Another Life/Une autre vie
Texts collected by/textes réunis par Mélanie Joseph-Vilain & Judith Misrahi-Barak
Montpellier : Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2012
Broché/Paperback. 309 p. ISBN : 978-2842699697. 24 €
Reviewed by Camille Fort
Université de Picardie Jules-Verne, Amiens
An interesting venture, blurring the lines between biographical and structural analysis, this series of essays offers to investigate the “many lives” of a writer – more specifically, the influence on an author’s vision and style of their previous, non-literary experience, often in another realm of activity. The short but significant editors’ preface starts by reminding the readers that Barthes’s famous formula about the death of the author should be qualified, as Barthes himself acknowledged, and that this figure remains an all-important locus for literary critical practice. One fascinating issue, therefore, is to wonder how a writer’s professional life, often begun before he or she answered a literary calling, can haunt or shape up their writing. It leads us to reexamine the relations between texts, readers and authors – authors, that is, as they can be “decoded in the text”. (Maurice Couturier, the theorist quoted here, is summoned as well as Genette to help nuance Barthes’s coup de grâce – quite rightly so, though one might regret the absence of Wayne C. Booth, their predecessor, and his “implied author”).
The following essays provide a variety of studies and viewpoints, couched in various manners and even genres, since the first contribution is Cyril Dabydeen’s poem, wistful and carnavalesque in turn, mediating his homage to “Wilson Harris, land surveyor”. It supplies a forceful introduction to the next exegesis (in analytical prose this time) by Fred d’Aguiar, one of the most significant contributions in this volume. D’Aguiar envisages land surveying as a “cartography of understanding” which taught Harris that meaning is not rock-solid when it comes to a human assessment of nature, whether his own or the landscape scrutinized. Land surveying as a via media leading from a cult of mathematic accuracy to a new language of pulsion, imagination and mythical recreation makes a fascinating case indeed.
Some of the essays are less successful than others in keeping up this degree of fascination. The central chapters on Arundhati Roy sound a little off the mark, especially when attempting to read the author’s novel as “a blueprint of the self”  – perhaps an incautious metaphor, especially as Roy the author is then left aside in favour of more general remarks about structure and chronology. Others, however, succeed not only in reminding the readers that an author’s life is often multi-faceted – Edward Said’s passion for classical music, Amitav Ghosh’s formation as an anthropologist – but also in uncovering the traces left by these early or parallel quests in their writing. Thus, Eric Doumet retraces the impact of Linton Kweti Johnson’s activism on the very texture of his poems. In one of the two contributions written in French, Yolaine Parisot examines the influence of journalism on several Haitian writers, notably their capacity to coin cyphers, codes and detours made necessary by dictatorial censorship. Sabine Lauret’s careful dissection of Ghosh’s impersonal narrative voice provides interesting connections between the author’s sense of place and his capacity to mediate between scholarly wisdom and more direct forms of storytelling.
Postcolonialism holds an important place as a critical beacon, highlighting the shifts and turns in some of the authors’ works – Harris’s, Roy’s, but also Bartolomé de Las Casas’s, the “proto-postocolonial” Dominican whose studies in rhetorics served his later subversion of the colonial discourse, or Patrick Chamoiseau’s, whose works evidence the Creole author’s “doubt and torment”  as he negotiates with trauma and the need to legitimise himself from a cultural and literary viewpoint. Likewise, Carribean author M. NourbeSe Philip’s experiments in numerous genres help her raise the muted voice of the “silenced” subaltern, the African female slave. Myriam Moïse’s careful examination of the Mother Tongue as an absent nexus in NourbbeSe Philip’s poetry leads us to realise that silence, in her case, is used as an obsessive site of resistance. Other authors are shown to develop different responses and tactics towards other forms of oppression, as in Mark Froud’s moving account of Janet Frame’s ambivalent relationship, both liberating and angst-inducing, with teachers and teaching.
Just as it opened with an original creation, the book closes with Haitian author Marie-Céline Aignant’s lyrical testimony on the importance of personal and collective history: her experience of diaspora is shown to fuel her own writing. This final contribution showcases the strength of this book, which lies in the vivid and varied display of cases in point, the sense of interplay between story and history, self-criticism and self-recreation, loss and gain which it brings about. Its weakness may proceed from the same abundance, in that the essays sound slightly unfocused or disconnected at times from the seminal theme. Still, it might be unfair to demand of any book that it encapsulate so large a theme, and as an array of studies on the author’s multiple ways of dealing with his selves, past and present, it is a rich and generous contribution.
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