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Of Words and the World

Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction

DAVID R. ELLISON
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 220
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rt12
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  • Book Info
    Of Words and the World
    Book Description:

    Here David Ellison explores the problems encountered by France's best experimental authors writing between 1956 and 1984, when faced with the question: "What should my writing beabout?" These years are characterized by the rise of the "new novelists," who questioned the representational function of writing as they created works of imagination that turned in upon themselves and away from exterior reality. It became fashionable at one point to affirm that literature was no longer about the world but uniquely about the words on a page, the signifying surface of the text. Ellison tests this assumption, showing that even in the most seemingly self-referential fictions the words point to the world from which they can never completely separate themselves.

    Through close readings Ellison examines the novels and theoretical writings of authors whose works are fundamental to our perception of contemporary French writing and thought: Camus, Robbe-Grillet, Simon, Duras, Sarraute, Blanchot, and Beckett. The result is a new understanding of the link between the referential function of literary language and the problematic of the ethics of fiction.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2087-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. NOTE ON TEXTS AND TRANSLATIONS
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-22)

    To say that we live in an age of theory is perhaps an understatement. Even a schematic examination of the evolution of literary and cultural criticism during the past thirty years suffices to indicate ever-expanding levels of methodological self-consciousness and of terminological density now achieved in studies aimed at the elucidation of texts. It is not uncommon for a humanities professor to overhear colleagues admitting to each other, sotto voce, that the rereading of a “classic in criticism” written before the advent of the new methods and new vocabularies constitutes a veritable hidden pleasure. Yet many of the same colleagues,...

  6. PART ONE: METAMORPHOSES OF THE REFERENTIAL FUNCTION, 1956–1984

    • Chapter One VERTIGINOUS STORYTELLING: CAMUS’S LA CHUTE, 1956
      (pp. 25-43)

      Isla chutereadable? Can its resistance to analytical probing be overcome? Is it possible to arrive at a consensus on the main vectors of its significant multiplicity? To those familiar with criticism on Camus, such questions might sound both naïve and overstated, after all, it can be countered that althoughLa Chuteis an enigmaticrécit(narration), the most allusive, textually complex, and personally (autobiographically) revealing of Camus’s late works,¹ thirty-five years of commentary have uncovered many of its secrets and progressively illuminated its dark recesses. To say that a text is difficult or obscure is not necessarily to...

    • Chapter Two REAPPEARING MAN IN ROBBE-GRILLET’S TOPOLOGIE D’UNE CITÉ FANTÔME, 1976
      (pp. 44-54)

      To what extent is Robbe-Grillet’s novelTopologie d’une cité fantôme(Topology of a Phantom City) readable? How does this puzzling work open or close itself to the act of interpretation? Of what significance are the numerous allusions in its pages to other works of Robbe-Grillet, to contemporary art, to Greek mythology? These questions all point to the twin problems of reference and meaning in the text, bringing up a difficulty that is by no means new, yet quite persistent, in the criticism of Robbe-Grillet’s novels: the enigmatic status of the object or apparent symbol that seems to call for the...

    • Chapter Three NARRATIVE LEVELING AND PERFORMATIVE PATHOS IN CLAUDE SIMON’S LES GÉORGIQUES, 1981
      (pp. 55-68)

      Only recently has Claude Simon gained international acclaim beyond the limited scope of literary connoisseurship and academic scrutinizing. Even more than was the case for Samuel Beckett, whose novels are not widely read but whose theater has reached a large audience, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Claude Simon resulted in a suddenness of recognition, a dramatic leap from obscurity to the limelight, that puzzles the reading public as much as it gratifies his patient critics.¹ For the sociologist of literature, this gap between the unrelieved darkness of a writer’s toil through four decades of novelistic production...

    • Chapter Four THE SELF AS REFERENT: POSTMODERN AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, 1983–1984 (ROBBE-GRILLET, DURAS, SARRAUTE)
      (pp. 69-96)

      One of the surprises of the 1983–1984 literary season was the near-simultaneous appearance of autobiographies by Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. These three writers, whose profound stylistic and theoretical divergences I propose to examine, were designated (somewhat too categorically and conveniently) in the fifties and sixties as new novelists or nouveaux romanciers. With the exception of Duras, whose fictions and films exuded, from the very beginning, a haunting personal and thinly veiled confessional quality, it seemed strange, uncanny, that three practitioners of abstract technical innovations should decide to publish highly readable self-portraits twenty to thirty years after...

  7. PART TWO: “PURE FICTION” AND THE INEVITABILITY OF REFERENCE

    • Introduction to Part Two
      (pp. 99-103)

      In each of the first four chapters of this book, I have begun my analyses with the question of the readability or obscurity of the texts under consideration. In Camus’sLa ChuteI encountered, under the surface of an ironical discourse on guilt and the crimes of twentieth-century humanity, a deeper ironical movement, a “fall into textual dizziness” that plunged the récit into a self-referential abyme. The difficulty or obscurity ofLa Chuteconsists of its vertiginous intertextual qualities as well as its convoluted weaving of a discourse “on” guilt around the pur manque of its central narrative moment. In...

    • Chapter Five BLANCHOT AND NARRATIVE
      (pp. 104-131)

      The title of this chapter is deliberately, perhaps provocatively, simple: “Blanchot and Narrative.” According to the conventions of literary criticism and the usual telegraphic style of titles, such a phrase would seem to be the shorter, more economical equivalent of “Narrative according to Blanchot.” But in the latter formulation, a relationship of inclusion is unequivocally established: I am stating, or at least suggesting as a hypothesis for subsequent confirmation, that a part of the immense whole defined as narrative in literary studies is to be found in the works of Maurice Blanchot. In consequence, the reader of an essay with...

    • Chapter Six BECKETT AND THE ETHICS OF FABULATION
      (pp. 132-154)

      In nearly all of Samuel Beckett’s works—both drama and prose fiction—the question of an impending finality looms large on the horizon of the reader’s interpretive expectations. We sense, as readers or spectators, that something is moving ineluctably toward an end point, even though, in a number of Beckett’s writings, it would seem that the end of human life has already been reached and that we find ourselves at a purgatorial threshold, waiting for the door to open outward—but unsure that there is an outside beyond the confines of our limited physical world and reduced mental capacities. Hamm’s...

    • CONCLUSION
      (pp. 155-158)

      My goal in this study has been twofold: first, to provide readings of individual works of contemporary experimental fiction with close attention to their formal specificity; second, to analyze these works within the general thematic of literary referentiality. Thus, an account of the significance of the texts I have undertaken to read (an examination of the identifiable techniques, structures, and rhetorical strategies that combine to producewhatthese writings mean) merges with the constant preoccupation with uncovering their varied modes of reference (i.e.,howthey denote,howthey gesture beyond the confines of their formal limits toward some imagined or...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 159-182)
  9. WORKS CITED
    (pp. 183-192)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 193-196)