Writers Explore "Death" as a Literary Device

On the 8th of January another edition of Conversations on Research took place with the presentation of Maïté Snauwaert, Associate Professor of French Literature.

Étienne Alary - 29 February 2016

On the 8th of January another edition of Conversations on Research took place with the presentation of Maïté Snauwaert, Associate Professor of French Literature.

With this sentence, "I have always had a keen interest on how novels can help someone live" Maïté Snauwaert began her presentation on the work of prose by Philippe Forest, a novel she considers to be a masterpiece of articulation between writing and life.

"The main plot of the book is about the death of Pauline, his only daughter who died of cancer at the age of 4. Prior to this tragic event, Phillipe Forest was the author of distinguished essays on arts and literature. When he lost his daughter, he decided to write the story of the last year of his daughter's life in a novel called L'enfant éternel." She says.

In this sweeping and detailed novel about his daughter's illness, writing becomes very personal: the story revolves around family life, intimacy, and everyday life with the child. It intertwines with other elements of reflexion on the purpose, limits and possibilities of the novel as a literary piece specifically in its capacity to transcribe what the author called the "truth" of lived-experience. "Maїté Snauweart thinks that, "the author turns to writing to have some form of consolation".

This novel, well received by the public as well as by the critics, marked the entry of this author in the world of literature. "One would think that this would have been a unique book without a sequel. However, two years later, Phillippe Forest published - not without any difficulty with his editor- a second novel, Toute la nuit; a novel in which he recounts the time after the death of his daughter from the point of view of her parents, the night of the bereavement that seemed endless." The professor mentioned.

During the fifteen years following the successful novel, he would write many other novels and essay collections, all having the death of his child as main theme, which seems to be explored in every setting in space and time. "What appealed to me was the inexhaustible link between writing and the lived-experience, how it could live on in time, and how it could continue to nourish his writing under different forms every single time while continuing to echo the act of mourning." Mrs. Snauwaert says.

It is on Philippe Forest's works of fiction as well as most of his essays that the Assistant Professor of French literature devoted her first essay published in 2012. "After this extensive monographic study, I wanted to continue to explore the pivotal role of the grieving experience in understanding human life, and the special observational role that writing and literature have based on current works that not only address personal grief, but do so by turning to other literary works," she says.

Maїté Snauweart was particularly struck by the publication in 2009 of an original text by Roland Barthes entitled Journal du deuil from his private archive. "This journal was written after the death of his mother, from 1977 to 1979, and was not intended for publication. It had dated sheets like journal entries, and it is Barthes himself who in one of these sheets refers to the writing as being a 'Journal du deuil'." The notes are very lapidary, but mix the expression of grief, what Barthes calls, borrowing a word from Proust, his "chagrin" (sorrow) and a more intellectual reflection of grief and formalities inherent to the society of that era, " she explains .

This was followed, a year later, by similar findings: Blue Nights by Joan Didion an American; Qui de nous deux? by Gilles Archambault, a Québécois; and A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates, also an American. "The three were mourning narratives. Two of them were stories of widows and the third was that of a grieving mother. From their simultaneous publication in 2011, I started to think that perhaps a new literary genre was emerging. Indeed, in societies having a lot in common: France, Quebec, the United States, but also sometimes relatively far or very close to each other culturally, a common interest emerged. For, beyond the intrinsic quality of a literary text, a publisher must find it interesting, publishable, and be sure that there should be a certain audience,'' says Maїté Snauweart.

This search led her to England with Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, a novel critically acclaimed and a best seller, dedicated to the death of his wife; but also to Quebec, French Ontario in Canada. Not to mention a new outlook on France, " where texts published in the 1990s, I read in an isolated manner, began to come together: Martin Cet Été by Bernard Chambaz is the story of a father mourning his sixteen-year-old son; Philippe by Camille Laurens is the story of the death of her newborn son; À ce soir by Laure Adler, also about a lost son; and of course, L'Enfant éternel, all published around 1995 or in the early 2000s.

As she points out, "we cared enough about the passing of our relatives to write about them and have it published (...) therefore, my hypothesis is that literature meets a need and somehow fills the gap without disrupting the social silence for the bereaved, restoring not only words on the experience of grief, but also a conversation, a public space for this exchange," Ms. Snauwaert believes.

The assistant professor notes a number of constants that support the hypothesis of an emerging literary genre:

• First, the emphasis on the chronology and materiality of death or dying moments. The description is clinical, the details are raw, the timing is correct.

• Second, the importance placed on the broken daily routine, and the very texture of changed time.

• Third, the spread out structure of the text, often repetitive litany (as in the elegy), and apparently chaotic but very sophisticated.

• Fourth, the focus on the difficulty to live in the common space which used to be shared - by two people while being equally aware that there is no alternative.

• Fifth, the role as witness to the life shared by the deceased (be it husband, wife, mother or brother).

• All within the dimension of intimate narrative to address a general or collective reflection, on grief, death, and the retrospective light that is thrown on these themes.

• Finally, all these authors' experiences of having mourned someone, reveals the awareness of being mortal, which soon becomes at least when they are older and, especially when they lose the person they shared the last forty years of their lives with, a death apprenticeship, preparing for death.

Maїté Snauweart intends to further explore this genre, since there are still very few studies that address these critical texts or these issues, except for Sandra Gilbert in the US, whose research focuses on poetic elegy.

"After I complete this study, I will focus on literary genealogy, which can be drawn from these texts. After the vogue or the wave of "Tombeau Littéraire of the late 19th century, to what, and how far back do the first literary texts on mourning date?" These opuses are rare in the history of the 20th century, before the 90s and 2000s. Texts devoted to mourning a close relative in the early 20th century are rather an exception, a kind of literary UFO unanswered, without epigones, despite the success they have met during their publication." She concludes.