The Chantal Chawaf Newsletter, Volume II, Number 1 (Summer-Fall 1998)
"Autofiction and the Woman Writer: Le Monde Reviews Le Manteau noir"
by Vicki Mistacco, Wellesley College, USA
In the May 8, 1998 issue of Le Monde des Livres (p. III), with Chantal Chawaf's portrait featured prominently, there appeared a lengthy, glowing, yet ultimately disturbing, review by Monique Petillon of Le Manteau noir (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), Chawaf's latest and arguably most accomplished work. The book has generally been well received in the French media (Chawaf even had a television appearance on the acclaimed program "Ex Libris"), but, as she indicated to me in response to my misgivings about the review, "toute la presse a été dans le même sens, plus ou moins" (email, May 24, 1998) as Petillon's "Chantal Chawaf vers la lumière."
What is disturbing about this article is that it reveals the persistence of a reductive autobiographical bias in the reception of women's writing even today -- and even when the critic is a woman whose intent is clearly to bring recognition to a writer "trop mal connue en France" "qui mérite la consécration d'un large public" and to a work which, in her judgment, a quarter of a century after Retable (1974), "boucle magistralement la boucle." The dual effects of this bias, to advertise yet circumscribe, are sustained when the writing itself presents itself to the public as autofiction: the designation "autofiction" appears on the back cover of Le Manteau noir, contradicting the title page which gives the genre as ''roman." (Did Chawaf herself or someone from Flammarion compose this promotional blurb in which the author is referred to not in the first, but the third person?) The same generic slippage is reiterated in Petillon's review, contributing, I believe, to the effacement of "Histoire" (Chawaf) in favor of "histoire," and diminishing the scope of Le Manteau noir to the story of "un destin singulier" (Petillon). This process is announced by the conjoining of expansive praise with miniaturizing rhetoric in the subtitle: "A défaut d'un nom perdu, d'une identité effacée par la guerre, la romancière a trouvé dans l'écriture une langue poignante et belle pour conter son histoire" (emphasis mine). "Conter, dire des choses réelles ou mensongères, spontanément, parfois avec fantaisie, surtout pour plaire" (Henri Bénac, Dictionnaire des synonymes. Paris: Hachette, 1956-82) tends to trivialize the art and "son histoire," poised as ambiguously as autofiction between invented plot and personal history, ignores the ethical and political dimensions and the historical sweep of Le Manteau noir.
In the novel, on the other hand, the heroine's personal experience is never severed from the collective one. Born in 1943 during the bombing of the Renault plants in Boulogne-Billancourt in which her parents, aunt and countless civilians are killed, and illegally adopted by a couple who hide from her until she is twenty the true circumstances of her birth, Marie-Antoinette de Lummont affords a unique perspective on history "Son ventre est bombardé. Boulogne est dans son ventre" (p. 387). Narrating in the third person, Chawaf consistently shifts outward from the anguished perspective of the traumatized foetus-infant ever seeking to restore the link with her own repressed origins to an all-embracing view of World War II, of violence, injustice and corruption, of innocent victims and sordid coverups. The "pouponnière pétainiste [...] soupçonnée d'avoir joué un rôle trouble sous l'Occupation" (p. 76) to which the baby extracted from the womb of her dying mother is transported becomes a site from which to bear witness to the realities of collaboration and to give voice to all the silent victims of war, the "non-dits de l'Histoire" (p. 76). Witnessing and questioning history through the gaze of the foetus (see the novelist's remarks on this original point of view in Le Manteau noir in The Chantal Chawaf Newsletter I, Nos. 1 and 4, Spring 1997 and Winter 1998), through "l'oeil primitif" (p. 389) of an intra-uterine "mémoire d'avant la mémoire" (p. 207) reduced to ashes by male society, Chawaf assumes a singular place among those who have unmasked the unsavory realities of Occupied France. "It is not because we are women," she argues, "that one should separate us from this world as soon as we speak as women [...]. [Women's sensibility] is an extremely rich means given to us to renew the whole perspective on the world, on ethics, on politics. It can [...] enlighten all in a much more sensitive manner, much more interior and internal, and this gives a completely different approach to the same facts as those transmitted through culture [...]" ("Chantal Chawaf: Une artiste de la vie," interview by Beth Droppleman, Chantal Chawaf Newsletter I, 4, Winter 1998).
Yet it appears difficult for criticism to see this opening out of the personal to the general in a woman's writing, to see that it might contain "ideas," and that those ideas might be of a political or ethical nature, that a woman's personal history might shed light on collective history, revealing the distortions and dissembling of official accounts, that a woman writer's research into wartime archives to find the names of her parents might instead yield a vision of war that alters collective memory and promotes a new ethics, "une leçon d'humanité" (p. 394). "Le nom de son père, elle ne l'avait pas trouvé, celui de sa mère non plus. Les avait-elle même cherchés? Peut-être pas..." (p. 406).
Petillon may in fact have seen these things, as a few passing remarks suggest: "elle fait entendre, pour tout les disparus, les profonds accents d'une berceuse infernale [...] c'est pour mieux témoigner de ses morts, pour transfuser, dans ses moss, le goût râpeux et chaud de la vie." What may have been difficult for her to do is stress them. How could she reconcile Chawaf's ambitious perspective with good publicity, with her goal of promoting the book to readers? Petillon's inhibitions, if not blind spots, and occasionally her style may have as much to do with the reception of readers, including the presumably literate kind who read Le Monde des livres, as that of critics. I am suggesting that even such readers of women's literature continue to substitute the writer for her writing, deriving their ultimate reading pleasure from rediscovering in this literature "les oeuvres, fatalement autobiographiques, de la femme" (Colette, La Naissance du jour, 1928). This attitude certainly figured in the phenomenal success of Marguerite Duras's international best-seller L'Amant (1984), similarly promoted as "autofiction" -- although the book, like its remake L'Amant de la Chine du Nord (1991), bears no generic label. How many readers were lured to L'Amant for reasons other than curiosity about the writer's sexual and familial beginnings and the scandalous revelations it promised? Autofiction, especially when equated with only slightly veiled autobiography, makes for excellent publicity by catering to readers' expectations, evoking familiar female territory, even when no such revelations are in the offing; hence Petillon's initial description of the novel: "Le Manteau noir est une 'autofiction,' très proche parfois de la réalité autobiographique."
Dreaming she is a writer speaking to her publisher, Marie-Antoinette de Lummont, on the other hand, promiser the unfamiliar: "'Ce ne sera pas un roman... J'écris l'inconnu... de l'inconnu... le manque de mots, le manque de noms, l'invisible... Tout ce que la langue sociale m'a interdit...'" (p. 349). The missing words, the missing names, assure innovation. Had she found the name of her parents and been able, therefore, to speak of them "en langue intelligible" (p. 406), her inquiry would have been bounded by the familiar perimeters of autobiography. Chawaf would have returned the reader to the reassuring closure of "la langue sociale.'' It is precisely because she, like her heroine, did not find the name that the story told in Le Manteau noir is so much more than that of "un destin singulier": it is the story of wounded humanity. And it is precisely the absence of the name, the unsatisfied autobiographical quest, that made, and continues to make, the writing possible -- that gives us autofiction in its most aesthetically refined and most ambitious form: "maix je continue -- sans le montrer -- de travailler les énergies autobiographiques," writes Chawaf in a letter describing her current projects (November 18, 1998); "le résultat est ce roman sur l'amour..."
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