- "The Absolute Genre"The Year in France
The field of biography in France elicits a notable degree of reflection on genre, which is expressed either implicitly, by the prolixity and diversity of sometimes experimental productions, or explicitly in at least two books published in 2019 with very different, if not radically opposite, approaches to the question: Pascal Quignard's La vie n'est pas une biographie and Dominique Bona's Mes vies secrètes. Quignard's argument against "biographical narration" is that "On ne saurait faire un tissu si continu de ses désirs, ni des actions où ils se projettent ou qu'ils inventent, qu'il puisse passer pour vraisemblable" [One cannot make of one's desires, or of the actions into which they project themselves or which they invent, a fabric so continuous as to pass for verisimilar] (21). On the whole, Quignard is repeating the argument presented by Pierre Bourdieu in his 1986 essay "The Biographical Illusion." Furthermore, in Quignard's view, "Les rêves sont encore vivants, non les phrases" [Dreams are still alive, sentences are not] (20). Such a statement, as well as the affirmation of a "being" that would be different from "life," implies a surprising rejection of both psychoanalysis and the philosophy of deconstruction, which, to be convincing, would demand a much more serious philosophical effort than this.
A great number of the most noteworthy biographical productions in France this year run against the grain of Quignard's thesis. Chief among them, Bona's Mes vies secrètes is an autobiography of a prominent woman biographer, in which she explains how she came to opt for life writing against the advice of her mentors, and her plaidoyer for biography expresses a radically different vision of the genre. For Bona, inasmuch as it is a work of literature, biographical writing at its best is not primarily a mimetic, but a hermeneutic process, by which the writer and readers together seek to imagine, over and beyond mere words, what it must have been like to live such a life. Conversely, because we are born and live in worlds that are always already inhabited by previously created forms, there is great insight in Oscar Wilde's apothegm: "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life" (39).
Likewise, Denis Demonpion argues that Michel Houellebecq composes his life like a novel in the new and augmented version of his 2005 biography, [End Page 69] Houellebecq: La biographie d'un phénomène. The novelist has abundantly spread lies about the facts of his own life, but he also cultivates ambiguity between his fictional characters and himself, between his narrators and his own figure as implied author. This very ambiguity is a crucial ingredient of his succès de scandale, for Houellebecq is a satirist, more Juvenalian than Horacian, always aiming to press where it hurts to denounce what he sees as the vices and errors of a French society far gone, in his eyes, on the road of inexorable decadence. No wonder he has more detractors than admirers in his own country.
Jean-Marie Gleize's Denis Roche: éloge de la véhémence is certainly more significant in the debate implicitly raised by Quignard's La vie n'est pas une biographie, for Roche paradoxically seems to give credence to Quignard and to prove him wrong at the same time. Having all but proclaimed the death of poetry in La Poésie est inadmissible, Roche had this "vehemence" that also made him shift constantly from one genre to the other, and from literature to photography and back, as if he was permanently fretting lest he might get trapped in the discursiveness of one artistic form. A comparable example may be found in the figure of the Dadaist writer Jacques Rigaut, whose integral nihilism led him to put an end to his own life at the age of thirty-one. Jean-Luc Bitton's biography, Jacques Rigaut: le suicidé magnifique, is the kind that Rigaut himself wouldn't have liked, because it is too long. And indeed, Rigaut's life was one long self-abandonment to the death wish, with a final leap into...