WHAT COMES AFTER THE END? LITERATURE AND FRENCH IDENTITY IN XABI MOLIA’S REPRISE DES HOSTILITÉS – by Philippe Brand

By Philippe Brand, Assistant Professor of French, Lewis & Clark College, pbrand@lclark.edu.

Precipitated by recent terrorist attacks and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, questions of national identity have become a battleground in French political discourse as candidates attempt to position themselves for the upcoming presidential elections of 2017. As France contemplates its future, the tenor of the debate can be measured by the titles of such recent bestsellers as Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission [Submission] (2015) and Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français [The French Suicide] (2014). Significantly, as illustrated by recent polemics over the way French history is taught in schools, politicians are arguing not only over France’s future, but also over its past. These arguments highlight a desire to craft history as a coherent, linear narrative promoting a certain ideal of French identity. As a result, literature, by calling attention to its own artifice and narrative structures, can play a powerful role in critiquing the constructed nature of such narratives of national identity. Xabi Molia’s 2007 novel Reprise des hostilités [Resumption of Hostilities] paints the portrait of a France teetering on the edge of the twenty-first century, afflicted by a literal ‘decomposition’, where everything rings hollow: feelings, language, political discourse, and even the afterlife. At the same time, another narrative grows in the interstices, nourished by quotations from the great writers of the twentieth century, and writing emerges as a potential last form of resistance and recognition for those left behind by the movement of History.

Molia’s novel tells the story of the life, the death, and the afterlife of Marin, a young author struggling with his frustrated desires. Obsessed with Joseph Bel, an unscrupulous businessman turned right-wing political figure whom he blames for his father’s death, Marin hatches an ill-conceived plan to infiltrate Bel’s inner circle and orchestrate his downfall. Disgusted with Bel’s nationalist rhetoric but seduced by his power, as Marin grows closer to Bel, his plot for revenge is suddenly interrupted by his own unexpected death. Death, however, far from giving closure or a sense of meaning to his life, opens up a new horizon. The so-called ‘Paradise’ in which Marin awakes after his death slowly reveals itself to be a carceral space filled with microphones and cameras that record every action of its inhabitants, and Marin resolves to escape. In this fragmentary text, characterized by chronological jumps and intercalated micro-narratives, the reader must reconstruct the events of the novel to understand Bel’s political ascendance, Marin’s fate, and his desperate attempts to change the course of history.

Narrative Structure and Political Storytelling

Although debates over pedagogical approaches to French history date back to the 1970s, the most recent controversy erupted on 28 August 2016, when François Fillon, former Prime Minister and current prospective candidate of the center-right party Les Républicains, declared that French history should be “rewritten […] as a national narrative. The national narrative is a History made up of men and women, of symbols, of places, of monuments, and of events that find meaning and significance in the progressive creation of the singular civilization of France.”[1] Not to be outdone, a few weeks later Fillon’s political rival, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, promoted the concept of a national narrative that would operate as a sort of all-encompassing myth capable of erasing contemporary differences of ethnic and cultural identity: “Regardless of the nationality of your parents, young French citizens, from the moment you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls and Vercingétorix.”[2] It is crucial to note that the idea of a national narrative is not limited solely to the right. Weighing in on the debate on 27 September, the left-wing Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon declared “Personally, I don’t want a Gallic ethnicization of the debate. But yes, I declare that we are the daughters and sons of the Enlightenment and of the great Revolution! From the moment one becomes French, one adopts the national narrative.”[3] This desire to create a national narrative is acutely powerful because it comes at a time when France feels adrift from its traditional moorings. As intellectual historian Mark Lilla argues in his study on reactionary political thought, “Over the past quarter-century, French society has undergone changes that almost no one is happy with, and neither left-leaning intellectuals nor centrist politicians seem capable of addressing them satisfactorily.”[4] Lilla notes that such conditions create a fertile environment for nostalgia, which he argues “can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope.”[5] Historian Pierre Nora employs an explicitly literary term when discussing that traditional nostalgic account of French history, describing it as a “national novel” stretching from “Gaul to de Gaulle”.[6] For Nora, that model of traditional history as novel — “the old national identity, one which associated past and future in a sense of continuity, of filiation, and of project” — has come to an end, and the question of what will come next remains to be defined.[7]

In his essay Le Dénouement, literary critic Lionel Ruffel traces a connection between the disappearance of an overarching coherent historical narrative and a blossoming of formal innovation in contemporary literature. Ruffel describes a recurring theme in a group of recent French novels, namely, the depiction of liminal or transitional states that call into question conventional notions of beginnings and endings. He claims that such scenes can be read as “a problematizing of the end that serves as a narrative and diegetic frame for books”.[8] Ruffel sees this tendency as an attempt to resituate the novel within a literary and historical context unsettled by the events of the late twentieth century. He argues:

beginning around the end of the 1970s and during the next twenty years, people began to evoke four types of ends, which are close to each other, without being equivalent: the end of avant-gardes, the end of ideologies, the end of history, the end of modernity under the name of postmodernity.[9]

Ruffel argues that as writers begin to question those notions in their fiction, they tend to employ narrative forms that undermine the underlying teleological assumptions that structure such arguments about ‘the end’. In particular, he takes notice of “the recurrence […] of these endings that open the story”.[10] Just such an “ending” opens Reprise des hostilités, as on the very first page of the novel, Marin wakes up dead. More specifically, he awakens in a strange bed, in what appears to be a nondescript hotel room, and his evident confusion is played against the reader’s uncertainty as both reader and Marin attempt to make sense of Marin’s situation.

Literary scholar Peter Brooks claims in his book Reading for the Plot that “Narrative is one of the large categories or systems of understandings that we use in our negotiations with reality, specifically, in the case of narrative, with the problem of temporality: man’s time-boundedness, his consciousness of existence within the limits of mortality.”[11] From the conventional notion that it is “death that writes finis to the life and therefore confers on it its meaning,” it logically follows that in narrative, “only the end can finally determine meaning, close the sentence as a signifying totality.”[12] Indeed, as Marin is informed, one of the most popular activities in the afterlife is the composition of “life stories […]. We help people create some order out of the events of their life, so that they can give some meaning to what they have done”.[13] Marin’s death, however, rather than providing a sense of closure, opens the door onto a new realm of narrative possibility. His death serves as a hinge, both endpoint and beginning for the two narrative strands that compose Marin’s story.

The novel that begins with Marin’s death can be envisioned as a sort of double helix, with the story of Marin’s life and the story of his afterlife wrapping around each other as the non-sequential text leaps chronologically — and ontologically — from one narrative thread to the other. The text is divided into sixty-five short chapters, most just a few pages long. As the narrative segments begin to coalesce, the reader is drawn into not one, but two interwoven story lines that resonate in intriguing fashion with each other, as well as with a number of shorter micro-narratives interspersed throughout the text. The intertwining of the two narratives also serves to defer the resolution of both threads, as Molia plays heartily on what theorist Roland Barthes refers to in his work S/Z as the “hermeneutic code”, or elements in a story that are not explained, creating a sense of mystery for the reader.[14] The reader discovers early on, for example, that Marin is in a section of Paradise reserved for those who died a violent death, and Marin notes in passing one day that “the wound in his torso had scarred over and almost disappeared”.[15] We do not know, however, how Marin died, nor do we know the circumstances that led to his violent death. Over the course of the novel, the reader’s desire to discover the truth about Marin’s death is initially deferred and then intensified by the mystery of what will happen in his afterlife, as Marin, increasingly desperate, resolves to escape from Paradise. In turn, the narrative tension of Marin’s afterlife is heightened and deferred by events back on earth, for the novel slowly reveals fragments of Marin’s life, leading up to his untimely death.

Historical Turning Points

Following the loss of his job at a business run into the ground by Joseph Bel, Marin’s father drives his car into a tree, dying instantly. Obsessed by his father’s death, for which he holds Bel responsible, Marin vows to avenge his father and slowly infiltrates Bel’s inner circle. Bel’s rise as a politician from small-town mayor to the founder of his own political party takes place against the backdrop of a clearly identified France at the turn of a new millennium.[16] His populist, anti-European Union, anti-immigrant politics reflect and play off contemporary anxieties about France’s place in the world at the start of the twenty-first century:

He fustigated ‘[…] these gentlemen from Paris, the whole clique of incompetents and the old boys network’, the disappearance of democracy in favor of the insane multiplication of intermediaries, the central banks, the judges, Europe […]. – Me, he repeated, I’m from the France of good, decent people, workers and blue collars, not the France of Brussels and stuffed shirts.[17]

Bel’s rapid ascension over the course of the novel demonstrates the efficacy of such discourses, which have been echoed recently throughout Europe.

In her study on fin de millénaire French fiction, Ruth Cruickshank calls attention to a perceived crisis of “l’exception française, a nexus of identity narratives — economic, political, diplomatic, cultural, and indeed, literary — felt to be under increasingly severe threat from global market economics.”[18] It is precisely that anxiety that Joseph Bel seeks to exploit in his grasp for political relevance. In a pivotal scene, Bel organizes a grand celebration in Poitiers to commemorate the turning of the millennium, evoking the past to introduce his vision of the future. Dressed as Charles Martel, the Frankish ruler who halted the advance of Muslim forces in the Battle of Poitiers in the year 732, Bel declares, “if I chose this symbolic place to enter into the new millennium with you, it’s because I believe in the future […]. Our French civilization is marvelous, […] and we are the living testimony of a glorious history.”[19] Bel’s evocation of French exceptionalism is calculated for maximum political impact, but the hollowness of his discourse is revealed later in the novel, when he decides that his traditionalist rhetoric has become politically ineffective and he abruptly decides to change course in his political platform:

They would no longer be opposed to abortion. They would no longer talk about Christian culture and the glorious past. They would shift the focus toward poverty and social justice, the corruption of the elite, the violence of the suburbs, the dangers of immigration and globalization. They would be part of the twenty-first century. […] Around us, things are moving, it’s the new millennium, we need to be part of it.[20]

Bel’s discourse provides a pungent commentary on the contemporary French political landscape. He is ruthless with his political rivals, media-savvy, and good on camera.[21] Throughout the novel, Molia demonstrates the centrality of the media in the construction of Bel’s image through the elaboration of a tightly woven web of references to television appearances, magazine profiles, and books written both by and about Bel.[22]

As Marin becomes increasingly complicit with Bel, writing his speeches and composing his biography, he begins to feel more and more culpable. When Bel introduces Marin as his “collaborator”, the historic echo of French collaboration in World War II is made explicitly clear.[23] Marin, like many of the other characters, considers the end of the twentieth century, the moment in which he is living, as a historical turning point, and wonders what will come next, following what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard referred to as the end of “grand narratives”:[24]

He imagined past eras as epic times: violent perhaps, unsettled and uncomfortable, but thrilling (with battles, utopias, reasons for being, the Resistance, May 68). Often, he dreamed up of giving up that portion of liberty that others had won for him, so that he could reconquer it. […]

He felt like he had been born just after the last revolution, in one of those peaceful Western conglomerates where history seemed to be finished, he wrote in a new notebook.[25]

As Marin walks through the streets of Paris one night, he speaks to himself out loud, trying to situate himself in history and to bring his project into being by giving voice to it, “I’m walking in Paris. I’m at the end of the twentieth century. The end of the twentieth century. That which follows the end. My name is Marin. I’m going to avenge my father.”[26] His extraordinary self-consciousness reveals an unpleasant truth about his ambitions: to put it bluntly, Marin feels like a bit of a loser, and his project of vengeance gives him something to do and provides a raison d’être that has been sorely lacking in his life. Marin is constantly telling himself stories about his own life, and throughout his abbreviated existence, the gap between his desires and his reality vexes him as he attempts to find a role to inhabit. Simply put, Marin’s plans for vengeance give him a spectacular project to accomplish, allowing him to experience an intense “exaltation […] in imagining himself as the executor of a clandestine justice.”[27] Marin savors his project, and although he keeps delaying the actual accomplishment of his plans, that deferral heightens his excitement while he imagines the various ways his vengeance could play out. As he progressively comes to realize that he is simply not a man of action, however, Marin must concoct ever more elaborate and subtle plans to justify his dithering.

Tales of Guilt and Decline

Indeed, a great deal of self-justification is called for, as the trappings of success that attend Marin’s infiltration into Bel’s inner circle prove quite alluring. Although he is appalled by Bel’s rhetoric and ashamed by their association, Marin quickly comes to appreciate the perks and the affluence that accompany his new lifestyle, moving into a new apartment in a trendy neighborhood. As soon as Marin starts earning a bit of money, he immediately upgrades his lifestyle, furnishing his apartment with:

rare materials, brushed stainless steel, Moroccan zellige tiles […], exotic woods […], a rug from Boukhara, an Italian couch […]. The expenditures were significant, without a doubt too much […], but Marin insisted on these furnishings, which gave him the happy concerns of a homeowner.[28]

As time goes on, Marin grows more comfortable, and his plans to avenge his father lose their urgency: “A new life was starting. […] He was buying good bread, thick steaks, artisanal cheeses and imported wines. […] Little by little, his plans for revenge were drifting away from him.”[29] Most importantly for Marin, his new affluence offers him an immediate sense of belonging, predicated upon a shared sense of cultural capital:

He drank smoked tea on café terraces, absent-mindedly observing all these people who read the same newspapers as him, who also dreamt about Cuba and trekking in India, who also talked about one day leaving everything behind to move to the countryside, and also about going to see the new Iranian film.[30]

That consumer mentality is not limited to earth, however, for it extends even to the afterlife. Paradise is not a place for leisurely contemplation—there are hardly any novels to be found in the library—rather, there is a bustling casino, not to mention the possibility to go kayaking, play beach volleyball, and participate in bikini contests. The vision of Paradise as stereotypical male fantasy responds to the expectations of consumers conditioned by a lifetime of exposure to media representations of such images. The nubile women of Paradise incarnate a fantasy of women as indistinguishable and interchangeable objects designed for sexual pleasure,[31] and indeed, Caroline, Marin’s sexual partner in Paradise, briefly assuages the feelings of sexual inadequacy that plague Marin on earth. That sense of inadequacy is exacerbated by his internalization of the expectations and aesthetics of contemporary pornography. As Marin thinks back to his relationship with Chloé, “He chafed at the memory of the way they used to make love. He’d go about it better, today, and he imagined it more or less like in a porno film […]. He felt capable, now”.[32] Although Marin has already published two science fiction novels, he hungers for more widespread recognition of his literary potential. While he is ashamed to admit it, he takes pleasure in writing for Bel. The experience lends him a certain “status as a writer, to which, whatever he might say, he was not indifferent. […] Considering the rhythm of the sentence, the richness of the sounds, the brilliance of his vocabulary, Marin had found his own style.”[33] Hearing Bel speak his words aloud, however, is excruciating.

Bel’s political ascension can be seen as a response to popular perceptions that something is rotten in the state of France itself. A pervasive sense of moral decay runs throughout the pages of the novel, from the mediocre, derivative novels of writer Valéry Mouscron to Joseph Bel’s underhanded political tactics.[34] What is more, the country is afflicted by a quite literal “decomposition,” a mysterious sort of fungus that attacks whatever it touches, from buildings to people.[35] Indeed, Antoine, Marin’s older brother, is one of its victims, and we see him for the last time dying in a hospital, his body covered with splotches and his hand eaten away.[36] If I alluded to Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet a moment ago, Shakespeare’s tale of a son who must avenge his father’s death resonates throughout the novel. Marin perpetually defers his plans for revenge, and during their last encounter, Antoine berates Marin for his failure to act, calling him “Monsieur Hamlet.”[37] Earlier in the novel, Marin quotes directly from the play, noting that “never had he seen his father’s ghost before him, telling him in a cavernous voice: ‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love, revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.’”[38] Most importantly, just as Shakespeare employs the device of a play within a play, Marin comes up with the idea of writing a book within a book.

A Literary Vengeance

After Bel asks Marin to ghostwrite his autobiography, Marin concocts the most baroque of his various revenge schemes, “an infallible and refined vengeance,” one that has the dual advantages of destroying Bel’s reputation while simultaneously proving Marin’s literary genius.[39] Marin hits upon the idea of composing the entirety of Bel’s autobiography from unattributed citations from a host of famous twentieth-century French writers, changing only dates and proper names, as needed, “He would sometimes have […] the feeling of putting together a puzzle, not making one up: he would gather together the interlocking fragments of an ongoing story.”[40] In Marin’s fantasy, the particularity of Bel’s autobiography goes unnoticed at first, but as time goes by and readers start to recognize familiar passages, he imagines the eruption of a media scandal, with newspapers proclaiming “Not one single line was written by him! He pillaged our libraries! THE PLAGIARISM OF THE CENTURY![41] Following the outrage, Bel’s career collapses. Yet Marin’s story continues, and he imagines that many years later, a curious writer whom he calls “B” decides to investigate the intriguing tale. As B researches Bel’s history, he comes to realize that the politician could never have pulled off such an audacious feat; therefore, someone else must have accomplished the entire scheme. Once B discovers Marin’s name in the archives, and more importantly, his career as a writer, things begin to fall into place:

He would immediately want Marin to be the plagiarizer, a man of the shadows who wordlessly accepted the thankless tasks he was offered, while secretly preparing a formidable sabotage. It would be very novelistic, exactly the sort of thing for B, himself a writer, in his spare time, of cerebral police thrillers. Caught up in the game […], he would pursue the investigation, preceding in a way his own detective, who would reconstruct in turn, in the next volume of the series of which B was the author, the secret chronology of the crime.[42]

This dizzying mise-en-abyme allows Marin to become the unsung hero of an epic tale of good versus evil. Indeed, in his fantasy, “Marin had contributed, modestly but all the same, to the rescue of the Republic. Marin had shaken up the course of History. […] And it was thus, after this inexorable chain of circumstances, that Marin would regain his standing.”[43]

Confronted with his inadequate projects for vengeance, an increasingly desperate Marin finally decides to have Bel killed, at that point less for his father’s memory than for his own humiliation and self-loathing. Reprise des hostilités abounds with deception and trickery, and Marin’s assassination plot is one of many such instances. Marin proposes a faked assassination as a political stunt to Bel, who is plunging in the polls. Bel takes the bait, but unknown to him, Marin instructs the killers to go through with the shooting. Ironically, just as Marin fears that his elaborate literary intrigue may somehow backfire and ultimately benefit Bel, the assassination plot is botched, and Marin takes a nine-millimeter bullet to the chest while Bel survives and goes on to enjoy an ascendant political career.[44] Marin’s death in the final pages of the novel finally answers the question of how he ended up in Paradise, yet another narrative thread remains.

What Comes After the End?

Throughout the novel, scenes from Marin’s afterlife are intercut with his tale of revenge, and while the tale of his life leads necessarily and inevitably toward his death, the story of his afterlife leads toward a much more unpredictable end. The disclosure of Marin’s violent death in the first chapter shapes the reader’s horizon of expectations, and the knowledge of Marin’s death also alters the reader’s experience of the novel, creating a degree of complicity between reader and narrator. Throughout the account of Marin’s life, the reader knows more than he does, which lends both poignancy and comic effect to certain events in his life. Interestingly, Marin has a different epistemological status in the two narrative strands. During the story of Marin’s life, the reader knows a crucial bit of information that Marin lacks, while in his afterlife, Marin knows much more than the reader, as Marin recently lived through — and still remembers — the events of his life that the reader must reconstruct from the fragmented, non-linear segments of narration.

Marin’s escape from Paradise quickly turns into a disaster as he is pursued through a densely wooded forest by a contingent of heavily armed men. In Marin’s final scene in the novel, he discovers a vertiginous truth. Running at a full sprint, he comes to a halt at the edge of Paradise. Hemmed in by soldiers, with no way to escape, Marin steps over the edge of the precipice onto a crumbling bridge, “he was getting to the end and knew less and less what he would do next.”[45] As the bridge falls to pieces under his feet, he grabs onto a cord, and the final sentence of Marin’s story ends with him dangling over the void, sliding down the last few meters: “Next, he would see what happened”.[46] Marin’s death in the botched assassination brings the first narrative thread full circle, answering the question implicitly posed in the first chapter. The unresolved — and perhaps irresolvable — final scene of his afterlife, however, raises a host of unanswerable questions. How could Marin die, if he is already dead? What could come next in his story? An after-afterlife?

Ruffel notes a preponderance of similar moments in French novels published around the turn of the millennium. Opening his book with an almost identical scene that takes place in Antoine Volodine’s 2002 novel Dondog, Ruffel asks:

But what can it mean, this figure that presents itself ‘at the brink of nothing,’ legs hanging over ‘into the void,’ thinking about ‘what is to come’? And what can we say about its repetition? Evidently it evokes an end-game. […] But this representation is more complex. […] Another story is taking shape, after the end, that prolongs or renews it.[47]

For Ruffel, such scenes open up a space for what he terms “le dénouement”:

Neither beginning nor ending, limited and transitory […], it deploys a complex temporality, at the same time turned toward the past that it transforms and toward the future that it authorizes. The dénouement opens onto the unknown, onto the ‘void,’ onto ‘what is to come,’ on the ruins and the remains of the past.[48]

Reprise des hostilités explores those notions in a variety of ways, examining a specific instance of personal history, namely Marin’s life, death, and afterlife — with its uncertain resolution — in order to evoke a host of larger literary and societal issues.

Literary Heritage and the Art of the Puzzle

Molia saves some of his largest surprises for the metaliterary realm. The question of how to come to terms with the literary heritage of the twentieth century runs throughout Molia’s works, and in this novel, he proposes an intriguing answer. Ruffel argues that that question is central to the practice of writing at the end of the millennium:

An idea of modernity that bore certain aesthetic and political values has passed away. And that death raises […] the question of heritage. Faced with mourning, several approaches are possible. The heirs can deny, can distance themselves from an era, or to the contrary can live with its phantoms, can be (in the proper sense of the word) haunted by it; can transform it and carry it into the future.[49]

One of the primary ways in which Molia “lives with the phantoms” of his predecessors in Reprise des hostilités is through the incorporation of citations from various authors into his text.  In a postscript on the final page of the book, the following notice appears:

(This book contains citations, and sometimes rewritings, from: Louis Aragon, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Butor, Albert Camus, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marguerite Duras, Romain Gary, André Gide, Jean Giono, Julien Gracq, André Malraux, François Mauriac, Robert Merle, Henri Michaux, Roger Nimier, Georges Perec, Marcel Proust, Raymond Queneau, Raymond Radiguet, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Françoise Sagan, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Simon, Marguerite Yourcenar.)[50]

Like Marin, who dreams of clandestinely composing a text from the assembled works of classic twentieth-century French writers, Molia smuggles quotations from twenty-six illustrious predecessors into his own novel. Molia’s postscript is in fact a double citation of sorts, for while it calls attention to all of the authors whom it names, one writer in particular stands out from that list: Georges Perec.[51] Indeed, Molia notes, “Perec is, in a certain way, omnipresent in the novel. But, in a mise-en-abyme that surely amuses no one but myself, I chose to cite… his manner of citing his borrowings from other texts at the end of La Vie mode d’emploi.”[52]

While contemplating the assemblage of the combinatorial masterpiece of plagiarism that he imagines destroying Bel’s career, Marin envisions that process as resembling the creation of a puzzle, a metaphor that finds suggestive echoes in Perec’s work. In the preamble to La Vie mode d’emploi, Perec devotes several pages to that very notion, using “the art of the puzzle” as a metaphor to describe a highly articulative ludic relationship—characterized by “cunning, entrapment, illusion”—between puzzle-maker and puzzle-solver, and by extension between writer and reader.[53] Marin imagines himself as a master puzzle-maker, constructing a hidden trap concealed within Bel’s autobiography. In order for Marin’s scenario to be realized fully, however, he needs a puzzle-solver to follow his tracks, therefore he imagines the author B, an ideal reader capable of finding all the hidden clues and teasing out the deep structures—the “true” story—that lies beneath. B, Marin’s model reader, is a crucial figure in the text, his interpretive prowess in the cat-and-mouse game set up by Marin pointing toward the importance of careful, inquisitive reading in a situation where things are not what they seem.

The Clinamen and Literary Innovation

Molia’s text requires an active effort from its reader on multiple levels. Formally, on a surface level the reader must reconstruct the fragments of Marin’s life and afterlife in order to make sense of the story. Then, the final revelation that Marin’s imagined novel of citations is a mise-en-abyme for Molia’s actual novel encourages the reader to go back and search out the quotations and textual elements covertly incorporated from other writers’ works. Some of those citations are relatively easy to pick out: for example, when Marin and Gaspard descend into the underworld of Paradise, a few lines taken directly from Proust serve as their password.[54] Other citations may be harder to find, however, and in fact, they may not exist at all, as Molia reveals:

I must […] admit that, in the interest of producing a ‘clinamen,’ certain authors mentioned on the last page (was it Jean Giono? Marguerite Yourcenar? I no longer remember precisely) are neither cited nor rewritten in the novel. But I was convinced that someone would find them in there anyways.”[55]

As literary scholar Warren Motte notes in his essay “Clinamen Redux”, “clinamen” is a term coined by Lucretius to describe a “swerve” in what is otherwise an immutable organization of elements.[56] Motte asserts that the clinamen is a suggestive figure that animates many of Perec’s rigorously constructed works, in particular La Vie mode d’emploi, as “he came to feel that the textual system must be intentionally flawed, the flaw scrupulously cultivated, in turn, as the real locus of poetic creativity.”[57]

Like Perec in La Vie mode d’emploi, Molia establishes a system and then subverts it for his own ends. The cat-and-mouse game takes on another level, as the hunt for citations becomes more complex. The reader may well start second-guessing the accuracy of his or her conclusions: are certain passages truly citations from other writers, or does the expectation of finding something lead us to erroneous identifications?[58] What is more, who would be the ideal reader with the adequate knowledge to find all of those citations? As literary theorist Pierre Bayard reminds us in his work How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory”.[59] Bayard claims that that is so for a variety of reasons. In the first place, “even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist.”[60] Perhaps more significantly, even the books we do read escape little by little from our memories. As Bayard puts it, “When we talk about books, then, […] it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances.”[61] If I cited earlier the full list of authors to whom Molia alludes, I did so to call attention to the immensity of the virtual challenge that Molia presents to the reader. It would be staggeringly difficult for a reader to discover all of the citations buried within the text. At the same time, Molia is not simply trying to create a puzzle for the reader, for his use of citation is also a strategy to come to terms with the literary heritage of the twentieth century.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom also invokes the figure of the clinamen, embracing it as the animating principle of what he describes as “the central working concept of the theory of Poetic Influence, […] an instance of creative revisionism.”[62] In Bloom’s view, the clinamen represents a “poetic misreading” which allows strong poets to swerve away from their literary antecedents and to assert their own position.[63] For Bloom, that process is an essential component of the ways in which authors come to terms with those who came before them, and he claims, “Like Lucretius himself, they opt for clinamen as freedom.”[64] I believe that Molia employs just such a strategy in Reprise des hostilités. Through the citation and rewriting of his literary predecessors, Molia inserts their words into a new context, making them mean something new. His interventionist approach is a dynamic process, creating a virtual space within Reprise des hostilités where the words of different canonical writers come together in a collaboration their authors had never imagined. Italo Calvino remarks that while all literature is inherently combinatorial, it continually attempts to make something new out of its combinations.[65] By resituating citations from other authors within his own work, Molia calls attention to the fact that although the literary heritage of the twentieth century looms large for contemporary authors, that heritage can be envisioned not as a burden, but rather as a catalyst to spark further innovation.

A Literary Counter-History and the Era of Suspicion

Just as Marin’s intertextual creation stealthily infiltrates Molia’s novel, another literary project also appears within its pages, a “counter-history” that might serve as a “portrait of a senseless century” compiled by Ninipotch, a member of Bel’s circle[66]:

He had toyed with the idea of a book that would chart the course of the twentieth century through these figures relegated to the margins of time, these beings who had never been, it seemed, carried by the major movement of History, these minor beings, or rather consigned to minority by the course of events […].[67]

Ninipotch’s proposed book would provide a sort of negative image of the twentieth century. If it is a commonplace that history is written by the winners, then Ninipotch’s project would tell the stories of those who came in second, as an ironic counterpoint to the historical projects of politicians such as Fillon and Sarkozy. Fragments from Ninipotch’s imagined book are inserted between the chapters of Marin’s story, and in them a variety of intriguing individuals come to light, some of whom are real, and some completely fictitious. As Molia describes in an interview, that blurring of fact and fiction highlights what is for him an essential function of literature: “For me a novel is not a book of truth. […] It is a way of signifying what literature is in relationship to other discourses. Unlike religious or political discourses, which rely on a language of certainty, the novelist is in a state of permanent questioning. Which requires on the part of the reader a distance, a state of vigilance.”[68]

Nathalie Sarraute’s “era of suspicion” is alive and well,[69] and a playful tension between false appearances and reality plays out in the book in a variety of ways. True to its theme of false appearances, at first glance Reprise des hostilités appears almost free of intertextual references. Just beneath the surface, however, a quite different story emerges, for Molia’s novel can be read as a sustained attempt to come to terms with and to create something new from the literary heritage of the twentieth-century novel. The question of interpretation comes to the forefront as the reader navigates through the dense web of references to the real world and to the realm of literature. At the same time, the pervasive menace of Bel’s reactionary rhetoric grounds the novel in contemporary French—and indeed, global—political discourse, exposing the false claims and hollow language of political opportunists. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States seems to have been anticipated by Bel’s media-savvy political machinations, and Bel’s claims of national decline and threats to national identity are being echoed across the United States and Europe today. If reactionary thought relies on a nostalgic, idealized version of the past, literature can help us problematize and critique such simplistic narratives. Although historians claim from their perspective that the “national novel” of a glorious past is dead, that vision of an idealized past seems to be enjoying a long and vigorous afterlife in the political realm. While Molia makes no claims to provide easy answers to the political issues that confront French society, he makes a compelling case for the enduring power of the novel to help us make sense of the past and to imagine possible futures, as we contemplate what might come next.

Notes

[1] “réécrire […] comme un récit national. Le récit national, c’est une Histoire faite d’hommes et de femmes, de symboles, de lieux, de monuments, d’événements qui trouvent un sens et une signification dans l’édification progressive de la civilisation singulière de la France.” Durand, “‘Roman national’, ‘récit national’: de quoi parle-t-on?”, p. 1.

[2] “Quelle que soit la nationalité de vos parents, jeunes Français, au moment où vous devenez français, vos ancêtres, ce sont les Gaulois et c’est Vercingétorix.” Durand, “‘Roman national’, ‘récit national’: de quoi parle-t-on?”, p. 1.

[3] “Moi je ne veux pas d’une ethnicisation gauloise du débat. Mais oui, je dis que nous sommes les filles et les fils des Lumières et de la grande Révolution! A partir du moment où l’on est français, on adopte le récit national.” Durand, “‘Roman national’, ‘récit national’: de quoi parle-t-on?”, p. 1.

[4] Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind, p. 108.

[5] Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind, p. xiv.

[6] “De la Gaule à de Gaulle, le roman national […]”, Gherardi, “Pierre Nora: ‘Le nationalisme nous a caché la nation’”, p. 1.

[7] “l’ancienne identité nationale, celle qui associait le passé et l’avenir dans un sentiment de continuité, de filiation et de projet”, Gherardi, “Pierre Nora: ‘Le nationalisme nous a caché la nation’”, p. 1.

[8] “[une] problématisation de la fin [qui] sert de cadre narratif et diégétique aux livres.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, pp. 46-47.

[9] “dès la fin des années soixante-dix et durant les vingt années qui vont suivre, on commence à évoquer quatre types de fins, qui sont proches, sans s’équivaloir: la fin des avant-gardes, la fin des idéologies, la fin de l’histoire, la fin de la modernité sous le nom de postmodernité.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 83.

[10] “la récurrence […] de ces fins qui ouvrent l’histoire.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 88.

[11] Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. xi.

[12] Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 22.

[13] “les récits de vie […]. On aide les gens à remettre en forme leur itinéraire, pour qu’ils puissent donner du sens à ce qu’ils ont fait” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 52.

[14] Barthes, S/Z, p. 24.

[15] “Sa blessure au torse avait cicatrisé et presque disparu.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 29.

[16] The bulk of the main story takes place in 1999 and 2000.

[17] “il fustigeait ‘[…] ces Messieurs de Paris, tout la clique des incompétents et des copains d’abord’, la disparition de la démocratie au profit de la multiplication démente des intermédiaires, les Banques centrales, les juges, l’Europe [….]. – Moi, répétait-il, je suis de la France des braves gens, des travailleurs et des cols bleus, pas de la France de Bruxelles et des collets montés.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 310.

[18] Cruickshank, Fin de Millénaire French Fiction: The Aesthetics of Crisis, p. 2.

[19] “si j’ai choisi ce lieu symbole pour entrer avec vous dans le nouveau millénaire, c’est parce que je crois en l’avenir […]. Notre civilisation française est merveilleuse, […] et nous sommes le témoignage vivant d’une glorieuse histoire.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p.149.

[20] “On ne serait plus contre l’avortement. On ne parlerait plus de culture chrétienne et de passé grandiose. On allait se recentrer sur la pauvreté et la justice sociale, la corruption des élus, la violence des banlieues, les dangers de l’immigration et de la mondialisation. On serait du vingt et unième siècle. […] Autour de nous, ça bouge, c’est le millénaire, il faut qu’on soit dedans.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 245-46.

[21] See 116-17 and 268 for examples of how Bel provokes his political opponents into physical confrontations on camera.

[22] For a televised interview with Bel, see 343. Magazine articles discussing Bel appear on 173-74, 258-259, and 249-51. An excerpt from Delauney’s book, which quotes Bel’s autobiography as well as a book written by his employee Gwenaëlle Puech, can be found on 37-39.

[23] “collaborateur”, Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 194.

[24] Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir, p. 7.

[25] “Il s’imaginait les époques passées comme des temps épiques: violents peut-être, incertains et inconfortables, mais exaltants (des luttes, des utopies, des raisons d’être, la Résistance, Mai 68). Souvent, il rêvait de rendre la part de la liberté que d’autres avaient gagnée pour lui, afin de la reconquérir. […] Lui pensait être né juste après la dernière révolte, dans un de ces conglomérats occidentaux paisibles où l’histoire semble finie, écrivît-il sur un nouveau cahier.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 124.

[26] “Je marche dans Paris. Je suis à la fin du vingtième siècle. La fin du vingtième siècle. La suite de la fin. Je m’appelle Marin. Je vais venger mon père.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 74.

[27] “exaltation […] à s’imaginer en exécuteur d’une justice clandestine.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 55.

[28] “des matières rares, de l’acier brossé, des zelliges marocains […], du bois exotique […], un tapis de Boukhara, un canapé italien […]. Les frais étaient importants, sans doute trop […], mais Marin tenait à ces aménagements, qui lui procuraient d’heureux soucis de propriétaire.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 205.

[29] “Une vie nouvelle commençait. En bas, dans la rue Montorgueil, il achetait de bon pain, des entrecôtes, des fromages fermiers et des vins étrangers. […] Peu à peu, son projet de vengeance s’était éloigné de lui.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 205-06.

[30] “Il buvait du thé fumé à la terrasse des cafés, pour regarder distraitement tous ces gens qui lisaient les mêmes journaux que lui, rêvaient eux aussi de Cuba et du périple indien, parlaient aussi de tout quitter un jour pour la campagne, et aussi d’aller voir le prochain film iranien.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 206.

[31] As Marin watches one of the bikini contests, “he became painfully aroused in front of these creatures, he wanted to grab one of them by the hair, one of the five, any of them […]. He heard, off in the distance, the name Marianne, proclaimed Miss Swimming Pool, a round of applause. The young woman looked him. She looked like Marianne. They all looked like Marianne.” “il bandait douloureusement devant ces créatures, il avait envie d’en attraper une par les cheveux, une des cinq, n’importe […]. Il entendit, très loin, le prénom de Marianne, proclamée Miss Piscine, les applaudissements. La jeune fille le regarda. Elle ressemblait à Marianne. Elles ressemblaient toutes à Marianne.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 70-71.

[32] “Il s’irritait au souvenir de la façon qu’ils avaient eue de faire l’amour. Il s’y serait mieux pris, aujourd’hui, et il imaginait ça à peu près comme dans un film porno […]. Il se croyait apte, maintenant.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 306.

[33] “statut d’écrivain, auquel, quoi qu’il en dise, il n’était pas indifférent. […] Considérant le rythme de la phrase, la saveur des sonorités, l’éclat de son vocabulaire, Marin s’était trouvé du style.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 150.

[34] See Valéry Mouscron’s description of his latest works and Joseph Bel’s attacks on rival Claire Commynes. Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 254-55 and p. 268.

[35] “décomposition,” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 177. The decomposition is spreading to Paradise as well, as one of Marin’s new acquaintances mentions, “it seems like there’s another complex that had to be evacuated. Someone brought up some crap, some sort of corrosive fungus that’s mucking up everything.” “il paraît qu’il y a un complexe qui a dû être évacué. Quelqu’un a remonté une cochonnerie, une espèce de champignon corrosif qui bousille tout.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 28.

[36] Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 291.

[37] Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 292.

[38] “Jamais il n’avait eu devant lui le spectre de son père, qui lui disait d’une voix caverneuse: ‘Si jamais tu aimais ton tendre père, venge son meurtre horrible et monstreux.’” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 122. See Hamlet, Act I, Scene V.

[39] “une vengeance infaillible et raffinée,” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 182-83.

[40] “il aurait parfois […] le sentiment de réussir un puzzle, et non de l’inventer: il rassemblerait les fragments vertébrés d’une histoire suivie.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 184.

[41]Pas une seule ligne n’était de lui! Il pillait nos bibliothèques! LE PLAGIAT DU SIÈCLE!” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 184.

[42] “aussitôt il aurait envie que ce soit Marin le faussaire, un homme de l’ombre qui acceptait sans mot dire les tâches ingrates qu’on lui proposait, mais préparait en sous-main un formidable sabotage. Ce serait très romanesque, exactement ce que chercherait B, lui-même écrivain, à ses heures, de polars cérébraux. Pris au jeu […], il poursuivrait l’enquête, précédant en quelque sorte son détective attitré, qui reconstituerait lui aussi, dans le prochain tome de la série dont B était l’auteur, la chronologie secrète du crime.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 186.

[43] “Marin avait contribué, modestement mais tout de même, au sauvetage de la République. Marin avait bousculé le cours de l’Histoire. […] Et c’est ainsi, après cet implacable enchaînement de circonstances, que Marin retrouverait son rang.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 187.

[44] A short text, entitled “Le Livre d’un jeune homme,” appears as one of the two “Annexes” that close Molia’s novel. In that text, Bel appears on a literary television show, and although the host harangues Bel for his right-wing political views, it is clear that as Marin feared, both his autobiography and the assassination attempt have served to burnish Bel’s reputation and boost his approval ratings.

[45] “Il arrivait au bout et savait de moins en moins ce qu’il ferait ensuite.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 339.

[46] “Ensuite, on verrait bien.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 340.

[47] Que peut alors dire cette figure qui se présente “au bord du rien”, les jambes ballant “dans le vide”, réfléchissant “à ce qui allait suivre”? Et que peut dire sa répétition? Évidemment elle évoque une fin de partie. […] Mais cette représentation est plus complexe. […] Il se développe une histoire, après la fin, qui la prolonge ou la renouvelle.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 9.

[48] “Ni début ni fin, limité et transitoire […], il déploie une temporalité complexe, tout à la fois tourné vers le passé qu’il transforme et le futur qu’il autorise. Le dénouement ouvre à l’inconnu, au ‘vide,’ à ‘ce qu’il allait suivre,’ sur les ruines et les restes du passé.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 11.

[49] “Une idée de la modernité s’est achevée qui portait des valeurs esthétiques et politiques. Et cette mort pose […] la question de l’héritage. Face au deuil, plusieurs voies sont possibles. Les héritiers peuvent nier, conjurer une époque, ou au contraire vivre avec ses fantômes, être (au sens propre) hantés par elle; la transformer et la porter dans l’avenir.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 88-89.

[50] (Ce livre comprend des citations, et parfois des récritures, de: Louis Aragon, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Butor, Albert Camus, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marguerite Duras, Romain Gary, André Gide, Jean Giono, Julien Gracq, André Malraux, François Mauriac, Robert Merle, Henri Michaux, Roger Nimier, Georges Perec, Marcel Proust, Raymond Queneau, Raymond Radiguet, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Françoise Sagan, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Simon, Marguerite Yourcenar.) Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 353.

[51] Perec lists the names of thirty authors in a “Post-scriptum” at the end of La Vie mode d’emploi that serves as a model for Molia. Perec’s postscript reads: “(Ce livre comprend des citations, parfois légèrement modifiées de: Rene Belletto, […] Théodore Sturgeon, Jules Verne, Unica Zürn.)” Perec, La Vie mode d’emploi, p. 653.

[52] “Perec est, d’une certaine manière, omniprésent dans ce roman. Mais, dans une mise en abyme qui n’amuse sans doute que moi, j’avais choisi de citer… sa manière de citer ses emprunts à d’autres textes à la fin de La Vie mode d’emploi.” Molia, “Interview,” p. 1.

[53] “la ruse, le piège, l’illusion,” Perec, La Vie mode d’emploi, p. 17.

[54] Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 140.

[55] “Je dois […] avouer que, par souci de produire un “clinamen,” certains auteurs mentionnés dans la dernière page (étaient-ce Jean Giono? Marguerite Yourcenar? Je ne sais plus précisément) ne sont ni cités ni réécrits dans le roman. Mais j’étais persuadé qu’on les y trouverait quand même.” Molia, “Personal Letter,” p. 1.

[56] Motte, “Clinamen Redux,” p. 264.

[57] Motte, “Clinamen Redux,” p. 276.

[58] As is the case for the art expert, Vallecas, in one of the intercalated micronarratives in Reprise des hostilités (295).

[59] Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, p. xix.

[60] Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, p. 3.

[61] Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, p. 48.

[62] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 42.

[63] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 14.

[64] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 44.

[65] “I believe that all of literature is implicit in language and that literature itself is merely the permutation of a finite set of elements and functions. But surely literature is constantly straining to escape from the bonds of this finite quantity, surely literature is constantly struggling to say something that it does not know how to say, something that cannot be said, something it does not know, something that cannot be known? […] The whole struggle of literature is in fact an effort to escape from the confines of language.” See Calvino, “Myth in the Narrative” 76.

[66] “cette contre-histoire, […] la peinture d’un siècle insensé.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 223.

[67] “Il avait caressé le projet d’un livre qui retracerait le cours du vingtième siècle à travers ces figures inscrites dans les marges du temps, ces êtres qui n’avaient jamais, semblait-il, été portés par le mouvement majeur de l’Histoire, ces êtres mineurs, ou plutôt mis en minorité par la suite des événements […].” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 221.

[68] “Pour moi un roman n’est pas un livre de vérité. […] C’est une façon de signifier ce qu’est la littérature par rapport à d’autres discours. Contrairement au discours des sectes ou des politiques, qui recourent au langage de la certitude, le romancier est dans le questionnement permanent. Ce qui requiert de la part du lecteur une distance, un état de vigilance.” Molia, “Interview,” p. 1.

[69] “ère du soupçon,” Sarraute, L’Ère du soupçon, p. 63.

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