europe cette idée que la littérature est finie, qu’il n’y a plus rien à dire, etc. Et moi, je suis complètement dans la sensation inverse, tout reste à découvrir, faire entendre, faire voir” (809). Shirley Jordan has suggested that the emergence of this “so-called ‘new generation’” of French writers was largely shaped by the advertising and promotional strategies of French publishers over the course of the 1990s (52). While literary history has certainly taught us that the coherence of movements and generations is often imposed externally or retrospectively, and while the relative lack of the ideologically driven manifestoes of previous generations makes it more difficult to generalize about contemporary literary production, there are nevertheless a few trends to note. These include the rise of autofiction and minimalism, as well as the general “retour au récit.”2 Darrieussecq’s novels, like those of many of her contemporaries—Camille Laurens, Linda Lê, and Marie NDiaye, for example—blend tradition with formal experimentation.3 And like Lê’s in particular, her novels are especially attuned to the relationship between the traumatic event and its problematic rendering in linguistic form.

In interviews and in her non-fiction, Darrieussecq speaks of her project as an attempt to uncover what is hidden beneath the word, to render the emptiness at its center: “La littérature trace une ligne d’horizon qui est comme dessoudée du ciel et de la terre. Espace ouvert, angoissant et désirable, [End Page 79] au bout duquel il n’y a rien, sinon un objet qui manquera toujours et dont l’absence même permet d’écrire” (Rapport 379). Her novels repeatedly engage themes of loss, exile, hauntings, and the dissolution of the family.4 Each one seeks new ways to articulate not only the absence that accompanies such loss, but also the ways in which this absence determines the individual’s connection to physical and emotional spaces, and to silence and voice. Moreover, as I hope to suggest here, Darrieussecq seeks to explore in her work the extent to which literature can represent the inexpressible precisely by representing it as inexpressible.

This essay will focus on the relationship between sound and the physical and emotional spaces of mourning in Tom est mort (2007).5 The first-person narrative is presented in the form of an intimate journal and recounts a woman’s grief after the accidental death of her four-and-a-half-year-old son ten years earlier. The narrator is a French woman living in the Blue Mountains with her English husband and two remaining children. Her son Tom died from impact after falling from the second-story window of the family’s apartment in Sydney just two weeks after their arrival in Australia. She begins writing the journal two days after her first brief experience of peace, her first momentary freedom from the knowledge that her son is dead. But if, as she notes, the narrator’s goal is to record it all (86)—“l’histoire de Tom, l’histoire de la mort de Tom” (27–28)—her narrative actually circles the unstated trauma at its center,6 refusing to name the cause of Tom’s death until the novel’s final lines and instead tracing the soundscape of the narrator’s own experience of loss: her scream, her father’s scream, her period of mutism, the tone of her husband’s voice as he tells his parents over the telephone that their grandson is dead, the voices that whisper on the line as she tells her own mother, the daily recordings she makes of her apartment in an effort to capture Tom’s spectral calls. These...


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