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  • Traces of War: Interpreting Ethics and Trauma in Twentieth-Century French Writing by Colin Davis
  • Max Silverman
Traces of War: Interpreting Ethics and Trauma in Twentieth-Century French Writing. By Colin Davis. (Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures, 49.) Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018. viii + 254 pp.

'Don't mention the war', says Basil Fawlty in a famous episode of the British comedy show Fawlty Towers, and then proceeds to do nothing but. Colin Davis cites this as an example of his approach to the study of many of the great French thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. How can we read the traces of the Second World War in their writings, especially the traces of trauma, when war is not mentioned and no signs of trauma are visible? And even when the writing is about the war — as in the case of Beauvoir, Camus, and Sartre, or survivors of the concentrationary universe, Charlotte Delbo, Jorge Semprún, and Elie Wiesel — what unfamiliar meanings can be teased out of their works that allow us to hear latent voices speaking beyond authorial control? Davis's method is a symptomatic reading — or, as he terms it, that of 'traumatic hermeneutics' (p. 3) — that marries the rich legacy of the interpretive tradition of hermeneutics (Heidegger, Ricœur, and Gadamer) to the Freudian psychoanalytic method of interpreting trauma symptomatically. This investigative approach reveals the absent presence of the war in post-war French philosophy and fiction in ways that make us see familiar writers in a new light. Could Althusser's murder of his wife Hélène, and even his hatred of his own name Louis, somehow be related to his experience as a prisoner of war? Can Levinas's ethics of alterity be related to his own experience as a prisoner of war? Is Semprún's fiction linked to his experience as an inmate in Buchenwald in ways that take us far beyond the simple act of reading fiction in testimonial terms? In Davis's hands, all these are possible. This is a subtle and thoughtful analysis of hidden traces, refusing the temptation to speak for the other — Giorgio Agamben and Shoshana Felman are taken to task, while Delbo is given exemplary status — yet nevertheless committed to the critical interpretive method. Underpinning the project is a Derridean sense of the open-ended nature of the text, the profound (but frequently delayed) disturbance that trauma creates in the subject, and the endless (and endlessly deferred) nature of interpretation itself. At times there is a tension between the insistence on the incomplete nature of the trace and an endeavour that wants to tie traces to a single source: the war. Yet even this makes sense in terms of the [End Page 639] fundamental ambivalence of interpretation itself. Reading Davis is like having secrets revealed by an expert analyst who, simultaneously, casts doubt on whether secrets can be fully revealed and on the truths that they contain. His readings of Semprún and Sarah Kofman at the end are fascinating: the relations between writer and text, and history and story, are handled in such a nuanced way that one gets both a profound picture of their lives and works and a sense that any picture is necessarily fictional and incomplete. This book is 'traumatic hermeneutics' at its most stimulating.

Max Silverman
University of Leeds


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pp. 639-640
Launched on MUSE
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