- Books “Write Back”
Ari J. Blatt’s Pictures into Words explores—as the title suggestively indicates—the complex and somewhat tense relationship between two media of artistic expression—literature and the visual culture—in the post–World War II era, when the sustained proliferation of images has permeated not only the space of our daily lives but also various fields of artistic expression. This “chronic profusion of pictures” (2), the author argues, has left a profound mark on contemporary French fiction. This ubiquitous influence is approached through the study of four novels that express a common fascination with images: Triptyque (Triptych, 1973) by Claude Simon, Un cabinet d’amateur: Histoire d’un tableau (A gallery portrait: The story of a painting, 1979) by Georges Perec, Vie de Joseph Roulin (Life of Joseph Roulin, 1988) by Pierre Michon, and Cinéma (1999) by Tanguy Viel. Blatt contends that what distinguishes these works from others that manifest an equally compulsive preoccupation with pictures (one of the implicit criteria according to which the selection of the corpus is made) is the fact that “these narratives consider the possibility of a kind of writing modeled on graphic or plastic forms” (10). These works are therefore categorized as “imagetexts” or “iconotexts” (8), and justifiably so, considering that the realm of the visual has deep implications here, functioning at once as “a principal thematic and diegetic force” [End Page 169] (8) and “a prominent structuring metaphor” (9).
In a finely nuanced, yet comprehensive, introduction, the author suggests that the treatment of pictures in these literary works reveals a more or less strained alliance between text and image, as it oscillates between two divergent attitudes: an exuberant embracing of the images represented and a distrust of vision and visual representations. He posits that the interest these narratives take in pictures is not innocent; rather, it is fueled by a sense of resistance. This resistance is channeled in part through the particular dynamics of the confrontation between the visual and the textual, as none of the images on which these texts concentrate are shown; they are instead narrated. The fact that the pictures survive in the texts not as genuine visual reproductions but as descriptions challenges the primacy of the visual. The image exists only through (or, more importantly, thanks to) the power of words. Since the readers’ perception of the image is mediated through language, “writing the image” will inevitably control it, acting as a “screen onto which the powers of the text can be projected” (21). Hence, words function not only as a support for the image, but also as an essential filter, in a simultaneous attempt to “tame” (21) the image and “to make a case for fiction’s continued relevance” (22).
Each of the book’s four chapters (one for each of the aforementioned writers) exhibits a relatively similar structure in that it initially focuses on the main text under discussion and then situates this text in relation to the cultural context within which it was produced. In a methodological gesture similar to the poetic interdisciplinary cross-pollination exhibited by the authors he studies, Blatt expertly opens his textual analyses to varied methods of investigation. One of the book’s strengths lies, indeed, in Blatt’s ability to extend the analysis of the four primary works beyond their literary frontiers (transcending their literariness, so to speak), first by placing the books in a dialogue with the pictorial intertexts to which they refer either explicitly or implicitly and, second, by bringing into play interdisciplinary perspectives borrowed from art history and film studies (among others) that situate these analyses within a larger cultural context.
Chapter 1 (“Puzzling Pictures”) focuses on Claude Simon’s masterful exploration of the limits of representation through his attempts “to drive his writing as close to the edge of sight as possible” (26). In Triptyque, Simon’s passion for painting (well documented by Blatt) is experienced on several levels: structured around two visual metaphors—the triptych and the picture puzzle—the novel also incorporates...