Warren Motte on Contemporary French Fiction

Unforgetting in Recent French Fiction

When I was invited to reflect upon the problem of forgetting in literature for a discussion of that topic convened a few months ago, the writer who first came to mind was Georges Perec. And in particular a passage in his W ou le souvenir d'enfance [W or the Memory of Childhood] that seems perfectly apposite to me in that regard. It occurs in the first part of the autobiographical narrative in that text, when Perec as an adult contemplates a photograph of himself taken when he was about two years old. His mother is holding him in her arms. He is blond, he notes, "with a very pretty forelock." Perec adds, parenthetically—and it's this that interests me most—"of all my missing memories, that is perhaps the one I most dearly wish I had: my mother doing my hair, and making that cunning curl."

I am well aware that it is not a question of the resurgence of the past here, properly speaking; nor is it really a question of forgetting, because the event that Perec would like to remember cannot be guaranteed as real. Nevertheless, it takes the shape of a memory; it occupies the psychic space of a memory; it seems like it ought to be a memory. For my part, I am persuaded that this moment can help us understand how the tension between memory and forgetting can be played out in contemporary literature.

Let me back up a bit. The passage I quoted occurs in a text whose very title puts the notion of memory on center stage, declaring its absolute singularity. A text that includes an apparently autobiographical narrative whose first sentence calls the whole idea of the writing of the self into question: "I have no childhood memories" (6). On the face of it, memory seems to be a nonstarter, and forgetting becomes the rule, in a world where everything essential is lacking.

In that passage I quoted, Perec carefully underlines the notion of lack, grafting it onto the idea of memory: "of all my missing memories," he says, as he limns the moment. On the one hand, for him, this serves as a memory—perhaps the memory—of his childhood. On the other hand, this memory (like all the others, moreover) is missing. Nonetheless, the event in question took place, that much is certain, and the photograph is the material, undeniable proof of that occurrence. The importance of the event is also undeniable, both for Perec-narrator and in the general economy of the text. It is also a photo of Perec's mother, of course. She was a hairdresser, and thus well able to sculpt that "very pretty forelock" on her son's brow, using not only all of her art, but also all of her maternal tenderness. One might think that Perec had imagined this non-memory, so well does it play its part in W ou le souvenir d'enfance, so eloquently does it put in evidence its principal lesson: it was her, and nobody else; it was him, and nobody else; it was them together, before the Holocaust.

To forget a moment like that would be a scandal.

And to all appearances Perec experiences that forgetting as a scandal. For he distinguishes it from all of his other forgettings, wrapping it in a very particular regretfulness, and in a desire whose very articulation confirms its power: "of all my missing memories, that is perhaps the one I most dearly wish I had." That hypothetical tone points back to the origins of Perec's career (one recalls the first chapter of Les Choses [Things, 1965], written in the conditional tense), and suggests itself as the fundamental verbal mode of his writing. As if everything in his world were hypothetical from the outset, fragile and dubious. Or contingent upon circumstances that are clearly impossible. He also wraps that forgetting in parentheses; and in that manner this moment rejoins another in W, the ellipsis wrapped in parentheses that sits at the center of the text, and which marks the unsayable lack around which everything else revolves.

"I am not the hero of my tale," remarks Gaspard Winckler, the narrator of the fictional story in W. And Perec's situation, as narrator of the autobiographical account, is analogous. His story is not his, because he cannot claim his place in it convincingly. More than anything else, what prevents him from doing so is a lack of connection with his past, a phenomenon that he describes in very concrete terms. "I don't know where the break is in the threads that tie me to my childhood," he remarks, as if the memory of childhood were a material thing. The moment and the site of that break elude him, and what remains is a kind of negative knowledge: "My childhood belongs to those things which I know I don't know much about."

That is the most scandalous aspect of forgetting: it alienates people from their own stories.

Perec suggests on several occasions that his autobiographical project springs from an absolute need. "I have no alternative," he says, "but to conjure up what for too many years I called the irrevocable: the things that were, the things that stopped, the things that were closed off—things that surely were and today are no longer, but things that also were so that I may still be." It is the same lesson that the non-memory of his mother teaches, except that this time Perec learns it the other way around. I am here, now, and consequently that happened. In other words, it is no longer the past that constructs the present, but the contrary: given the present (the only thing about which we can be reasonably sure), let us construct the past by inference. And by necessity, too, the same sort of "commanding necessity" that animates Gaspard Winckler's narration, according to what he himself tells us.

That process of construction will inevitably entail some invention, and that is what the souvenir signifies in Perec. The story of "W"—that is, the fictional narrative in W ou le souvenir d'enfance—is, after all, pure invention. Or more precisely, a story invented, then forgotten, then remembered. "When I was thirteen," mentions Perec, "I made up a story which I told and drew in pictures. Later I forgot it. Seven years ago, one evening, in Venice, I suddenly remembered that this story was called W and that it was, in a way, if not the story of my childhood, then at least a story of my childhood." What slowly becomes apparent in the text is that the invention that launches this chain of events also closes it.

That is to say, impelled by a "commanding necessity," writing takes the place of memory. This happens in the blink of an eye, very much like a game of three-card monte. Perec prepares that sleight of hand carefully in his text, vexing writing and memory against one another, and suggesting their mutual complementarity in a variety of ways. Sometimes he calls our attention to writing as a concrete thing, like when he compares the fragmentation of his memories to that of his handwriting, "that unjoined-up writing, made of separate letters unable to forge themselves into a word." At other times he insists upon writing as a thing far more abstract, like when he remarks of his parents, "Their memory is dead in writing; writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life." In both cases, forgetting separates the subject from the world he inhabits, and from himself as well. It is an unbearable state, and it demands the sort of palliative care that only literature can provide. It remains to be seen, of course, if the treatment will succeed—but that's another story.

For the time being, insofar as the question of forgetting is concerned, allow me to suggest that W ou le souvenir d'enfance constitutes a kind of limit case, offering as it does a response that is both radical and unanswerable. I am convinced that it serves in important ways to delineate the horizon of possibility of the representation of forgetting in contemporary French literature. In the wake of W, we are obliged to think about forgetting differently, no longer as a simple problem to be resolved, but instead as a fundamental condition that makes itself felt each time we turn our gaze toward the past, something persuading us that everything must be renegotiated. In support of that thesis, I would like briefly to invoke three recent French novels, each of which seems to me exemplary of that very dynamic.

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In Marie Cosnay's Villa Chagrin [House of Grief, 2006], the idea of character is constantly in question. The human beings that we can perceive in the novel are thin and fragile, significantly less substantial than the Adour, the river that flows through it from beginning to end, and that provides a reassuring continuity. It is a drama played out on the banks of that river in the 1930s that interests Cosnay, a drama that is now largely forgotten. In order to remind us of it, Cosnay calls upon municipal memory:

February 21, 2005. Archives of the Public Library in Bayonne. In the microfilm records of newspapers for the month of June 1938, I read an item dated June 1: "A decree, dated May 2, 1938, has put into effect a new and very strict set of rules governing foreigners residing in France. Under the terms of that decree, any foreigner staying more than two months in our country must have an identity card or a residence permit, which must be obtained at the police headquarters or city hall of his place of residence.
One of the first victims of that new decree was the painter Bram van Velde, a Dutchman with internationalist ideals. He was a fairly recognized figure at the time (enough, in any case, for Samuel Beckett to devote several critical texts to him), but he's barely remembered now. Marie Cosnay deplores that forgetting, and she tries to recall the painter to us in Villa Chagrin, all the while recognizing the precariousness of her project. But perhaps it is that very precariousness which interests her, as a past largely forgotten surges up into a present threatened by amnesia.

In 1938, van Velde's situation was a very fragile one indeed. Having fled first from German Fascism, then from Spanish Fascism, he arrived in Bayonne, just across the border from Spain, without papers, at the mercy of the new laws targeting foreigners: "Arrested in Bayonne, Bram is hauled before the Criminal Court. As a Dutch citizen entering France from Spain, with no identity papers, he is condemned to four weeks of prison." He served his sentence at the municipal prison, the Villa Chagrin, "that place almost exactly midway between the Adour and the house where I live," notes Cosnay.

This chunk of forgotten history occurred right where the author of this text lives and works in the present, right under her nose as it were. In her view, van Velde's story puts on display something like pure scandal. On the one hand, it testifies to the arbitrary and ultimately absurd abuse of political power: "In 1938, we imprisoned in the Villa Chagrin people who were trying to reach Spain and people who were fleeing it." On the other hand, it illustrates the way a society that is unsure of itself scapegoats the foreigner. Cosnay wagers that anyone who values the principle of hospitality will appreciate the story she wishes to tell. The fact that van Velde should be arrested, judged, and imprisoned without reason in the place where she herself now lives seems to Cosnay, seventy years later, both scandalous and intolerable.

Her indignation fuels Villa Chagrin, along with her conviction that things haven't changed so very much between 1938 and the first years of the twenty-first century. If she plunges into the municipal archives in order to recall a forgotten moment in history, it is principally because its lesson seems to her absolutely crucial today. That consideration can be noted in other texts of hers. For example in Entre chagrin et néant [Between Grief and Nothingness, 2009], where Cosnay sits in on judicial proceedings involving undocumented immigrants at the Liberty and Custody Court in Bayonne, hearings that result in every case in the extradition of the foreigner. Or in À notre humanité [To Our Humanity, 2012], which seeks to read the lessons of the Commune—and more particularly the massacre of the Communards' Wall­—in a present-day context.

Yet in Marie Cosnay's work, it is undoubtedly less a matter of the resurgence of the past than that of a deliberate, almost archaeological unforgetting. Speaking of the way she presents Bram van Velde's story, Cosnay remarks, "I know that I will not be just"; and in fact it is not in her narration that she invests her quest for justice. Instead, as she tells this story, she seeks to stir our indignation in the face of scandal, reminding us that it is useful to ask ourselves how it was in order to understand how it is.

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The behavior of human beings in extreme situations has always intrigued Laurent Mauvignier, and his novels often put that topos into play. In recent years he has focused on the issue of social violence, and on the way that individuals are more likely to become violent when they are in groups. Dans la foule [In the Crowd, 2006] deals with a soccer riot, as Mauvignier asks how individual voices meld into a collective roar, and how individual people become a crowd. In Des hommes [Of Men, 2009], he meditates upon how the memory of past violence, long repressed, can enable violence to erupt in the present. Ce que j'appelle oubli [What I Call Forgetting, 2011] tells the story of a young shoplifter beaten to death by security guards in a supermarket. It is an incident that may seem very ordinary indeed, so often do we hear of similar events. Moreover, the jacket blurb alerts us that the relation of fiction to the real is in this case a close one: "This fiction is freely inspired by an event that occurred in Lyon in December 2009." I will not dwell on that relation, but I would like to note in passing that one of the things Mauvignier seeks to examine here is the curious reciprocity of fiction and the real, and more especially the manner in which fiction can help us grasp that which tends to get lost in the confusion of daily life.

Ce que j'appelle oubli is a slim volume of sixty-two pages, composed of one long sentence with no real beginning or end. It's a technique that favors a one-sitting reading. At first glance, the story seems simple enough, at least on the level of event: when a young homeless man steals a can of beer in a supermarket, four security guards take him into a back room and beat him to death. The narrator is an anonymous man who had been acquainted with the victim, but who knows very little about the actual circumstances of his death. The latter must thus be imagined, and the narrator applies himself to that task in order to provide some sort of meaning to the victim's younger brother, something that does not figure in the official, judicial account. He senses that otherwise the brother will be unable to come to terms with this death, incapable of understanding the official account of it, which seeks only to demonstrate that this event is part of the ways things are, and must be.

That official gesture is a scandalous one according to Mauvignier, the attempt to normalize this murder, to render it transparent with regard to the fabric of the everyday, and to make it thus instantly forgettable. In the first instance, it is a question of language, a consideration that becomes clear when the narrator attempts to imagine the language of the security guards: "Do you hear the words they're saying? Words of violent, pretentious idiots, words that are so stupid, so cruel and frightening, so smug." But the narrator is undoubtedly less interested in the linguistic character of the event itself than by our way of understanding it. If one wishes to save this incident from consignment to the ordinary, the utterly insignificant, and instead underscore it as something fundamentally and radically unacceptable, one must look for another kind of language.

More than anything else, that is what is at stake in this novel: the ease with which we forget outrage, especially when it is a matter of a case so quickly closed. Again and again in his text, Mauvignier draws our attention toward the act of forgetting. The narrator calls upon the younger brother insistently, asking him "Do you remember?" an utterance that becomes the totemic question of this novel. He challenges the brother to remember, invoking family history, for instance, "your childhood, when you used to go with your parents—you remember? he told me and I'm sure you haven't forgotten it either—to see country folk whose faces were ruined by bad wine." In that perspective, "forgetting, what I call forgetting" is principally a failure of imagination, or more precisely a refusal to imagine how it was, how it must have been.

Clearly, Mauvignier's posture here is analogous to that of Perec in W ou le souvenir d'enfance, and to that of Cosnay in Villa Chagrin: in order to address the scandal of forgetting and resurrect that which hardly was, that which barely left a trace, an effort of imagination is required. The dimensions of such a wager are not modest ones, it must be recognized. But if it prompts us to rethink the past in critical ways, even momentarily, through a specifically literary rememoration, it is already modestly successful.

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In the preceding examples, it is a matter of a real individual who has been forgotten, or who may be forgotten. And in each case, that real person is transfigured in the guise of a fictional character. The circumstances and conditions of that transfiguration vary, certainly, but the fundamental effect remains. In the recent work of Patrick Deville one discovers a sustained reflection on that same process. For one way of reading his "equatorial" trilogy—I am thinking of Pura Vida [Fine, 2004], Equatoria [2004], and Kampuchéa [2011]—is as an interrogation of the notion of literary character. His most recent book, Peste & Choléra [Plague and Cholera, 2012], takes that notion and causes it to perform in a manner that is almost theatrical. The individual in question is Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943), who was the first to identify the plague bacillus that now bears his name, and to vaccinate people against it. He studied medicine in Paris at a time when Paris was the capital of that science; he served as Louis Pasteur's apprentice when the Pasteur Institute stood as the very model of scientific progress. He was a man who wished to learn everything there was to know, and who, apart from his studies in microbiology, applied himself to cartography, architecture, physics, mechanics, electricity, agronomy, and still other sciences as well. He was a seeker in the broadest sense of the term: refusing to bury himself in his laboratory, he imagined himself like Livingstone and set off on an exploratory expedition in Indochina, where he had chosen to live. Livingstone is not the only legendary figure who strides through the pages of Peste & Choléra. Pasteur is a massive presence, of course. One also catches glimpses of Jules Verne, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Conrad, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Arthur Rimbaud.

All of those men are famous. That is to say, we have not forgotten them. Such is not the case of Alexandre Yersin, however, and one of the things Patrick Deville proposes in this book is a meditation on the question of forgetting. Noting that Jules Verne had sketched a portrait of Livingstone, Deville asks himself why Verne had not accorded the same attention to Yersin, whose life had been marked by so many "complicated and fantastic adventures." Deville is fully aware that in the vast majority, people's lives are forgotten once they come to an end; nevertheless, that's an idea that he clearly finds unacceptable. Remarking that roughly eighty billion people have lived and died since the species first appeared in this world, and that about seven billion of us are currently alive, he puts forth a modest proposal: "The problem is simple: if every one of us wrote merely ten Lives during our own life, no life would be forgotten. No life would be erased. Each life would achieve a posterity, and justice would be done."

The mathematical simplicity of his suggestion is indisputable, but its scale is properly breathtaking. And its utopic nature, as well: nothing is left behind here, nothing is neglected, nothing is forgotten. Because patently, to Deville's way of thinking, forgetting constitutes an injustice that must be redressed. That is a vital issue for him. For it is a question of life itself here, let us not forget. Clearly however, there is life, and then there is Life—in other words, the thing lived, and the story of that thing lived, the latter memorializing the former and saving it from oblivion. But which of these "lives" interests Patrick Deville more deeply? When he undertakes his Life of Alexandre Yersin, what he's after in the first instance is the way his subject functions as a piece in the vast narrative puzzle of his time and place. He is convinced, moreover, that any existence, minutely examined, will necessarily highlight "the extravagant and ridiculous life of human beings." But that is precisely where the alchemical gesture lies, the gesture of transformation intended to resurrect a forgotten life. Obviously, that gesture changes something into something else. And that which we remember thanks to that gesture may not be quite what once was.

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I wonder if, for Deville and Perec, for Cosnay and Mauvignier too, this act of remembrance is not largely pretextual. That is, it may be less the "life" that interests them—the real, forgettable life—than the "Life" that they create out of it, this "extravagant and ridiculous life of human beings," once again. I wonder if it is less a matter of "saving" something—an individual, a site, an event—from oblivion than of staging that very gesture in order to set in motion another dynamic entirely. One might note that experiments of this sort are becoming more frequent in the novel just at a time when the novel itself as a cultural form is becoming more and more embattled. One might also remark that these experiments adumbrate a broad horizon of new novelistic possibilities. I will not argue that the only goal of the texts I have mentioned is to save the novel from oblivion; that would be too simple, too reductive, it would do violence to a phenomenon that is after all extremely plural and complex. Nonetheless, each of these texts raises the question of forgetting, and argues that the traditional novel cannot answer it. And I wonder if the lesson in each of these experiments is not fundamentally the same. Just as the notion of "saving" something—an individual, a site, an event—from oblivion is finally revealed as chimerical in each text, the same may hold true for the novel itself. In both cases, it may be futile to try to "save" anything at all; instead, things must be invented. In other words, the crucial thing is to know how to go from what was to what may now be.

Works Mentioned

Beckett, Samuel. Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. Ed. Ruby Cohn.     New York: Grove, 1984.

Cosnay, Marie. A notre humanité. Meudon: Quidam, 2012.

---. Entre chagrin et néant: Audiences d'étrangers. Paris: Laurence Teper, 2009.

---. Villa Chagrin. Lagrasse: Verdier, 2006.

Deville, Patrick. Equatoria. Paris: Le Seuil, 2009.

---. Kampuchéa. Paris: Le Seuil, 2011.

---. Peste & Choléra. Paris: Le Seuil, 2012.

---. Pura vida: Vie & mort de William Walker. Paris: Le Seuil, 2004.

Mauvignier, Laurent. Ce que j'appelle oubli. Paris: Minuit, 2011.

---. Dans la foule. Paris: Minuit, 2006.

---. Des hommes. Paris: Minuit, 2009.

Perec, Georges. Les Choses: Une histoire des années soixante. Paris: Julliard, 1965.

---. Things: A Story of the Sixties. Trans. David Bellos. Boston: Godine, 1990.

---. W or The Memory of Childhood. Trans. David Bellos. Boston: Godine, 1988.

---. W ou le souvenir d'enfance. Paris: Denoël, 1975.