Putting French Literary History on Trial

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From Public Books:

Once, French theorists tried to bury the author. In 1967, in a now famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” critic Roland Barthes declared the author “dead,” suggesting that the literary text was merely a “fabric of quotations”—a dense weave of disparate borrowings, echoes, and recycled words. Two years later, philosopher Michel Foucault responded to Barthes’s dead author with his notion of the “author-function.” “What is an author?” anyways, he mused, and “What difference does it make who is speaking?”

Despite French Theory’s claims to the contrary, the identity of the author, in the case of minoritized writers, has always seemed to matter. This is especially true of “Francophone” writers—a designation that has long served as a byword for “Black” or “foreign” and frequently is applied to any Afro-descended writer working in French, even those born in France. In the history of Black authors writing in French—and in Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s new novel, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt—it turns out that authorship matters very much.

In fact, in 1968—a year after Barthes announced that the author was dead and cautioned critics against the pitfalls of confusing close reading with author biography—the French publishing world erupted in a literary scandal turned witch hunt, one that hinged almost entirely on questions of authorship and authenticity. For 1968 was also the year the Éditions du Seuil in Paris published a breakthrough novel by the young Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence), which won one of France’s most prestigious literary honors, the Prix Renaudot. A baroque and bloody history of an imaginary West African empire spanning the thirteenth to twentieth centuries, Ouologuem’s novel met with critical acclaim. Then it became embroiled in a controversy that has spanned multiple continents and several decades.

Initially hailed as an African Proust, Ouologuem was soon denounced by critics as a mere plagiarist and charged with having stolen passages from writers such as André Schwarz-Bart and Guy de Maupassant. The English novelist Graham Greene even filed a lawsuit against Ouologuem and his publishers at Seuil, claiming that lengthy passages had been directly plagiarized from Greene’s novel It’s a Battlefield (1934). Seuil stopped production and removed the book from shelves; the novel was subsequently banned in France. (Only in 2018 has Le Devoir de violence been reedited and republished in French—the result of work by scholars in recent decades to rehabilitate Ouologuem’s reputation and clear his name, so to speak.)

What happened next both mystified and maddened French critics: Ouologuem disappeared from public view, seemingly without a trace. Although he would go on to publish two more works in short succession, Lettre à la France nègre (1969; A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter to France) and an erotic novel, Les milles et une bibles du sexe (1969; A Thousand and One Bibles of Sex), under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph, Ouologuem ultimately decided to “wash his hands of writing in French,” as Christopher Wise puts it. Ouologuem refused to state his case, turned his back on the French publishing world, and returned to Mali.

Now, a new novel has been dedicated to Yambo Ouologuem: 31-year-old Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (2021; The Most Secret Memory of Men), which won the Goncourt last year. In it, Sarr revisits Ouologuem’s story to confront the racist history of France’s elite literary prizes, the parasitism and hypocrisy of literary criticism, and the ambivalent status of African writers working in former colonial languages within a global literary marketplace.

With his masterful novel, Sarr has done more than set ablaze the French literary scene. Ultimately, La plus secrète mémoire des hommes puts on trial French literary history itself.

. . . .

Sarr’s novel is a literary history cum detective novel about an elusive Ouologuem-like figure. Inspired by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s novel about the search for an obscure poetess, The Savage Detectives (1998), it follows the peregrinations of Diégane Latyr Faye, a Senegalese novelist living in Paris in 2018 who stumbles on traces of a mythic text whose author remains shrouded in mystery. The manuscript, Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain (The labyrinth of the inhuman), was published to much fanfare in 1938 by a certain T. C. Elimane, a young Senegalese student who became the darling of the French literary world before charges of plagiarism led to a very public fall from grace.

Hailed as a “Black Rimbaud” (Rimbaud nègre) before being condemned as a fraud, Elimane (whose real name, we learn, is Elimane Madag Diouf) emerges as a clear historical double for Yambo Ouologuem. But his story also bears similarities to the Antillean writer René Maran, the first Black writer to receive the Goncourt. In 1921—exactly a century before Sarr’s win—Maran was awarded the Goncourt for his novel Batouala: veritable roman nègre (1921; Batouala: A True Black Novel), which was subsequently banned for its harsh critique of French colonization.

. . . .

Diégane’s search for the ghost of Elimane is also ultimately a journey through texts and a patchwork of experimental literary forms. The novel incorporates press clippings, letters, interviews, text messages, journal entries, reports, oral histories, and manuscripts-in-progress. An entire chapter, told from the perspective of Elimane’s aging mother, is narrated without terminal punctuation.

. . . .

Formal virtuosity aside, Sarr’s novel performs an especially adept sleight of hand in its very premise, since Sarr both stages and enacts the ambivalences of navigating the French publishing world as an African writer, satirizing the world of French letters as he soars to its greatest heights. Sarr’s narrator, Diégane, is part of a throng of young, ambitious writers, mostly from the African diaspora, living in Paris and vying for purchase in a cutthroat literary scene, where success comes at the cost of leveraging one’s own identity—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—to become legible.

The world of French letters is where Diégane and his friends, like Elimane before them, explore and feed a passion for literature. But it is also a world fundamentally unprepared and unwilling to receive them on their own terms—unable, as Sarr writes, to see the African writer as anything besides a nègre d’exception.

. . . .

Sarr’s most biting commentary thus is reserved for the French literary marketplace, with its neocolonial and essentialist trappings. The novelist and playwright Marie NDiaye, who in 2009 became the first Black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, is a case in point. Despite being born in France, she was treated as a twenty-first-century évoluée, a term coined by French colonists to describe colonized subjects who had “successfully” assimilated France’s linguistic, cultural, and social norms.

Link to the rest at Public Books

1 thought on “Putting French Literary History on Trial”

  1. One finds the OP’s failure to place Barthes et al. — or, for that matter, the Ouologuem affair — in even slightly wider context than the plastic-imitation-ivory-tower of mid-1960s French cultural-gatekeeper neoimperialist imperatives more than somewhat suspicious. One further finds the failure to look beyond France equally suspicious; earlier this morning I was looking across the room at a copy of Bound to Violence picked up in either Cambridge or London in the 1980s (which I had been rereading last fall and hadn’t moved back to storage). One also suspects that tunnel vision of these natures is the actual cause of the problems leading to the OP, but that would involve criticizing certain lions of mid-century literary life as being egomaniacal navel-gazing buffoons, and such thoughts might lead to the vapors (or The Vapors, a post-punk band of very small notoriety indeed, and there’s probably more than one by that name).

    One might also infer that this shark started this earlier and is rather bored and annoyed with the universe, typing away on a laptop in a waiting room fifteen minutes after his appointment time with at least another half hour to go; one would be correct…

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