Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Aragon's "Le Mentir-Vrai": Reflections on Truth and Self-Knowledge in Autobiography

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Aragon's "Le Mentir-Vrai": Reflections on Truth and Self-Knowledge in Autobiography

Article excerpt

Ma vie. Tout le monde croit la connaitre. Ca me donne parfois des fous rires. (1)

Aragon prolific commentator on the relation of truth to writing. In essays, interviews, and prefaces to his own work, he explored the problematic borderlines between historical fact and novelistic invention. These borderlines also became subjects treated in his late novels and stories; among the latter, the short text titled "Le Mentir-vrai"--first published in 1964 and then reprinted as the title story of a volume of short fiction in 1980--stands out because of its provocative title. (2) Published among Aragon's "oeuvres romanesques," this short story is a metafictional meditation on the "true lying" that fiction accomplishes, reminiscent of other postmodernist metafictions such as John Barth's "Life-Story"; but by its subject matter, "Le Mentir-vrai" is also about the problem of autobiography, or to be more precise, about the problem of writing retrospectively, from a great distance, about one's self and one's life.

I would like to read this text not in relation to the rest of Aragon's oeuvre or life, but rather for what it suggests about the possibility (or impossibility) of knowledge about one's self and one's origins, and knowledge of the difference between truth and invention in writing about them) The explicitness, and at the same time the evasiveness, with which Aragon handles this question may make some readers wince; but from a theoretical perspective, both his clarity and his evasions are instructive.

"Le Mentir-vrai" consists of two series of fragments, arranged in mostly regular alternation: A1-B1-A2-B2 and so on. The A series is the first-person narrative of an 11-year old boy, Pierre, who recounts his life more or less simultaneously with living it during the 1908-1909 school year; the B series consists of commentary about Pierre's narrative by an unnamed author, who is writing in 1963 or 1964 ("fifty-five years later"). (4) Is the Author (let the capitalized noun designate his identity in lieu of a name) the same person as the boy, grown up? Yes and no, in more ways than one--and it is in the multiple ways in which this text performs that "yes and no" that I think its real interest lies. "Pauvre gosse dans le miroir. Tu ne me ressembles plus, pourtant tu me ressembles. C'est moi qui parle. Tu n'as plus ta voix d'enfant. Tu n'es plus qu'un souvenir d'homme, plus tard." (5) These are the first words we read by the Author, after the boy Pierre has introduced himself, his friends Paul and Guy, his teacher l'Abbe Prangaud, and his Maman whose name is Marthe. The Author enters by affirming that he is not the boy, in fact he addresses the boy as an other, "tu." To complicate matters, however, this address takes place in front of a mirror: the boy no longer resembles him (which implies that he once did), and yet he does resemble him. But it is the Author who speaks, not the boy; the boy has become only a memory of the man, later.

It seems that we are in the realm of autobiography--of a very modern, self-conscious autobiography which knows its enterprise to be problematic, perhaps even impossible: "Je me repete. Cinquante-cinq ans plus tard. Ca deforme les mots. Et quand je crois me regarder, je m'imagine.[...] Je crois me souvenir, je m'invente." (6) Here the Author is no longer addressing himself in the second person, but he is still divided. Unable to tell the difference between looking and imagining, remembering and inventing: these are not cheery thoughts for an autobiographer.

No wonder that the Author now pulls a rabbit out of his hat: "D'ailleurs, je ne m'appelais pas Pierre, c'etait l'Abbe Pangaud (et non Prangaud) qui m'appelait Pierre, et pas Jacques [Pierre had said the Abbe called him Jacques, he never understood why]. Tout cela c'est comme battre les cartes. Au bout du compte, le tricheur a garde en dessous l'as de coeur, et celui qu'on appelle un romancier, constamment fait sauter la coupe. …

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