- Against Autobiography: Albert Memmi and the Production of Theory by Lia Nicole Brozgal
This is an important contribution to francophone studies, as well as to Judaic studies. The prolific author Albert Memmi, the eldest of twelve children from a poverty-stricken family from La Hara, the Jewish ghetto of Tunis, has published in a variety of genres, from autobiographical novels and stories to political and sociological essays, and studies on the psychology of dependency; his extended essay on the colonial and post-colonial mentality (1957) has become a classic. Brozgal challenges the received view that Memmi is primarily an autobiographer by emphasizing Memmi’s qualities as a literary writer, worthy of rigorous textual analysis. The Introduction rapidly summarizes Memmi’s life story and anticipates the book’s goal to contribute to the promotion of “Maghrebi literature in French as a distinct academic subfield” (xi). Pedagogically friendly, the Introduction also summarizes the content of each chapter.
Brozgal surveys Memmi’s writings against the historical background of “the New Criticism and the rise of ‘high theory,’ its concomitant dissolution of man, deconstruction of the text, and death of the author” (xii), convincingly placing Memmi within this “Epistemic shift of the postwar period, which corresponded to a profound interrogation of hegemonic, totalizing structures. The dawning of the era of ‘posts’—postcolonialism, postmodernism, poststructuralism—and the subsequent reexamination [End Page 167] of francophonie as a literary category” (xix). Brozgal’s detailed textual interpretation specifies Memmi’s “production of theory” as she features his ambiguity as a writer of fiction, a sociologist, and a political thinker who includes himself (a hybrid Juif-arabe) as subject of investigation.
In the process we are introduced to Memmi’s remarkable variety of concerns. Chapter one, “Of Authors and Archives: Albert Memmi’s Francophone Postcolonial,” emphasizes his role in creating the very notion of Maghreb francophone literature with his three anthologies. Chapter two, “Writing Back to Whom? Novel Strategies of Ambiguity and the ‘Mark of the Plural,’” attacks the notion of Memmi as primarily autobiographical, focusing on The Scorpion; or, the Imaginary Confession (1969), and others, rather than the familiar The Pillar of Salt (1953). At the same time, Borzgal helpfully admits: “Beginning with Pillar in 1953 and until the publication of his intellectual autobiography Le nomade immobile in 2000, Memmi continually returns to a description of the place and context of birth” (45). Chapter three, “Writing without Seeing: The Enigmas of Memmi’s ‘Denigration of Vision,’” features two detailed textual analyses (of The Scorpion and Le Désert) that cite Foucault, Derrida, Levinas and others in order to demonstrate Memmi’s theoretical sophistication.
Memmi’s most widely appreciated contributions as ideological critic are examined in Chapter four, “From Colonizer to Colonized and Decolonized to Decolonization and the Decolonized. Texts, Contents, Paratexts.” Here Brozgal usefully evaluates the role of Jean-Paul Sartre in promoting such writers as Frantz Fanon and his famous introduction to Senghor’s anthology of black literature, “Orphée noir.” (Paradoxically, francophone writers remain significantly dependent on the prestige of intellectual leaders of the métropole.) In a gesture to the notion of “world literature in French,” Brozgal generously refuses to conclude in her brief final chapter, “Continuations: Albert Memmi and the Post-Francophone Worlds.”
This is a painstaking, meticulous study, pedagogically friendly, though sometimes a bit too systematic. Readers receive at once lessons in theory and concrete examples that make such abstractions substantial. By demonstrating that both Memmi’s literary and his personal writings manifest a sophisticated self-awareness, Brozgal also throws new light on other writers of the Maghreb, calling for a reevaluation of the entire field of francophone literature. The detailed notes and excellent bibliography welcome readers and their students into this still neglected field of “littérature-monde en français,” French language literature beyond the Hexagon. [End Page 168]