The Politics of the Novel and Maurice Blanchot's Theory of the Recit, 1954-1964

By Just, Daniel | French Forum, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Politics of the Novel and Maurice Blanchot's Theory of the Recit, 1954-1964


Just, Daniel, French Forum


In her recent book What is There to Say?, Ann Smock points to an ambiguous use of the term recit in Maurice Blanchot's work. Depending on both the context in which it appears and a phase of Blanchot's oeuvre, the meaning of this term, as Smock observes, does not remain limited only to a designation of Blanchot's later narratives but acquires an almost synonymous status with a notion of entretien. (1) Blanchot, however, is not alone in perpetuating this polysemia. For literary critics, the recit as a category became equally elusive--at once too broad and too specific. Meaning a "narrative" in general, recit has been used as an indefinite notion embracing many prose genres, to the point when it ceases to be clear if it does not coincide with narrative literature as such. At the same time, it has also served to identify a stylistic specificity found in the select works of only a few writers. This latter use finds perhaps its most exemplary illustrations in Andre Gide's L'Immoraliste and Albert Camus's La Chute. Gide, in particular, was quite meticulous in differentiating between his novels and their complex view of life, and his recits that portray life from a single perspective. Blanchot's insistence on the difference between the novel and the recit is equally scrupulous, but for other reasons. His emphasis on a strong generic meaning of the term recit--which is evident in spite of the semantic overload this notion sometimes undergoes in his theoretical texts--has nothing to do with the number of points of view represented in the story. For Blanchot, the recit is a distinct literary form whose uniqueness resides in its not merely stylistic but "essential" difference from the genre of the novel.

With anything essentialist immediately becoming a target of deconstructive scrutiny, Blanchot risks that under a vigilant eye of a literary critic the recit's alleged essence will quickly evaporate and what will remain will, indeed, be only a handful of stylistic peculiarities. This had been the case with many readings of Blanchot, even though recently many critics have offered much more rigorous interpretations of the recit, as both Blanchot's critical concept and a form of his narratives. (2) In a brief piece written shortly after Blanchot's death, Michael Holland even ventured a bold statement, proposing that since "Blanchot gave priority to narrative," research on Blanchot "should begin with fiction and stay with it." (3) This is, needless to say, no easy task. As Paul de Man admitted already forty years ago, Blanchot's narratives are virtually inaccessible in their obscurity. According to de Man, the best way to get to them is through Blanchot's own critical essays, although even these are not always transparent. De Man chose Blanchot's articles on Mallarme, a choice that suited well the purpose of explaining Blanchot's take on language but that proved less suitable for showing how these ideas applied more specifically to narrative literature. In the end, de Man does not have much to say about Blanchot's theory of narration or about his stories, and merely presents a truism that "some of Blanchot's fictions are called novels, while others are called recits." (4)

Yet the danger is not only in reducing Blanchot's understanding of the recit to a short novella. What has appeared in many otherwise remarkable studies of Blanchot written in the past ten years is a tendency to overemphasize the fact that Blanchot eventually abandoned recit and extended his understanding of narrative on more discursive types of prose. (5) Although this is true, and becomes crucial in examining Blanchot's later contribution to the theme of testimony and fragmentary writing, it is important to point out that Blanchot does not replace recti with ecriture. Recit, ecriture, and entretien all retain their crucial positions in Blanchot's writings, none fully coinciding with the other, and all instead adding to the strength of their external borders--borders that separate them from journalism, diary, and the novel. …

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