Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Making the Real Appear: Schmitt's Enigma Variations as a "Traversal of the Fantasy"

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Making the Real Appear: Schmitt's Enigma Variations as a "Traversal of the Fantasy"

Article excerpt

Aided by recent translations of his novels and plays, France's Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, long famous in his home country, is achieving increasing recognition beyond Europe. According to Schmitt's website, his plays have now been performed in more than fifty countries. Enigma Variations, his most popular work since its debut in 1996, was brought to English and North American audiences in 2000 through a production starring Donald Sutherland. In the past decade it has been staged with increasing frequency by both amateur and professional companies.

Of Schmitt's plays, David Bradby states, "He is not primarily interested in dramatic experiment but in exploring all the different ideas that may follow from a given proposition" (x). Enigma Variations offers little in the way of spectacle or stylistic innovation--the bulk of the play consists of two men debating philosophies of love in a living room. Schmitt's rare ability to combine this focus on ideas with broad accessibility, humour, and sympathetic characters is what has made his work so popular--yet this popularity still greatly exceeds the critical attention and academic analysis that he has received. Schmitt's harsher commentators might account for this by asserting that works like Enigma Variations, in spite of their intellectual bent, create an illusion of depth where there is little: "One wouldn't exactly call Schmitt's play a deep work despite its philosophical pretensions" (Mermelstein 148). Even those who speak glowingly of Schmitt's theatre discourage us from seeking its value in hidden profundities: "Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt donne en effet en spectacle une philosophie legere et simple [...] La verite ne s'y devoile pas au terme d'absconses recherches philosophiques; elle est toute proche au contraire" (Durand 514). My intention in this essay is not to argue that the play is actually a much more "serious" philosophical work than it first appears. Against Antonio Tan's objection--"I don't think it was meant to be a comedy"--I argue that the play's greatest strengths reside in its engagement with comic dynamics. But this assertion comes with what Slavoj Zizek might call an "anamorphic" twist: only when we look at the play through a particular comic lens do key insights--into the relationships between love, sublimity, and fantasy--begin to emerge.

Playing ceaselessly with appearances (and with what appears to lie behind them), Schmitt's play moves progressively toward what we might refer to, following Jacques Lacan, as a "traversal of the fantasy." It takes place in the home of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Abel Znorko, who, having isolated himself from the world in order to live for his art, dwells on an island in the Norwegian Sea. Erik Larsen, a journalist for a modest newspaper, has come to interview Abel about his most recent book, Unconfessed Love. Erik's primary question concerns whether the book, which takes the form of a series of letters between two separated lovers, stems from anything in Abel's own past. He is particularly interested in the "HM" to whom the book is dedicated, querying whether this dedication refers to an actual woman. Abel first insists that the book is sheer fiction: "If you want the truth, you've come to the wrong shop: I only deal in artifice" (142). In time, however, he divulges to Erik that the book is indeed a collection of actual love letters exchanged between him and a real woman named Helen Metternach (HM) with whom he had a passionate affair twelve years previously.

In a further step, what is revealed as a mere appearance is that Erik Larson is a journalist in search of the reality behind appearances. This very search was itself a performed appearance, its thoroughness concealing the fact that Erik had known all along that HM was an actual woman from Abel's past. Indeed, Erik reveals to Abel that Helen, while exchanging these letters with him--letters testifying to her love and exclusive devotion--had long since been married to Erik himself. …

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