- Truth, Trauma, Treachery:Camille Laurens v. Marie Darrieussecq
In 2007, shortly after the publication of Marie Darrieussecq’s Tom est mort, a first-person novel recounting a woman’s despair after the sudden death of her young son, Camille Laurens published a scathing article in La Revue littéraire in which she accused Darrieussecq of “une sorte de plagiat psychique” (“Syndrome” 4). In 1995, Laurens had published Philippe, a work of autofiction in which she relayed the trauma of losing her own infant son just hours after his birth. Not only had Darrieussecq’s novel, she insisted, been subtly but very obviously modeled on her own narrative; in writing the novel, Darrieussecq had claimed a story that was not hers to tell. What followed was a very public quarrel between the two authors, who since 1996 had shared Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, alias P.O.L, as their editor. Within weeks, the accusation had found its way onto the pages of Le Monde, where Otchakovsky-Laurens declared his support for Darrieussecq and his decision to release Laurens from her contract. Three years later, both women published responses to the events and their aftermath, Laurens in another work of autofiction and Darrieussecq in an almost 400-page study of the history and social function of accusations of plagiarism. Together these four works juxtapose fiction, nonfiction, autofiction, and metafiction, each in its own way posing questions about literature as a creative act and as a truth-telling discourse: What is the truth? What is its relationship to literature? And who has the right to tell it?
Taking these questions as a point of departure, this essay offers a critical overview of the key texts implicated in the 2007 plagiarism scandal in order to interrogate the idea of textual ownership—not necessarily [End Page 998] of words and phrases, but of the subject matter evoked in words and phrases—and to reflect on the rights and limitations of fiction as a literary enterprise. While my interest is not in determining whether Laurens was justified in her charge, a comparison of the two works, including a brief assessment of some of their shared words and images, will allow us to better appreciate her response to Darrieussecq’s novel. The author’s controversial accusation, which she leveled in an essay entitled “Marie Darrieussecq ou le syndrome du coucou,” not only set the terms for the debate that followed; it also shaped the context for each author’s 2010 publication: Laurens’s Romance nerveuse and Darrieussecq’s Rapport de police: Accusations de plagiat et autres modes de surveillance de la fiction. Both of these texts make explicit reference to the events of autumn 2007 and, in so doing, each articulates the author’s relationship to her craft and defines her identity as a writer in twenty-first-century France. Moreover, both works, despite their differences in register and subject matter, ultimately offer extended reflections on conflict, vulnerability, and the role of fiction in voicing the extreme experiences to which trauma gives rise.
Though plagiarism is central to Laurens’s accusation, critics dealing with the scandal have generally declined to address its parameters or to comment on the formal and thematic originality of Darrieussecq’s novel, questions which are primarily juridical in nature. Instead, these critical responses have focused on the broader literary and theoretical questions raised by the authors’ works and their quarrel. Anne Strasser, for example, uses Laurens’s charge of “psychic plagiarism” to study the two issues she identifies at the actual core of the debate: the subject of enunciation and the reader’s reception of this subject, which she claims is inevitably shaped by the chosen genre and by the subject’s lived relation to the experience recounted. Observing in her conclusion that what is at stake here is not merely the written account of an experience, lived or not, but the quest for some form of authenticity, she finishes by locating both authenticity and the possibility of understanding within the realm of the autobiographical: “le lecteur peut, avec le romancier, jouer à se faire peur, lire la mort d’un enfant ‘en touchant du bois’ ou au contraire affronter la v...