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  • La Tentation autobiographique de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance by Philippe Gasparini
  • J. Chimène Bateman
La Tentation autobiographique de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance. Par Philippe Gasparini. Préface de Philippe Lejeune. Paris: Seuil, 2013. 476 pp.

Philippe Gasparini’s ambitious overview offers a vast panorama of autobiographical writing from its earliest manifestations to the end of the sixteenth century. Modern scholarship, as Gasparini persuasively argues, has focused on certain types of life-writing at the expense of others. The book therefore aims to broaden our understanding of l’écriture du moi both chronologically and geographically, by concentrating on pre-modern works and examining both Western and non-Western texts. Furthermore, it looks at the different social and historical conditions in which l’écriture du moi emerged, to investigate which cultures were most favourable to its production, and why. The book’s first section, on antiquity, is devoted largely to ancient Greek and Latin literature, but ends with a discussion of the ancient Chinese zixu, or ‘récit sur soi-même’ (p. 124). The second section, which considers the Middle Ages and Renaissance together, divides the autobiographical writings of the period into chapters that are loosely based on the so-called ‘three orders’ of medieval society: religious figures, members of the nobility, and members of the rising bourgeoisie. A fourth chapter cuts across these categories and treats works by the cultural elite: artists and professional writers. The result is a stimulating read that only occasionally feels catalogue-like. Frequent citations give a flavour of the primary texts, and in the case of each writer discussed, Gasparini suggestively identifies the features of their work that he perceives to be groundbreaking or unique. There is an engaging mixture of wellknown figures (Augustine, Abelard, Teresa of Avila) and those less familiar to Western scholars (the fourteenth-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun, the remarkable women autobiographers of Heian Japan). In the case of women writers, gender issues are sensitively brought to the fore. Theoretical concepts are marshalled in a refreshingly accessible way, from Philippe Lejeune’s famous ‘pacte autobiographique’, to the modern notion of ‘autofiction’, and Michel Foucault’s exploration of ‘le souci de soi’. Gasparini underscores the difficulty of defining autobiographical discourse, particularly in the pre-Enlightenment period, and so entitles his study La Tentation autobiographique rather than simply L’Autobiographie. A fascinating theme of the book is that of generic diversity and hybridity: because the project of transcribing one’s own experience is almost never viewed throughout the period in question as a valuable end in its own right, l’écriture du moi hitches itself onto already established genres, both literary and non-literary, or combines different genres in new ways. Through its selection of texts, Gasparini’s own book makes choices about what is and is not autobiographical writing. These sometimes seem idiosyncratic, particularly in the case of literary works: why discuss Dante’s poetry, for instance, but refer only in passing to Ovid, the late-medieval ‘dits’, and Villon’s Testament? However, these quibbles over the corpus do not detract from the book’s impressive scope, and its insistence on the complexity and variety of autobiographical discourse. Whetting our appetite to read further, Gasparini presents incontrovertible evidence that ‘les récents succès des néologismes “autobiographie” ou “autofiction” ne sont que des épisodes’ in a long history of writing the self (pp. 410–11).

J. Chimène Bateman
New College, Oxford


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