Illness, Ritual and Liminality in the Post-Nouveau Roman

Article excerpt

Over the last twenty years or so, critics in France and elsewhere have been particularly exercised by the problem of defining the essential characteristics of the contemporary French novel. The anti-climax following the heady controversies regarding the nouveau roman and the apparent absence of a new readily identifiable literary movement seemed to leave critics rather bemused. (1) The various surveys of late twentieth-century French fiction are perhaps above all characterised by the sheer plethora of authors cited, a tendency which in itself suggests a degree of critical indecisiveness. A few stalwarts continued the onslaught on the nouveau roman and, as late as 1995, Nelly Wolf was advancing rather jaded apocalyptic arguments to the effect that it was largely responsible for the bankruptcy of humanist discourse in France, that it had produced an obsession with form in the teaching of French literature and that it had resulted in stagnation in fiction production. (2) If such sweeping dismissive generalisations were the exception rather than the rule, it remains true, nevertheless, that for many critics the legacy of the nouveau roman is, by and large, formal in nature. Consequently, much of the most serious criticism of the last two decades has tended to focus on the structural dynamics of the text, whether written by Echenoz, Toussaint, Oster, Gailly, Deville, or Chevillard. (3) Though the vocabulary may have evolved in response to the prevailing theoretical context, the fundamental critical agenda of research in the "post-nouveau roman" (4) has changed relatively little since the effective demise of the nouveau roman and few are the studies which do not focus on a combination of the following: intertextuality and citationnalite; reflexivity; the recycling of archetypal structures (detective fiction, the quest, science fiction, the fairy-tale); the ludic blurring of the distinction between fiction, biography, autobiography and autofiction.

With the emergence, however, of writers such as Jean Rouaud, Francois Bon, Pierre Michon, Pierre Bergounioux, Frederique Clemencon, Laurent Mauvignier, and Helene Lenoir, who situate themselves more comfortably within the lineage of Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute, rather than within that of Alain Robbe-Grillet or Jean Ricardou, the beginnings of a shift in the criticism can also be detected. This shift, though still primarily perceptible in reviews and in the various survey guides published over the last decade or so, (5) unambiguously restates critical interest in certain "traditional" themes--family, heritage and history; memory and commemoration; the subtexts of human action and interaction; the relationships between the generations, between the individual and the community, between the individual and his/her terroir; metropolis, banlieue and province--and, perhaps most important, reinstates meaning at the centre of critical enquiry. Moreover, this preoccupation with meaning concerns not only the processes of its production within the text, but also the processes by which it is produced in the referential world, including the various linguistic and gestural codes by which a given community or social group communicates, the codes of behaviour and customs which the community assumes, the symbolic objects which it creates, the symbolic spaces which it delimits, and the rituals which it observes, as well as the equally significant transgression of those codes, boundaries and rituals.

The present study locates itself within this critical tendency and aims, through the analysis of Jean Rouaud's Loire-Inferieure quintet, (6) Laurent Mauvignier's Apprendre a finir (2001) and Helene Lenoir's Le Repit (2003), as well as the most recent novel (Le Tramway, 2001) by the oldest living veteran of the nouveau roman, Claude Simon, to show the thematic (as well as formal) continuity which links the contemporary French novel with its literary ancestors of the 1960s and 1970s. The occurrence within each of these texts of one specific sort of life-crisis--serious physical illness--testifies, in particular, to a shared preoccupation with embodied experience and the multiple meanings which we attach to it. …