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  • Les nouvelles écritures biographiques ed. by Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard
  • Denis R. Pra (bio)
Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard, eds. Les nouvelles écritures biographiques. Paris: ENS, 2013. 255 pp. ISBN 978-284788346, 19 euros.

In their work Les nouvelles écritures biographiques [The New Biographical Writings], editors Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard include a series of fourteen articles written by scholars from universities in France and Quebec. These scholars analyze the latest biographical and autobiographical trends since the 1980s, when Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Philippe Sollers published (auto)biographical texts challenging the genre itself and even venturing into the realm of fiction. It is clear that since Saint Augustine’s Confessions, or the lives of the saints (we can call them the first real biographies), the genre has evolved. It has changed course particularly as “avant-garde” movements have lifted taboos and eyewitness accounts have created a new literature, especially with the advent of a voyeuristic culture illustrated by television reality shows. As Dion and Regard emphasize in their introduction, when writers write about another writer’s life, subjectivity seems to be the greatest of several problems. Biographers are often tempted to draw parallels with their own lives or to look back (explicitly or implicitly) on their own experiences as writers. Biographers quite naturally become [End Page 1149] the alter egos of their subject, whom they may even interview, in the case of a living writer. Les nouvelles écritures biographiques, published by the Ecole Normale Supérieure or ENS, sheds light on the latest French and Canadian studies of the genre.

In “Perspectives,” the first part of the work, we meet five university scholars. One of them (also a writer) is Jean-Benoît Puech, who authored, among other texts, Benjamin Jordane, une vie littéraire: a fictional biography that includes works attributed to Jordane, testimonials, and tributes (in which Puech plays the role of Jordane’s friend). Benjamin Jordane is also presented as a collaborative work co-authored with Yves Savigny, who in reality is also the fruit of Puech’s imagination. A new layer is added to the text as Savigny becomes Puech’s biographer. A biography within a biography. Puech acknowledges that “Every one of my verbal fictions hides an element of my real life.” His fiction includes all the elements of a true biographical work, but in reality, everything is invented, and what Puech writes is a circuitous play on and critique of the genre.

This “foretaste” or unique way of illustrating the notion of biographical subjectivity and authenticity is the main theme of this first (and most developed) section. All the articles in fact reflect the biographer’s viewpoints, theories, and even literary stature more than the subject of study. Therefore, for Professor Robert Vigneault of the University of Ottawa, biographical writing truly exercises a heuristic function, whereas Daniel Madelénat in La Biographie (PUF, 1983) focuses on the scientific nature that the word “biography” inspires. Citing several examples, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s Baudelaire, Vigneault demonstrates that applying existentialist concepts––and he defines existentialism as a “philosophy of freedom”––is invalid for Baudelaire’s life and work, since the poet “submitted to the authority of his milieu, fully accepting its definition of good and evil.” According to Vigneault, Sartre expounds more on his own existentialist theories than on Baudelaire’s work, and thus draws erroneous conclusions about the author of Flowers of Evil.

In an article entitled “Pour en finir avec le personage biographique” [Settling the issue of the biographical character], Eric Dayre also comments on Sartre to illustrate just how subjective biography can be. He shows how in The Family Idiot Sartre’s style obscures Flaubert while giving Sartre a chance to write his own biography as a kind of negative of Flaubert’s. Citing Philippe Beck as a second example, Dayre maintains that between the biographer and his subject a dialogue can emerge to dramatize a life’s concerns. “Monographic biography” then gives way to “dialogue monograph.” These two examples suggest a literary art less historical than philosophical. No longer disappearing behind the subject of research, on the contrary, the biographer takes...


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