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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Pierre Bergounioux jusqu’à Faulkner

by Jean-Claude Lebrun

Pierre Bergounioux: From Gilgamesh To Faulkner, { Style As Experience}

{Le Style comme expérience}, L’Olivier pub., 2013

Translated Monday 28 October 2013, by Isabelle Métral

This rather thin book of eighty pages is certainly one of the densest that can be conceived in these times of ours. It is so rich and thought- provoking in its references to a great variety of texts that it invites re-reading. As he traces the stages of the process towards the advent of literature, the author makes its (to him) cardinal connection with the historical social structures crystal clear.

Pierrre Bergounioux thus follows the long line of development from primitive societies to Faulkner. From the egalitarianism that planes down “the variations of subjective factors” to the primacy given to the manifold particular, with characters eventually left in charge of conducting the narrative, the omniscient narrator gives way to each character’s stream of consciousness.

From the original texts to those of the Mississipi novelist!

The long succession of writers from Gilgamesh’s Mesopotamian epic – eighteen centuries B.C - to the duke of Saint Simon’s Memoirs were almost exclusively interested in “those that owned the means of production, the slaves, and the land”, until Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau appeared, the first writers that, not being noblemen, gave literature a new direction, opened it to “new contents, novel forms and tonalities.” The golden age of the novel was in the making. Soon the “conquering prose styles” of Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy would assert themselves, giving a richer picture of the working classes’ destitution than the parish and State records, unfolding a vast historical fresco. Those were the times when prose writers aimed at completeness and wholeness in their recreation of reality.

It only took another fifty years for the rocketing development of the sciences to dwarf the novelists’ claim to represent all of reality. Their all-encompassing visions, now impossible for authors that were besides “captive to their condition”, gave way to the patchy visions of individuals who cannot see beyond the walls of their lodgings. And so it was that Joyce chose to re-write the Odyssey, the first formally perfect narrative, inscribing it in the streets of Dublin, one day in June 1904, after acknowledging that he was incapable of saying anything new. And Kafka himself, uncertain about the future turn of events, was unable to complete two of his novels. As to Proust, being forced to acknowledge the dead end to which the narrative of his first work had led him, he would “relate his frustrating life, the time wasted unsuccessfully seeking the theme of his work.”

All three still adopted the position of a detached observer. And yet one of their predecessors in 1839 had all but tipped the rules over board when he had placed one of his characters on a battlefield in a position where he – Fabrice, as he had called him -was unable to understand what was going on. Except that his own status of omniscient narrator had prevented him from taking the jump and adopting the viewpoint of his creature, a blind witness on the Waterloo field [1].

Stendhal now, the creator of Fabrice, had merely glimpsed what a “poorly educated” American in 1927 [2] would develop to the full: the necessity for writers to detach themselves from their own selves, to steal into other minds, adopt their languages. So as to open up new perspectives and so far unexplored meanings.

And to Bergounioux’s mind, as brilliant as it is rigorous, this development cannot be viewed outside the history of the social classes that determines its course and its ruptures.

[1In his novel La Chartreuse de Parme, 1839 (The Charterhouse of Parma).

[2Sartoris, published that year, marked the beginning of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha chronicle.

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