- Christine Montalbetti's "petite communauté" in Expérience de la campagne
In Christine Montalbetti's Expérience de la campagne, the countryside is both the setting and the catalyst for a collection of digressions on nature and memory. The basic premise of the text is simple: the protagonist, a man named Simon, sits on the terrace of a house in the countryside on a stormy evening and lets his thoughts wander. The narrative, on the other hand, is considerably less straightforward. The topics explored by Simon's pensive divagations are varied, including a departed friend, a novel by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and a painting, to name just a few; and the seeming lack of narrative cohesion that ensues from that eclectic collection of topics presents an undeniable challenge for readers. What is more, the absence of a conventional "story" behind the digressions deprives the text of the narrative scaffolding that traditionally holds novels together. The result is a dilatory text whose apparent lack of direction necessarily calls into question its raison d'être. What is the point of such a text, and, presuming the existence of some sort of point, how can a reader approach it?
With Expérience de la campagne, Christine Montalbetti has penned a smart and deliberate novel, but it is by no means an easy one. However tempting it may be to take it at face value and dismiss it as a hopeless narrative mess, the reader who is willing and ready to engage with it will find an exceptionally thoughtful and rewarding text that is about more than its narrative content. Some work is required to discover that, contrary to what the title suggests, the countryside is not the end of Montalbetti's text, but rather its means. Indeed, the countryside never feels like the teleological destination of the novel, but instead retains a certain ancillary feel that does not dissipate as the novel progresses. From the first page of Expérience de la campagne to the last, the reader instinctively senses that Montalbetti is using the countryside to set the scene for something–but for what? [End Page 427]
Many readers would argue that it is the concept of digression that lies at the heart of the novel, and they would not be wrong, for Montalbetti has experimented at length with digression, to the extent that it has become a stylistic hallmark of her writing. Yet there is, I believe, more to the text than its winding narrative discursions.1 Ultimately, what is at the crux of Expérience de la campagne is an exploration of the relationship between the author, the reader, and the text. Like digression, that critical relationship is a longstanding interest of Montalbetti's, and Expérience de la campagne provides a space for her to delve into that question.
What makes this case study particularly compelling, however, is the fact that in addition to being a novelist, Montalbetti is the author of several texts on literary theory. The interplay– and at times, the contradictions–between Montalbetti the theorist and Montalbetti the author provides an opportunity to study the intersection of theory and practice. As a theorist, Montalbetti has devoted considerable time and effort to examining the dynamic between author, reader, and text from an academic point of view, and from that standpoint, she believes that "la communication entre un auteur réel et ses lecteurs à travers le texte du roman relève d'une utopie" (Images du lecteur dans les texte romanesques 8).2 While she allows that most authors "inscrivent leur récit à l'intérieur d'un dialogue avec un ou des lecteurs" (Images 8, italics in original), she emphasizes the fact that the reader whom the author has in mind while writing is a strictly hypothetical one with whom real communication is impossible. As a novelist, on the other hand, Montalbetti has a very different view of the matter. Clearly intrigued by the possibility of a relationship between the author and reader based on active collaboration, she is convinced of its enormous potential to shape a narrative. Montalbetti has expressed a desire to cultivate that relationship in her own fictional work...