Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Tradition, Ritual and Identity in Jean Rouaud's Loire-Inferieure Cycle

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Tradition, Ritual and Identity in Jean Rouaud's Loire-Inferieure Cycle

Article excerpt

The publication, between 1990 and 1999, of the rive volumes of Jean Rouaud's fictionalised autobiography (1) coincided not only with considerable creative and critical activity, in France and elsewhere, in the rich domain of autofiction, but also with significant developments in the study of collective memory and in the historical, aesthetic and semiological evaluation of the war memorial and other commemorative monuments. (2) Given this conjunction, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the most discerning and illuminating criticism devoted to Rouaud's work has focused on these or related issues. Jean-Claude Lebrun's brief 1996 study offers a useful overview of the dominant themes and the general structural principles informing Les Champs d'honneur and Des Hommes illustres, (3) while Geoff Woollen shows that these two texts can be read as acts of commemoration which constitute an eloquent alternative to the kitsch, sentimentality and jingoism of the religious and civic tributes to the family's war-dead. (4) Jean-Pierre Richard's tracking of recurrent liquid and mineral images in the first two volumes acts as a framework for the analysis both of some of the central traumatic events and of the unseen fragility which ultimately killed Rouaud's apparently stalwart father ("Jo le dur", HI, p. 172); (5) Sylvie Ducas-Spaes's review article focuses on the themes of grief, war and memory in Les Champs d'honneur, (6) while Simona Furdui offers a psychobiographical reading of the "obsession du pere" in Les Champs d'honneur and Des Hommes illustres. (7) Woollen's recent, revealing article "Deepening the Texture: Remembering and Embroidering in Jean Rouaud's Family Cycle," (8) highlights the differences in the treatment of the paternal and maternal family histories, the telling discrepancies in detail between the earlier and later volumes and the role which readers' reactions (notably, the reactions of readers from within the family) have had in the evolution of the cycle and in particular, in the delay or disclosure of information and in the development of the reflexive, self-correcting approach of Sur la scene comme au ciel.

Although, in each of the studies cited, the critic has been attentive to the structural and thematic patterns of the series, I would argue, nevertheless, that the critical preoccupation with the role of the family and particularly, with the relationships between Jean and his parents has resulted in the neglect of some of the broader issues explored in the quintet. The personal and family dramas which are evoked in Rouaud's texts are played out within a specific rural community whose traditions and rituals, exemplars, sanctions and prohibitions guarantee a degree of social cohesion, while at the same time serving as a foil to the non-observance and transgressions of individual members and offering a means of measuring deviation from the established norm and personal differentiation from the social group. The present article proposes to examine this broader dynamic interaction between community and individual. I shall argue here that the coherence of the quintet derives in large measure from Rouaud's sustained exploration, across the rive volumes, of the relationships between social identity and personal identity, and especially between the dutiful observance of sacred and secular ritual and the deviant or transgressive affirmation of self.

Tradition versus Modernity, Country versus Town

The rural world into which Jean Rouaud is born is a world in transition. It is a world which has a very long and often turbulent history and which is proud of its distinctive religious and cultural heritage, but which is undergoing rapid change--the implementation of post-war remembrement policy, the increase in the national "parc automobile," the spread of telecommunications--and whose traditions seem to be threatened by the encroachment of the town and its effects on the aspirations and the world-view of the younger generation. …

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