Autofiction in the feminine from Shirley Jordan, Queen Mary University of London

French Studies (2012)

L'autobiographie traditionnelle étant devenue impraticable, tout discours sur soi tend à devenir peu ou prou autofictionnel. (Mounir Laouyen)1

Nous savons encore fort peu de choses sur ce que serait l'autofiction. (Régine Robin)2

Autofiction has been central to the proliferation of self-narrative experiment in France for over thirty years, burgeoning from debates about the impossibility of autobiography as traditionally conceived,3 dissolving generic boundaries, and reaching across contexts and media. By definition unstable, prospective rather than retrospective, autofiction is appropriate to the unsettled post-Freudian subject whose confidence is placed in the ‘act-value’ rather than the ‘truth-value’ of narrative.4 Despite some consensus that selves are most productively explored when distinctions between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ are shattered, autofiction's validity has been hotly debated since the neologism was first proposed in Serge Doubrovsky's 1977 work Fils.5 Critics and practitioners have theorized the slippery hybrid;6 major colloquia and related publications have interrogated its forms;7 a website has been established;8 several studies have summarized the evolution of theoretical debate;9 still others have suggested productive templates for considering the creative fissures and fractures at work in autofiction.10

As the French academy has grappled with autofiction's premises, it has most frequently sought to relate them to ‘safe’ (male/canonical) authors, treating as secondary the substantial range of experimentation by new women writers that constitutes some of autofiction's most distinctive practice.11 Important debates about gender-specific production and consumption of autofiction or about how the rise of autofiction inflects the broader narrative of women's relationship to autobiography have scarcely begun to unfold.12 Their progress has doubtless been impeded as women's work has borne the brunt of misgivings about autofiction's legitimacy.13 It is nevertheless clear that a distinct phase in women's self-narrative in French is under way; one that is remarkable for the extraordinarily difficult material it explores, for the sophisticated channels of self-apprehension it furrows, and for its fertile repositionings of the ‘I’. Most critical appraisal of this evolution has come from outside France,14 although the 2008 Colloque de Cerisy on autofiction represented an important shift in that it produced an energetic clutch of essays by women practitioners.15 It also inspired the autofictional manifesto of writer-performer Chloé Delaume, an impassioned and critically astute argument for autofiction's potential.16

The spectrum of practices of the ‘I’ in women's autofiction needs charting. At one extreme Delaume engages in repeated autofictional self-repositioning; at the other Annie Ernaux claims a sociologically driven ‘I’ that, far from constituting ‘un moyen de m'autofictionner’, is transpersonal and sometimes scarcely gendered.17 Distinctive territories of self-fictionalization are staked out between these positions by writers such as Amélie Nothomb,18 Camille Laurens,19 Christine Angot,20 Régine Robin,21 and Marie Darrieussecq.22

Through Catherine Cusset, Catherine Millet, Alina Reyes, and a number of other women writers, autofiction's self-splitting and dissociation are linked to new, affirmative spaces of feminine desire.23 Sarah Cooper credits Cusset with creating a distinctive, guilt-free libertinage,24 while Philippe Lejeune hails Millet's controversial elaboration of Catherine M's sex life as ‘un acte anthropologique original et courageux’.25 The impact of these unusual experiments derives, in part, from their authors' owning of excessive, sometimes violent, experiences, which are the more readily explored through autofictional distancing.

The privileged connection between women's autofiction and trauma requires further analysis. How does combining fact and fictional material allow practitioners (for example, Angot, Robin, Geneviève Brisac, Chantal Chawaf, Danielle Sallenave, Hélène Duffau, to name a few) to respond to rape, incest, violence, illness, and death? The trope of the wound has been fertile here, not least for the tension it embodies between rending and repair.26 Practitioners as diverse as Delaume and Nina Bouraoui interrogate wounding within urgent autofictional experiments that are locked into violent trauma and self-(re)invention.27 For Anne-Marie Garat, the autofictional fault line is a unique locus for confronting emotional wounds that are beyond articulation.28 Trauma is also seen to lend particular shapes and rhythms to autofiction. Connecting autofiction to the Shoah in ‘L’Autofiction, un genre nouveau?', Elizabeth Molkou observes how Robin's wounded writing abandons structurally any hope of coherence or continuity;29 the multiple fractures that complicate Angot's nervous autofictional stream are linked by several critics to the underlying self-fracturing experience of incest;30 Barbara Havercroft notes the starved autofictional prose through which Brisac offers up her anorexic body;31 Cusset sees her own autofiction as constructed around the ‘mise à jour d'une culpabilité’.32 A number of narratives of unresolved pain are shaped, in Doubrovskyan fashion, through the foregrounding of psychoanalytic processes,33 while the analytic encounter is proposed as a model for the reader–writer relationship in Angot.34 Certain of the formal features of contemporary écriture de soi highlighted by Dominique Viart and Bruno Vercier — concentric narrative that drills down repeatedly into the same material; vertiginous exhaustivity; immediacy; proximity to the act of writing35 — are particularly salient in women's autofictional projects.

la suite sur

mis en ligne par Isabelle Grell