Diary

Patrick Mauriès

When I came to Britain from France, I happened to have with me Josephine Tey’s curious book Daughter of Time, a detective novel set entirely in a hospital bedroom, which is also an apologia for Richard III. Imagine my surprise when, in the tube from Heathrow, there came in and sat down opposite me a young and rather austere woman who was reading, with the appropriate detached bespectacled air, the latest of the Ricardian Society’s Bulletins. And she wore, like some pop-star badge, an enamel medallion exhibiting a boar – the emblem of her favourite king. To my regret, I could not make out whether she was also wearing the ring and bracelet which usually go with the medallion.

Reality had outdone fiction. This little Tube scene I shall always retain as the epitome of a certain vision of Britain today – a vision which has two main aspects. It is that of a naive Continental keen on a particular kind of literature, and on the sector of British culture which is associated with it. And it is that of the représentatif (as the French say – apologetically, it always seems) of a no less particular fringe of the Parisian intelligentsia (another catch-phrase). Contemporary British culture can also be said to have two main aspects. On the one hand, there is its love of the same – its ferocious attachment to what is already there. On the other, there is its fabulous, fictional outlook.

My trip was mostly dedicated to the completion of a survey that the French Lacanian magazine L’Ane, aware of my treacherous Anglophilia, had asked me to carry out. On the basis of what I had read by or about them, I had chosen to meet several important figures from the world of culture, a choice tinged with a sense of what I had supposed was their impact on their contemporaries – that’s to say, I had watered down my enthusiasms, a little. I was surprised and comforted (can reading be a trustworthy guide, after all?) to realise that these intellectuals, however distant their fields (which ranged from history to literary criticism, from iconology to the novel), were much closer to one another than I had expected. Perhaps they are linked by a relative openness to Continental culture, which would have made it easier for me, in my innocence, to read them. One must acknowledge, however, that Richard Cobb is not Frank Kermode, nor Angus Wilson D.P. Walker.

I had come knowing what Britain’s preconceived ideas were: her pragmatism and refusal of abstraction, her solitary traditions and diehard taste for erudition and travail honnête, however ungratifying; knowing, too, that my stock of clichés would vanish into thin air and that I would go back radiant with a new vision. This has not been the case. Britain is isolationist, empirical, and respectful of her traditions. ‘Without ideas of her own,’ Richard Cobb went so far as to add. All this the English went to no end of trouble to explain, some as stating a pure and simple matter of fact, others resignedly, others again in a state of near-schizophrenia. Several of them had investigated the problem of the relations between the culture of their country and the supposedly most extreme and violent forms of contemporary French thought. But however hard they had tried, whatever pleasure they said they had got from reading Continental texts, whatever desire they might have to bring them into their own culture, they were forced to admit they had failed – that they had had to go back to square one, pretending that they did not know what they knew about French culture, or remodelling, twisting it. Or, if they had rejected that attitude, they had had to choose exile.

It is in Britain and America, nevertheless, that the clearest and best-argued books on recent critical discussions in France are to be obtained. There you are sitting in France, and you suddenly feel that something strange may be about to happen, that there might be texts written half-way between France and Britain – all the more so as the British are one degree of consciousness ahead of the French. France’s own isolation and lack of curiosity are themselves notorious, and there now exists a Derrida and a Foucault who are Anglo-Saxon and quite different from the ones who write in their country of origin. When you mention this in London, though, they immediately tell you you are daydreaming, and start joking about how this is the ideology which has worked havoc among crazy academics. Works on deconstruction – to take only this extreme and dangerous case – are often precise and raise important issues. In Britain and America they are reviewed intelligently, and thus seem to inhabit a general framework of discussion which they have not been able to create in France. But nothing much comes of this. You have the feeling that the new breed of thought that could ensue is being stifled. This would be characteristic of Britain now: on the one hand, a perfect understanding, a novel and interesting definition of theory; on the other, a most forbidding indifference.

Someone whom I asked, in my Cartesian way, to expose the deep roots of this state of affairs came to the conclusion that British literary society was indeed ruled by the wish not to change and to keep things as they are (shades of the Ricardian lady and her boar). I should never have dreamt of giving such a simple explanation myself, for fear of being accused of Gallocentrism. But I am beginning to wonder, now that my trip has been marked by a return to primary values, whether the explanation does not have its element of truth. Here, then, is our confident Continental, once eager to light upon a new entente cordiale that might foster exotic theoretical readings, now faced with a disappointment as cruel as his fantasy has been seductive. Faced, too, with these exiled critics and deconstructors, whose only recourse has been to parade themselves as orthodox academics while remaining secretly faithful to an explosive credo, like the Nicodemites of the Renaissance.

British culture differs from its French or Continental equivalent in placing a tremendous emphasis on literary history, and in its taste for the circumstantial and love of periphrasis. This is an area which, in France, has yet to recover from Proust’s attacks; it has also had to face the militancy of recent criticism. Only now is it starting to build up again, and in drastically altered form. Thus, when a French reader sets foot in a British bookshop, the impact is powerfully bizarre – as he stumbles into a wall of memoirs and recollections. It’s as if the minutest ghost, returned to haunt the literary scene, can enchant the greedy English customer.

Let us consider now the extraordinary importance of biography for the British. To a Lacanian analyst I owe the discovery of an aspect of this infatuation with biography which had been hidden from me over the many years of my devoted if ineffective Anglophilia. This woman considers Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey as the ne plus ultra of distinguished necrophilia. And it is true that as soon as one moves towards the perception of biography as the symptom of such a disorder it becomes difficult to find a more flamboyant instance – though there’s always Martin Gilbert’s Churchill.

This analyst may have taken biography even more seriously than the biographers themselves, or their readers. I have never myself been able to read biographies – and English ones in particular – seriously. To do so would mean thinking that the author really believes that, as he is in the habit of stating in his preface, he has detected and assimilated his hero’s compulsions and secret motives, that he has given ‘the fairest picture of his hero and his hero’s milieu’. The belief is thought to justify the numerous additions, corrections and readjustments which load the indigenous literary chronicle, based as it is on the assumption that some people can reach the truth that others, less serious (here we go again), have missed. This is a mode of thinking wholly alien and forbidden to anyone who has lived through the critical quarrels of the Sixties and Seventies in France, and who has embraced the ban on ‘psychology’ and ‘referential illusion’. Does the biographer think he is withdrawing backstage? Or does he assert his presence? Is he lurking in such-and-such a sentence, such-and-such a detail? The reader of biographies – if he cannot take them at face value – finds himself, before his text, in much the same position as Crébillon’s lover before the object of his passion: lost or revelling in the universe of signs born of his not being able to believe his luck (in the case of the lover), or (in the case of the biographile) of the existence of a form so abundant and so naive.

What the reader who feeds on deconstruction and on menacing structuralist principles finds equally strange is the conception of literature which seems to underlie the never-ending turning-out of new lives. It’s as if the Anglo-Saxon literary world were obsessed with the desire that nothing should be lost, that literature be kept in an unending, unfailing – and impossible – present. The thought may be that since literature is such a transient reality, it is best to gather as much certainty as we can from its surroundings. A figure like the 19th-century English literary fraud John Payne Collier could probably never have flourished in France: if such a person has existed there, then the memory has not survived. No one will ever write his biography, or write about him a book resembling the one that Dewey Ganzel has written – in America, but it comes to the same thing – about Collier: and if they did write such a book, no one would write to a magazine like this to correct an error or approximation missed by the layman’s eye. Payne Collier is a good example in that his life bordered on the unreal and was spent in undermining all sense of certainty. Collier, Ganzel relates, fell victim to a most ghastly – a most romanesque – plot: but then the life of this inveterate inventor of fakes and fictions has the attributes of fiction. Either way, his biography is best described as a form of true novel or of fictitious reality.

Ganzel’s book may be a happax. But it brings out some of the more interesting aspects of biography in general. To think of the Anglo-Saxon biography as a contribution to an enormous, continuous story, half-way between reality and fiction, and jeopardising the existence of this obsolete distinction – to read it, not as a document, for its psychological value, but as the alias or alibi of fiction, as a form of fable – such are the lines along which my reading has evolved. I see it as a brilliant confirmation of my viewpoint that such different authors as Pietro Citati, with his Vita Breve di Katherine Mansfield, and Wolfgang Hildesheimer, with his Marbot, eine Biographie, should have turned to the Anglo-Saxon model in order to subvert it silently from the inside, multiplying its ambiguities and exploiting the secret possibilities of the genre. It may be that a new form of fiction – and, why not, a new school – has arrived, and has yet to be given the status of shibboleth, and the noisy management with which world literature seems to take towns by storm these days. It should come as no surprise that the Argentinian Borges has stepped forward to characterise the British gestus – the tone and outlook of Britain’s literary world. The same phenomenon is at work in the treatment given by Derrida to Oxford’s academic Establishment in La Carte Postale?

This kind of fiction is attacked, when people bother to take an interest, on the grounds that it does not belong anywhere, neither to this genre nor to that, standing as it does at the crossroads of all genres. Nor can it be classified in terms of that théorie des genres which has probably never been so strong as it is today. As far as the present diarist is concerned, it can be called a utopian genre. But then I am between genres, in a sense, myself. For me, Britain is a mise en acte, a flowing dramatic fiction of the very kind I am talking about, while, at the same time, undeniably, a Utopia, and if deconstructors and English amateurs of French theory acknowledge their exclusion in a nowhere, I have to say that I, too, belong in a no man’s land, which is neither English nor French, and where it is not even necessary to change the names in the passage from the one language to the other.