Claude Ollier - A French engineer's journey into uncharted Moroccan mountains forms the action of this important exemplar of the nouveau roman. As Lassalle confronts the natives and negotiates the terrain, struggling to match endless trails and gullies to the crisscrossings on his maps, his feelings of alienation and anxiety intensify to produce a powerfully hallucinatory novel
Claude Ollier, The Mise-en-Scene, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000. [1958.]
'First published in France in 1958 and winner of the prestigious Prix Medecis, The Mise-en-Scene takes place in the mountains of Morocco when the French still controlled North Africa. An engineer named Lassalle has been sent from France to plan a road through the mountains. Although Lassalle seems to be successful, he finds out that another engineer, Lessing, has preceded him, and that Lessing, as well as others, may have been murdered. In part a detective novel and in part an investigation into the nature of knowledge, The Mise-en-Scene is controlled by a tone and style that are truly remarkable.'
A French engineer's journey into uncharted Moroccan mountains forms the action of this important exemplar of the nouveau roman, awarded the Prix Medicis in 1958. As the title indicates, Lassalle's missionfinding a road site to reach a mineis played out in the sinister ""theater'' of colonial mistrust and violence. Fatigued by migraines, sore throats and bruises, Lassalle is first escorted by the French military who rule in North Africa, and later by two Algerian guides, the blue-eyed Serjeant Ba Iken and the mute boy Ichou. In the sullen heat, the sense of menace thickens: a young woman, Jamila, has been stabbed to death by her husband. Her image keeps recurring to Lassalle, as he confuses her with a living girl, Yamina. The authorities seem as cynically indifferent to the crime as they do to the disappearance only days before of another engineer, Lassalle's predecessor, Lessing. Was he murdered? Was his death linked to Jamila's? As Lassalle confronts the natives and negotiates the terrain, struggling to match endless trails and gullies to the crisscrossings on his maps, his feelings of alienation and anxiety intensify to produce a powerfully hallucinatory novel. - Publishers Weekly
It is not impossible to imagine ... a novel whose fiction would be exciting enough so that the reader intensely felt the desire to know its last word which precisely, at the last minute, would be denied to him, the text pointing to itself and towards a rereading. The book would be thus, a second time, given to the reader who could then while rereading it, discover everything in it which in his first mad fever he had been unable to find. - Benoit Peeters
The photo is still famous. Signed Mario Dondero, it shows the writers of the Nouveau Roman, taken in 1959 on rue Bernard Palissy, before the offices of Editions de Minuit. Claude Ollier, who died Saturday, October 18, 2014 at the age of 91, was the last survivor of the team of eight authors immortalized that day -- the movement itself is now left entirely in the hands of its two surviving proponents, Michel Butor and Jean Ricardou.
However Ollier's unclassifiable work, having been nourished by an exploration of many different genres, must not be reduced or completely assimilated to this literary trend.
A year before the famous photograph was taken, in 1958, Claude Ollier had published his first novel, Mise-en-Scene. It was immediately awarded the Prix Médicis, which had just been created: the story of a French engineer sent to France for the care of the construction of a road in the Moroccan Atlas, who discovers the mysterious disappearance of several of his predecessors.
The context was inspired by Ollier's stay in Morocco, in 1950, as an official of the administration Sharifian in the High Atlas and in Casablanca, where he kept a diary and began to write short stories, and where his dream vocation as a writer was affirmed.
Born in Paris in 1922, the writer Claude Ollier had studied at the Lycee Carnot prewar, and he received a philosophy degree in Montlucon in 1940. Then followed law studies and a management position at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales.
Sent to Germany by the STO in 1943, he fled before being taken hostage near Lake Constance and shipped in Swabia. After the war, he worked in insurance, then as official. After 1958, he finally left public service to devote himself to writing.
Ollier's second book, Le Maintien de l’ordre, was rejected by publisher Jérôme Lindon in 1960 and was published a year later by Gallimard. In 1963, he published Été indien, with Minuit. He then wrote radio plays, and the respected novel cycle of Jeu d’enfant, whose four books were published from 1972 to 1975. In 1967, he published with Gallimard L’Échec de Nolan et Navettes, and Mon Double in 1979-81, inspired by a trip to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia in 1977.
Car trips were a central part and major inspiration of Ollier's life and work: United States, Germany, Quebec, and Marrakech in the 1960s and 1970s; Europe and Morocco still in the 1980s; Australia and New Zealand in 1990; and finally Jordan. Also beginning in the late 1960s, Ollier for a short time worked as an actor in films, most famously in Robert Bresson's masterwork Un Femme Douce (1969).
In December 1997 he was elected into Écrivains à Paris, and a symposium in honor of his work, which at that point numbered nearly fifty books, was held in Paris. He subsequently launched into writing the novel cycle "quatre récits de couleur mythologique", which was published by Editions POL between the years 2000 and 2007. A tireless traveler, Claude Ollier lived in Provence and Marrakech before settling in Maule in the Yvelines, where he lived until his death. In 2013, he published his last book book, Cinq contes fantastiques (POL), which was nicely subtitled: "Choses vues de ma fenêtre au deuxième étage de la maison." -- Sabine Audrerie
Claude Ollier, Wert and the Life Without End, Trans. by Ursula Meany Scott, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.
In some kind of institution, maybe a hospital or rehabilitation center, we are introduced to Wert, a disturbed, traumatized man still suffering the horrors of his experience as a soldier fighting in an unidentified conflict. A patient or prisoner, Wert writes down his memories of the war; his impressions of his current, ill-defined treatment; and his reflections on his own psychological well-being. When at last released, Wert undertakes a long journey to the east, and slowly recognizes the events of his life as being reminiscent of episodes from ancient epic narratives—as though his entire story has simply been the reenactment of a tale first told thousands of years before. Chipping away at its narrative through short, rhythmic, poetic sentences; combining the worlds of the avant-garde and the ancient epic; and revealing the interconnectedness of psychology, lived experience, and the written word, Wert and the Life Without End is a masterpiece of self-reflective storytelling.
“Ollier explores the dividing line between past and present, the fault line of postwar European consciousness, still in a state of shock in the midst of evidence of its recent history, still recovering, semi-expectant and above all watchful. In bidding memory, as after Nabokov, to speak, one will also, in Ollier’s world, have to answer to it, this requirement being as explicit a statement of the inherent hopefulness of narrative as one might look for in a fallen and betrayed civilization.” - Choice
“Using the structural device of contrast—particularly light and darkness—he works with words as a composer works with tonal patterns, producing a verbal symphony of distinctive beauty.” - Anna Otten
Claude Ollier, Law and Order, Trans. by Ursule Molinaro, Red Dust, 1971.
A man waits to be killed in a town by the sea, probably in North Africa. His room is
described, the sound of the elevator, its vibrations, the light at different hours, the shifting positions of the men waiting below for him who follow him in their Buick, slowly at a distance, then so close that only their faces are visible in his rearview mirror. Chronology is jumbled. It is never certain when and whether he is apprehended. The climax is all through the story. The reader constructs his own story, his own terror.
Most interesting, however, are the textual developments and transformations that take place. ...the initial paragraph furnishes key motifs for two focal segments of the text-- "The sudden vast glistening brightness..." and "Raw, intense, blinding light" the first a textual correlative of fear-- the second, of scandal" -- Leon Roudiez
Using the structural device of contrast - particularly light and darkness- he works with words as a composer works with tonal patterns, producing in Law and Order a verbal symphony of distinctive beauty -- Anna Otten
Claude Ollier, Disconnection, Trans. by Dominic Di Bernardi, Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
In two interconnected, alternating stories, Claude Ollier has written a disturbing, haunting, apocalyptic novel that brings together the end of the Third Reich with the closing of the twentieth century. The first is the autobiographical story of Martin, a French student conscripted into a munitions factory in Nuremberg in the middle of World War II. The other is the story of a nameless writer who inhabits a twilight world where civilization has collapsed.
In the first part, we see the horrors of war-torn Germany from the perspective of the common man. Caught up in the moment of history that has defined the twentieth century, he is "disconnected" from the time in which he lives. As the war comes to a close, he experiences the firebombing of Nuremberg, and then escapes the city, finally meeting with the first of the American liberation forces in the spring of 1945.
In the second part, which takes place in the remote Causse region of France sometime in the 1990s, we see a man living in a world that seems to have undergone some terrible, nameless catastrophe. Civilization has come to an eerie halt, its remnants held by this solitary figure, usually in the form of remembered performances by musicians from Richard Strauss and Wagner to Tina Turner and Miles Davis.
Ollier has here created a nightmarish vision of Western culture in decay. At the same time, he has created a vision of history and the individual's inability to connect himself to the times in which he lives.
"The writing is concise, restrained, meticulous. Claude Ollier masterfully interweaves the evocations that mark memories: the German forest and the neglected causse, flames of city blazes and scents of plants after a shower, the din of air raids and silence of a dying countryside, a sleepy village and a great city bowed under the nighttime menace. At times, without bombast, the tone attains an epic loftiness; all of Europe is trembling in the shadows of the war. . . . The century drawing to a close strangely resembles the Third Reich in its death throes. . . . Without betraying himself, without renouncing what has always made up the originality of his impressive art, Claude Ollier raises the great question of our times: Where are we going?" - L'Humanitè
"The moral and psychic disjunctions occasioned by World War II have long been the source of much of Europe's best fiction. In Germany, it is the novelistic terrain of Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, in France of Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Ollier. In his latest novel, Mr. Ollier, a major force behind the nouveau roman, a literary movement born out of the Resistance, meditates on Germany's totalitarian past. . . . [F]ull of fine, splintered poetry, Mr. Ollier's aphoristic style has been carefully rendered in Dominic Di Bernardi's skillful translation." - New York Times Book Review
"In his choice of material, Ollier seems to challenge himself to write the ultimate anti-novelwhether that means stripping the greatest icons of the twentieth century of meaning through the force of literary technique, or breathing life into the New Novel by forcing its structure, to treat events of profound significance. . . . Ollier cannot talk of concentration camps, Nazism and the construction of warheads without provoking emotional response in his readers, without causing them, in short, to identify with Martin and (remarkably, for the genre) to turn him into an individual." - San Francisco Review of Books
Ollier explores the dividing line between past and present, the fault line of postwar European consciousness, still in a state of shock in the midst of evidence of its recent history, still recovering, semi-expectant and above all watchful. In bidding memory, as after Nabokov, to speak, one will also, in Ollier's world, have to answer to it, this requirement being as explicit a statement of the inherent hopefulness of narrative as one might look for in a fallen and betrayed civilization." - Choice
A veteran of the French "Nouveau Roman," Ollier ( The Mis-en-Scene ) has deliberately employed an unpolished, often oblique style to deal with the incomprehensible: life after a Third (one assumes nuclear) World War. The author builds his novel around two narratives. The first, told in the third person, concerns Martin, a young Frenchman mobilized by the Germans at the end of WW II to work in a munitions factory in Nuremburg. The second, set in the 1990s, is recounted by a nameless French writer living in a small village, listlessly writing a radio play that will never be broadcast. The stories of these two men are disconnected by design; while unsure whether the narrator is an older version of the teenage Martin, readers may suspect that Ollier has juxtaposed the stories to create a sort of historical parallel--a WW III hinging on the unresolved conflicts of the previous conflagration. For Martin, the war is a time of community, companionship, danger. The protagonist of the second narrative, passively enduring shortages and a vengeful, encroaching nature, is merely waiting out the end of civilization. In essence, the novel does not project the emotional impact it seems to promise, its disconnected quality mainly due to the author's intentional distance from his material. - Publishers Weekly
At one point today, Christmas Day 2013, I thought perhaps I had had a stroke some time within the last week or two. I would be reading along another four or five pages of Claude Ollier’s book here and there and not know what I read or why I even did it. The words were simply hollow for me and I was thinking that they shouldn’t be. Nothing could dissuade me from my thinking the text a bore and inconsequential. There was nothing to engage me and still I felt maybe I had lost something of myself due to my new and potentially quite serious condition. But then I realized this could of course not be true because these same days I have been reading the humungous memoir of Elias Canetti and enjoying every word of it. He is such a good and interesting writer. And then there is Josef Winkler who is daily tearing me up with his The Serf and its awful contents regarding a life so foreign to me but so graphically real and disturbing it makes one cringe too much. My senses must still be intact, and I can still discern relevance, it seems, in a given text presented to me. So what is my problem with this master work?
I loved the feel of the book itself, its subject matter, the author’s name, the cloth-covered boards, even the title which made it even harder for me to not like the text. I tried my best to like it, I did. But it was dead, the words, and perfectly good words at that but for some reason there wasn’t a sentence that rang true and good for me. On page seventy-nine we are reading the words of the nameless writer in the first person:
Returned, stopping frequently, pushing my bicycle, dead tired, very gloomy. Haven’t moved since.
It was as if he had a journal and was recording his daily activities so that one day in the future he might extend the shorthand into something palatable and interesting. For over eighty pages I attempted to find my way into the sentences of Claude Ollier and could not. And the blurbs on the dust jacket suggested I would and the critics claimed I had to. But success was not in the cards for me. Finally on page eighty-one I had to give in, give up, and move on. And the page before that was the straw that broke my back. And it wasn’t anything I hadn’t read before. Here we have in the third person words telling the story of Martin. The sentence was the same as all the others. The problem for me was in the telling. There was no showing, and that is the critical element I need that was missing. Oh writer, do not tell me about your problem but show it to me. And I will give an example of that page now and you can tell me why I am wrong. Better yet, please don’t. It doesn’t matter. I have no more time allotted or available for this project after my review.
Disconcerted, Martin walks the whole way, crosses the city for the first time on a weekday morning, goes along Lorenzkirche, Karolinenstrasse, is impressed while entering the immense building where uniformed orderlies, deciphering his paper, on each floor dictate to him the correct procedure.
So why even write this? Instead of showing me something, making me feel, we have empty adjectives such as immense and uniformed and also a stupid verb the likes of impressed. Honestly, there wasn’t a page I liked or even a sentence that was memorable. And that is rare even in a shitty novel. And I know, I know, this one was supposed to be good. To me, it was if this novel was of an elitist quality and for a crowd I do not belong to. Something written in a way a common man such as myself could not possibly get or understand. Perhaps a book for the most attuned and smartest among us, though I have to doubt it. Seriously. I have the same problem reading poems written by William Butler Yeats. There are references in his poems that I just do not get and his work leaves me feeling flat. I never studied the classics. I do not know the secret code that might let me in. But, in stark contrast, a writer such as W.G. Sebald writes of places and historical occurrences I know nothing about either but I feel my way through and his words are interesting. His words also mean something to me. And by my lights that is good work, that is art, high art, important art, and full, sound, and relevant to my day. Sebald refuses to waste my time. He makes me pay a price for reading him. Ollier ultimately gives me nothing so he gets no praise from me. And in return a bit of indifference to the rest of his work, and little else to make me think or feel otherwise. - M Sarki
"Disconnection" does the unimaginable. It juxtaposes two apocalypses. In alternating stories, Claude Ollier presents the end of the world twice in one century--our own.
The first vision is realistic, almost prosaic: A German student witnesses the end of World War II. Through the hardships and bombings, daily life goes on. The worker goes to the factory, the bureaucracy cranks away.
The second vision is in the future, perhaps only a few years from now. Some unnamed catastrophe has occurred. A lone man performs the routines of daily life; he has no sense that his existence is connected to anything, and no certainty that sense will be restored. He works on a play as an exercise for maintaining sanity; the piece may never be performed. As he works, he remembers the arts circle to which he once belonged. His memories are the only fragments left of the lost world.
The horror in each story is total, but completely different. The ultimate horror, however, lies in the suspicion that inevitably grows within the reader: These two voices may in fact be the same man. Can a single human being bear two apocalypses? - Sonja Bolle
Cecile Lindsay: I have always been struck by the absence of the Second World War and the Algerian War in your fictions.
Claude Ollier: If we exempt the fleeting and marginal “return” to European soil in L’Echec de Nolan, as phantomlike, muffled, nocturnal, and haunted by bad memories and nightmares, then all the other books are situated outside of Europe and far from Europe, farther and farther. On the one hand, it became almost impossible to “think” lucidly about what had been that sort of self-destruction of Europe between 1930 and 1945; on the other hand, it is clear that what is important in the evolution of the world since then is no longer taking place there. The obstinate and persevering hero of Le Jeu d’enfant senses and knows it from the beginning; it is the terrible knowledge acquired in adolescence, an admitted, outmoded fact of which he will never speak; the Second World War destroyed all he had been taught, humanism included, along with his whole inherited childhood universe. He is trying bravely, ingenuously perhaps, to take everything back to zero, in the beginning of La Mise en scene just as the book’s author tries, by a sort of narrative tabula rasa, to take back to square one all the elements of narration: observation of a country, a civilization, a foreign language, an unknown story. And all the primordial questions are asked there in a single movement: what is seeing, hearing, interpreting, exploring, reflecting, remembering, dreaming, writing, speaking? His instruction begins again, his life is reeducated elsewhere, on an “exotic” soil, extra-muros, far from the ruins of his childhood and his native land, far from the other side of the walls of a Europe whose Second World War culminated in a sort of cultural suicide. This war was for him the equivalent of that inaugural catastrophe that the hero of so many science fiction tales has trouble remembering or measuring but that conditions the entirety of his new universe. For him, it is as though this catastrophe “upstream” could not be recounted. And he tries anew to see, to tell, to write, having come into contact with foreign languages unknown to him—languages which, by their difference from his own, will allow him to look upon his mother tongue differently and to use it anew.
CL: A strong current in American literary criticism and critical theory of recent years has been a call for a more “political” approach to both writing literature and writing about literature. Experimental fiction has often been critiqued for what is seen as its “hyperformalism.” Were this charge to be made about your writing, how would you respond?
CO: I would answer that this accusation, which is superficial and banal, rests upon a regrettable lack of reflection on the question of language and of its relation to the body; upon the question of form and of the evolution of forms; and, more generally, upon any question that is epistemological, philosophical, or aesthetic in nature. Or I would answer, more simply, that those who make this charge have probably not read the books of which they claim to speak. For to use the term experimental is to misconstrue completely the very nature and practice of the act of writing such as they are manifested in books like mine. My work has absolutely nothing to do with “experimentation.” In the exact, scientific sense of the term, experimentation consists of isolating certain elements and conducting upon them duly controlled experiments, systematic manipulations, skillful alterations. I have nothing against this kind of work, and some of its results can be interesting and instructive. But my kind of intervention in respect to language and narrative forms has nothing to do with that. You could even say that it is the opposite: indeed, genuine experimentation necessarily tries as much as possible to eliminate chance, while my whole practice consists in provoking, in narrative invention, the greatest possible degree of chance, soliciting at every moment the irruption of elements which are more or less diffuse, forgotten, or firmly buried within the unconscious. I can only write, can only feel the pleasure of writing, if I reconnect with past emotions. I have an absolute need in the beginning for a precise setting, a setting in which I have lived; I need it so that the sensations, perceptions, and emotions can flow. Even on an “imaginary” planet, my writing can function only if it is plugged into memories, dreams, and intuitions. The phantasmic scenes of Epsilon and Enigma are closely derived from lived scenes from the recent or distant past. This is what I call the anchorage of a fiction. Everything in my texts arrives there by way of this anchorage in a place, by way of the paths, the journeys, the adventures, the dramas linked to this place. This is the source of the elan which allows for the development of a story: this story is launched on emotional traces, that is, on the reviviscence of the body’s displacements in a space known and forgotten, and on linkings of synesthetic, kinesthetic sensations whose recall and inscription in adequate terms regroup all the other sensations—visual, auditory, tactile. And for me the auditory sensations are much more important than the visual ones; the sounds connected with a place evoke that place for me, years later, much better than images: the tape recording is by far superior to photography. The tracing of lines is linked up to this play of recall and resurgences; the words, sentences, paragraphs, and blanks between lines must be fused by the permanence of this elan.
Each day, I start out on an impulse of this sort, which may only last a few minutes or can sometimes stretch out into several hours, but when I no longer feel its action within me, I know there is no point in insisting because there is no longer any vital necessity to continue, and it is only for that that I write. This necessity must be inscribed in each word, between the words, palpably. Only then can the reader feel an emotion of the same nature and force. If a sentence fails to transmit the emotion, it’s no good, it must be rejected or transformed. This work of palpable re-creation thus takes place through work upon forms: of vocabulary, of syntax, of typical and coded narrative formulas. This implies a putting into form of assonances, of relations of sonority, of rhythms, of silences, of the tempo intended for each piece. Here it is principally a question of music, a music of the text which is composed a bit like a musical score; I listen to it, I play it to myself, play it again, modify it, listen again, until the “musical phrase” is perfect, untouchable. If this work upon forms is called “hyperformalism,” then Bach, Schubert, Cervantes, Debussy, Rabelais, Flaubert, Bartok, Henry James, Proust and many others are remarkable hyperformalists.
It could be added that the necessity of an evolution of forms is inscribed within the exhaustion resulting from the prolonged use of these forms. By dint of being endlessly repeated, such forms become cliches, forms emptied of emotion. It is in order to reactivate emotive reactions (which form the basis of all the others— argumentative, critical, ethical) and to produce new ones that writers, musicians, and painters periodically “disconnect” from an ambient academicism diffused and lauded by the media, and compose works which appear to be completely apart, completely marginal and unassimilable. But these works create, there, a new poetics, and I would willingly speak of poetics in relation to my books, which are not novels. Finally, this necessity of disconnection and upheaval always rejoins at a certain point a sort of irrepressible curiosity, submitted to a mysterious logic of plastic transformations, and linked to meaning, to the relation of the body to meaning and form. All this, which should be developed point by point, clearly has nothing to do with the activity of some experimental laboratory.
CL: What are the “politics of fiction” in France in recent years? Why do we see a resurgence of more conventional novelistic forms and a rejection, from some quarters, of experimentation in fiction?
CO: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “politics of fiction.” Who enunciates, advocates, or applies this “politics”? What I know of are fashions, which are launched or sustained by the modem media and which are in a state of constant disjunction in respect to stages of creation such as they are lived by writers. By disjunction I mean a delay. I think that there was a remarkable series of narrative innovations in France after the end of the Second World War. One can study this series historically and formally, analyzing its currents, works, filiations, and influences. One can also, if one has the taste for it, study its echo (if there is one) in the media of the same period. One will note that the delay in providing information, to say nothing of analysis and criticism, is between two and ten years. And the principal objective of the accumulated power of the media is, today, to blur and confuse the paths, to tend to efface them, retaining only one slim trace for show, while awaiting the next show. This volatilization of reality takes place on a large scale and is motivated by the quest for quick sales and high ratings. All of this could give the impression of a “resurgence” of the traditional novel. But it has no more “resurged” now than it had foundered in the era of the New Novel, from 1955 to 1960. It has been in good health for the last forty years, and that’s perfectly normal. Every era is marked by a very major conservative current and a very minor innovative current. What characterizes a given era is the particular difference, the singular gap that it reveals between these two currents. The gap can be rather minimal in certain eras and considerable in others. It has tended to grow, in my opinion, over the last half-century, to a great extent because of the Second World War, all of whose consequences in the cultural domain have not yet been weighed by most of our contemporaries. And also because of the fact that in all the compartments of social life, evolution since the beginning of the century has been extremely sudden and rapid and unexpected, surprising everyone, creating in every domain—technological, military, political, ethical- enormous simultaneous upheavals which could not have been avoided, abated, attenuated. One submitted to them and continues to submit to their full force; one is obliged to adapt, and one adapts badly. So our Western society today strives to preserve intact the cultural sector and, above all, that of the narrative: it is absolutely imperative that this vital activity—the auto narrativity of a society, the “representation,” if you will, or the “recitation” of this society to itself—remain sheltered from this wave of questioning. And this sector can be stabilized; mastery over it can be maintained (it may well be the only one today). All that need be done is to uniformly marginalize any innovation, especially threatening manifestations of rupture. Thus it can be confirmed, curiously, in this fin de siecle, that any social change is finally admitted quite soon, even if it constitutes a break with secular customs, except in the narrative domain. Everything else can “blow”—the atom, the family, ideology—but literary genres must hold! Thus the novelistic still shines today as the enduring quietude of consciences, the glowing repose of the citizen who is buffeted on all other sides and who is frightened. The major media, plus computerization, in the service of generalized literary academicism: this is the burlesque cultural project in which we have been engaged for quite a while. This will function for a certain time. For a long time perhaps, longer than we think. And then, one fine day, the gap will resurface, in broad daylight, in all its violence.
CL: At the end of your essay “French Version,” you signal the need for a new reading, a different way of approaching the kind of texts you and others have written. Can you elaborate further on what specific directions or forms this new reading might take? How could this new kind of reading translate into literary criticism? How does this proposed accent on “le biographique,” on the person of the writer, differ from standard biographical criticism?
CO: When I suggested “new gestures of reading, ones which are attentive to metamorphoses,” at the end of “French Version,” I meant something like this: to place oneself in the movement of the text, that is, in its creative movement, in the same path that the text’s inventor was in the process of opening up, of clearing away, of exploring when he chose his words, cadences, punctuation marks, silences. In other words, to listen to the music of the text attentively enough to perceive its assonances, its resonances, its close or distant rhymes, its allusions, and at the same time the tensions, the differences between the passages that came easily (one can sense it) and those where the phrase nearly broke or hesitated or went off in an unexpected direction (one can sense this, too, in any finished text). Or again: to “get inside the skin” of the author, to adopt his apprehensions, successes, pleasures, doubts. This is the only way to feel the words vibrate fully and to deliver them of all their meaning—their manifest meaning as well as their hidden, yet perceptible meaning. This is not a new attitude, you will say, and that’s true: it holds for any truly organized text. I therefore linked “gestures of reading” to “metamorphoses.” And there I wanted to make reference to two contemporary events of extreme importance: the insistence of psychoanalysis on the play of the signifier, on the one hand, and on the other, the breakdown of European cultural ethnocentrism. There is no time to develop these two points in detail here. I will simply say that all my books, on the whole, call for an opening onto the Other, and this Other is as much the unconscious, the “double,” as it is the Other repressed by European writing for centuries—the Islamic civilization, for example. My books in which this aspect is most manifest are Marrakch Medine and Mon Double a Malacca, both subsequent to Le Jeu d’enfant. But in all of Le Jeu d’enfant the purpose is the same, the aim is identical. These books thus call for readers who will also be open and capable of abandoning, if only for a time, their prejudices and presuppositions-not only those about reading (the “character,” the “story,” pre-Freudian psychology, the taste for tragedy, etc.) but also the ideological ones, that is, all the customary cliches prevalent in the culture. This is not so easy. For example, it is significant that most of the French readers of Marrakch Medine, who claimed to be sensitive to a certain poetic quality of the text, did not, however, feel themselves mobilized by the text’s effort toward Islam; they thus recuperated for themselves, under the iridescent colors of exoticism, all that this book tried to do in order to break down the wall of exoticism and specifically of “orientalism. ” The Moroccan readers, on the other hand, judged the book to be important in this connection.
As for the critic, he is a reader like any other, even if he is overwhelmed by his readings. What I just said is valid for him as well, neither more nor less. A literary criticism applied to these books must exhibit the same openness, the same availability, which clearly requires a rupture with certain modes of behavior, too, imprinted with Eurocentric ideology.
Finally, I think I stressed that “le biographique” in “French Version” is intended as “symbolized,” rather than directly enunciated. This is to say that it is a “biographique” which is filtered and transposed by the author, the “instance” which organizes, chooses, and writes, and which is representative of a place, a period, and of the currents, intersections, practices, feelings, ideas, and voices which make themselves heard there. It is not a “biographique” which simply incorporates events in the life of the citizen who bears the same name as the writer. And these are, really, two distinct characters-another reality that the “media” fiercely deny and repress. This duality is difficult to explain and analyze, and is the source of many misunderstandings. I really should have thought, back then, of taking a pseudonym.
CL: How are other media—radio and film—related to writing fiction for you?
CO: First, allow me an objection: for me, radio and cinema are no more “media” than are language or the book. They are materials, ones that are different from those on which is exercised the writing of a book: sounds, noises, music, spoken or sung dialogues, fixed or mobile images, etc. For several years radio and cinema accompanied the writing of my books: in radio, in the form of “radiophonic pieces” composed at the request of French or German stations and broadcast all over Europe; in cinema, in the form of film critiques published in La Nouvelle Revue francaise, Le Mercure de France, and Les Cahiers du cinema (a selection of these articles was published in 1981 by Gallimard-Cahiers du Cinema as Souvenirs ecran); and also in the form of film scenarios, two of which have been produced. Writing for radio or cinema is something entirely different from writing a text of literary fiction. The former are more social, more sociable activities. I practiced them with pleasure, as a welcome diversion from the absorbing work of writing—even a pleasant recreation. Most of my radio pieces are developments or “enlargements” of the short texts collected in Nebules and Navettes. Having said this, I don’t think that these exercises effected upon composite materials have ever had any influence on my writing. They are different domains. - Interview from The Review of Contemporary Fiction