Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Usure et rupture - Breaking points

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

"It was part of the joke, you see": the author in the novel between theoretical death and biographical life

Lucia Boldrini

Texte intégral

1In this paper I wish to make some considerations on the now very successful genre of fictional biographies, novels which rewrite the life of historical characters mixing fictional elements with what is generally accepted as known biographical or historical "fact." I will focus especially on certain novels that take the (imaginary) life of an author as their subject, and thus situate themselves at the point of encounter between different genres--literary theory and criticism, biography and, of course, the novel itself--and at the centre of the investigation of such problematic concepts as art, life, history, fiction, fact, forgery, truth, and the complex relationships between them.

2A preliminary warning/self-justification is perhaps due here: the theories referred to in this essay may appear to be treated in an undeservedly reductive and unproblematic manner. This is caused by the inevitable limitations of time and space and by the focus on the narrativization that these theories are subjected to in the novels in question. To put it briefly, following Malcolm Bradbury's humorous analogy between French Structuralism and Deconstruction on the one hand, and French wines, on the other ("Like the finest French vintages--with which, it must be admitted, the leading participants are from time to time confused-the great names and the finest labels of the movement are spoken of everywhere, though as with the wines not all those who know the labels seem entirely aware of the contents of the bottles." Mensonge, 17), this paper will be mainly concerned with labels-aware, however, of the much greater subtleties of the contents of the theoretical bottles and intending to belittle neither their quality nor their often as subtle exploitation in the novel.

"The dead man in the game of writing"

3Recounting somebody's life in a biography usually involves telling also about his or her death. On the other hand, novels about the life of a fictional character (the Bildungsroman, for instance) more often end at the climax of the character's life adventure (marriage, economic or personal success or failure, etc.). A large number of fictional biographies of historical characters, however, foreground the event and the theme of death throughout the novel--the more so when the subject of the biography is a poet or a writer, a rather ambiguous and embarrassing figure to embody in the age of the Death of the Author.

4Death, for instance, runs through Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (1987), where the life, death and myth of the "marvellous boy," the forger-poet of the eighteenth century, are interwoven with the lives of two other characters: George Meredith, the poet and novelist of the nineteenth century who posed as model for the representation of Chatterton s death by the painter Henry Wallis, and Charles Wychwood, a fictional twentieth-century would-be poet who dies of a brain tumor after "discovering," quite by chance, the portrait of an aged Chatterton and papers which would prove that he did not die at the age of eighteen but forged his own death and continued to write poems and publish them under the names of Cowper, Blake and the Romantic poets. Thus, death plays a fundamental role both as an element of the plot and as a problematic concept in the thematic structure of the text, at the heart of an exploration of the relationship between life and death, reality and fiction, art and life, and their interconnection with forgery, truthfulness, identity.

5Death and its relationship to language and to identity are an important issue also in David Malouf s novel An Imaginary Life (1978), a fictional biography of the poet Ovid. The novel ends with the poet's death and the dissolution of his body, which, true to his poetry, metamorphoses and becomes one with the natural elements. Death (which, Ovid felt at first, had begun with his exile to the limits of the Roman empire, far from the Latin language and civilization) thus turns out to represent his real and eternal life, coming at the moment when the poet finally gives himself up to a deeper form of communication with the living creatures and the universe through the renunciation of all forms of human speech.

6The Death of the Author (1992), by Gilbert Adair, also exploits the theme of death, as the title itself suggests. The novel ends with a chain of deaths-murders in fact, set off by the plan of an ex-student of the protagonist Professor Sfax to write his biography. The story is told autobiographically by Sfax, and it is not clear how the narrative can still continue after the Professor's death--but perhaps it is not that mysterious, since one of the main tenets of Sfax's theory, imported into the States from French post-structuralism ("I was mindful all the same, as a final precaution, not to let the ideas I put forward in the book stray too far from theories that were already in vogue in Paris," 78), is the excision of the author from the text that s/he produces, so that the text lives its own ambiguous, autonomous (and aporistic) life: "So it was, with the advent of the Theory, that the Author was to find Himself declared well and truly dead.... It was for language to do the thinking, for the text to'write'its author rather than vice versa...." (27).

  • 1 Cf. In particular Narcissistic Narrative and A Poetics of Postmodernism. Hutcheon is one of the cr (...)

7What all these novels have in common, each in its peculiar way, is, as we have seen, a concern for the rewriting of a life (with a special interest in the event or process of death) and the appearance within each text of theoretical or critical notions under more or less explicit guises. By this I do not mean the incorporation of the three domains of literature, history and theory in what Linda Hutcheon has called "historiographic metafiction,"1 whereby "the theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs (historiographic metafiction) is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past" (A Poetics of Postmodernism, 5). What I am concerned with in this essay is something different and, in appearance, more immediate: the exploitation of contemporary theory as a quarry from which to draw material for the composition of the novel. And here we need to make a digression from the novels themselves, by way of a belated introduction.

8Historiographic metafiction is the more general label under which fictional biographies of historical characters are usually catalogued. These novels, as students of the genre have explained, often question the notions of history and of reality by rewriting historical events from different, marginal, ex-centric, fragmented points of view. Fictional biographies (or biographic metafiction, as the genre can be described to conform to Hutcheon's definition) certainly share many features and concerns with historiographie metafiction--for instance, the foregrounding of the ontological and epistemolgical problems involved in the relationship between reality and its fictionalization through narrative and discourse. As Charles says in Chatterton, "it's a question of language. Realism is just as artificial as surrealism, after all.... The real world is just a succession of interpretations. Everything which is written down immediately becomes a kind of fiction" (40). (Ironically, Charles's statement is undermined even before he utters it: "He settled back again on the sofa, quite at ease with the sort of theoretical discussion he had once had at university; in fact, his understanding of such matters had not significantly advanced since that time" 40).

9Despite the similarities with the historiographie variety, biographic metafiction forms a fairly compact group, distinguished by specific characteristics such as, for example, the relationship with biography as a genre, as a practice and as a critical notion. When the biographic subject is an artist or a novelist the investigation of the correlation between subjectivity and language becomes one of the main issues of the work insofar as its protagonist is also a creator of words, a translator of an external or imagined reality into the fictionalising medium of language. The problematic connection with literary theory and criticism becomes part of this complex relation, involving in particular those theories which have excised the author both from the realm of his/her creations and from what is relevant to the study of literature--especially post-structuralism and deconstruction (flanked by Lacanian psychoanalysis), which sentenced the Author to death and dissolved his figure and his subjectivity into fragments ruled over by what until then had been thought to be an instrument manipulated by the author: language.

10The Author dies. The subject of biography--the author when we restrict the field more specifically to literary biography--also dies, a subject (or is it the object?) of "his"/"her" life only insofar as he/she is dead. Furthermore, as Daniel Madélenat points out, whereas history and historiography can at least still be distinguished through two different words that point to the supposedly existent fact (history) and its written narrative and intepretation (historiography), in the case of biography the word designates both the life lived and the narrative of it, almost as if to indicate that the life acquires its value and its status only as it is represented in language (La Biographie, 17).

11Ackroyd--who is also the author of biographies of Charles Dickens and T. S. Eliot-has Charles reflect in Chatterton that:

each biography described a quite different poet: even the simplest observation by one was contradicted by another, so that nothing seemed certain. He felt that he knew the biographers well, but that he still understood very little about Chatterton. At first Charles had been annoyed by these discrepancies but then he was exhilarated by them: for it meant that anything became possible. If there were no truths, everything was true. (127)

12The quotation encapsulates the problem that confronts biography today: best-selling, widely read and widely produced, and yet on shaky ground in academic and intellectual esteem, it has to cope with a number of critical and theoretical problems which range from a very blunt "who cares?" (since the physical, individual person is no longer important), to the doubts about the very possibility of capturing in language the essence of a life and of a personality. The epistemological doubt about how we can know anything beyond recorded facts and events keeps cropping up, together with the inevitable next question: how do we know that the recorded facts and events are real or true, since every recording necessarily implies a discursivization and therefore already a fictionalization? And then, what is the relationship between fact and narrative, between biography and fiction? In other words, without being able to extricate itself from the problems that worried Virginia Woolf in 1927--how to weld the granite of truth with the rainbow of evanescent personality-biography is now also confronted with the irrelevance, if not the downright suppression, of its subject (the individual), and the skepticism about its medium (language). "A biography and a life," writes Leopold Sfax in Adair's novel, "belong to two quite dissimilar categories" (72). The point appears so sore that David Nye--a biographer who is very sensitive to the implications of recent theory-begins what he calls his "Anti-biography" of Edison with the paradoxical statement that "This biography rejects the existence of its subject, Thomas Alva Edison, and will not attempt to recapture it in language" (16).

13If biographic metafíction stands at the crossroads of various genres, it does so, primarily, as a category of novels. Thus, elements drawn from theory and from biography (for instance, generic conventions and discursive strategies), are always incorporated in a novelistic structure and subordinated to a narrative or thematic function. Borrowings from neighbouring genres must often be simplified in order to become part of the plot, and they are arbitrarily reduced to their bare essentials, to the cliché of a catchphrase or slogan definition ("the death of the author;" "the dissolution of the self in language," and so on). Thus, paradoxically, the theory itself which asserts the fictionality of anything linguistic, "immediately becomes a kind of fiction" (Chatterton, 40).

14In the rest of the essay I shall try to illustrate how biographic metafiction reveals its foundation in a double rupture/consumption: the de-naturing of the genres of literary theory and biography, transformed into convenient and often comic narrative devices; and, following from this, their bending to quite different theoretical implications.

15Perhaps one of the most amusing reductions of theory to plot in Chatterton is that of the "anxiety of influence," literalised and simplified to the point that the novelist Harriet Scrope is anxious (even anguished) that the literary influence which suggested the plot of her first novel to her may be discovered (in fact, more than influence, hers is a case of blatant lifting of plot, situation and characters from a forgotten Victorian novel by Harrison Bentley):

"Well, you know these writers. They'll steal any...' And her voice trailed off as she looked down at her trembling hands. 'Anything, that's right.' He leant back in his chair, and smiled benevolently in her general direction. 'It's called the anxiety of influence.'
'Is it?' She seemed consoled by the phrase. 'That's right. Anxiety.'
'Of influence.'
'And of course it must be true of novelists, too. 'She paused, and licked her lips. 'No doubt,' she went on, ' there are resemblances between my book and those of other writers.'
'You mean like Harrison Bentley ?'...
'What was that?' The colour had gone from Harriet's face, and Charles could see the grains of rose powder on her cheeks. She seemed to have some difficulty in speech. 'I don't, you know. Is it?' She got up from her chair. 'I' ve lost something,' she said and hurried from the room." (100-101)

16Another important theoretical catchphrase turned into fiction is the "Death of the Author." Its crudest adaptation to an element of the plot is probably that of Gilbert Adair's The Death of the Author. In the novel Professor Sfax (whose vicissitudes are modelled on the life of Paul de Man and his having been accused of collaborating with the Nazi government in Belgium) invents a theory--the Theory--in order to clear himself of his crimes by separating the hideous responsibility of his juvenile pro-Nazi articles (written under the pen-name "Hermes") from his personal responsibility. This gives a very sinister twist to something that Paul de Man had written in his essay "Autobiography as Defacement":

We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium? (920)

17The protagonist's need of a clear, clearing autobiography does orient Sfax's life, "governed "indeed" by the technical demands of selfportraiture":

Very well, very well, I would engineer the death of the Author, his final solution, his elimination from the Text of the world... and therefore deny the very existence of Hermes... I would argue that... from a theoretical viewpoint, considerations of the actual and historical existence of a writer were an utter waste of time -- and therefore that considerations of Hermes' actual and historical existence were an utter waste of time. (89-90)

18The theory of the Death of the Author turns against Sfax when he is killed by one of his students, Ralph, who accuses him of having murdered a colleague, a champion of a more traditional and less aggressive critical practice, and an ex-student who wanted to write nothing less than the Professor's biography. This is linked with the related concept of the primacy of language over the individual and his/her signifying intention when Adair's novel pushes the novelistic exploitation of the theory to the limits and gives language overwhelming power over the figure of the author/person: at the end Professor Sfax dies, but the story goes on being written, as if the text which related the events had entered the world and acquired independence from its author, writing itself, free to signify and to act. As Michel Foucault writes in "What Is an Author?", "The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author's murderer." (142) The author, concludes Foucault, "must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing" (143).

"In biographies the dead become alive, or seem to"

19Biography is often presented by biographers as the means through which their biographees can be made alive again. William Dubin, the biographer of Bernard Malamud's Dubin's Lives, says: "In biographies the dead become alive, or seem to" (112). The genre becomes a sort of phoenix-like creation. Ira B. Nadel writes in Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form:

in its process of demythologising and creating myth, biography parallels the central archetype of death and rebirth. Reading lives both destroys and creates our image of the subject which is one of the great attractions to biography: even though the historical figure dies, the biography continues his presence--in itself a mythic, phoenix-like activity re-creating and perpetuating the self. (181)

  • 2 Stephen Heath's translation (" figured in the carpet," 160) renders the reference to Henry James m (...)

20While biography presupposes a notion of identity based on the physical and psychological continuity of an individual subject, post-structuralist and especially deconstructionist criticism has disrupted this unity, transforming the writer's self into a system of forces and functions that transcend him. As the author as individual dies, his figure is replaced with an "authorial function" in which discourse predominates; it is discourse, and no longer the author, which possesses a self--in fact, not a unified self, but a "plurality of self," which, in turn, operates in a scission, a division, a gap (Foucault, 152). Similarly Roland Barthes, after disposing of the Author in "The Death of the Author," does allow him to come back into his text, but only as "guest," "as one of his characters, as another figure sewn into the rug."2 "He becomes," explains Barthes, "a paper-author" ("From Work to Text," 78): in other words, a textualised being, no less discursive and textualised than the historical documents (fictionalised, pre-oriented and pre-interpreted evidence) from which history and biographies are written.

21As theory has made it difficult to adhere to a naive sense of self, fictional biographies need to recuperate in other forms the biographical requisite of identity, the "assignment" of "the reanimation of life which, in Thomas Mann's words, is the creation of 'life as myth'" (Nadel, 182). One way could be, for instance, the choice of a different manner of temporal continuity which allows identity to extend beyond the subject's physical and chronological boundaries, expanding into wider spatial, psychological and temporal dimensions. Ovid, for instance, as we shall see in more details later, achieves a form of homology with the physical and metaphysical universe that surrounds him. In Chatterton the identity of the subject in time is transformed into the creation and persistence of a personal myth through two centuries. What is foregrounded is the continuity of the myth of the person beyond the limits of death rather than (or alongside) the history of the person: one could even say that Chattertons "survival" can be ensured only by death, and the renovation of his myth by a forged death (a faked forgery, as it turns out) implying smother life devoted to fakery.

  • 3 Interestingly, Ackroyd has also written a fictional autobiography of Oscar Wilde (The Last Testame (...)

22The fake painting of Chatterton discovered by Charles has gathered during its life layers of grime and dust, creating shadows which hide its "real" appearance: "what had seemed to be a shadow, perhaps some object outside the range of the artist's vision, resolved itself into a cloud of grime and dust which he [Charles] was able gently to remove" (22). In a sense, the painting has gathered the grime and dust of history. It is a sort of portrait of Dorian Gray3 which however gathers not the evil of its subject's soul but the dreams and desires that others have projected onto Chatterton and thus added to his myth in the two centuries since his death. The portrait acquires a significance similar to that of biography, a projection of the biographer's self in which the biographee still remains elusive ("He felt that he knew the biographers well, but that he still understood very little about Chatterton," 127). The discovery of the portrait and the belief in Chattertons supreme forgery--the forgery of his own death-make Charles the renovator of the poet's myth; it is as if Charles was giving new life to him, recreating him anew: "These fresh colours and contours seemed to issue from Charles's hand, and it was as if he had become the painter--as if the portrait was only now being completed" (22). (Ironically, this is in fact the case, but not for the reasons imagined by Charles: the painting is a fake, and its goal of cheating somebody into believing that Chatterton had lived on comes to its completion only now that it is "discovered.")

23The notion of the dissolution of subjectivity and its reconstitution in something that transcends the individual can be also found in Malouf's novel. At the end of An Imaginary Life, Ovid and the Child walk beyond the limits of the known world into the steppes of the north, in an almost liquid environment:

The grasslands, under the first touch of spring, sway and ripple like the sea, so that wading through them, swimming at times through the chest-high grass heads, is more like floating than walking, with no landmark as far as the eye can see. Above, an immensity of blue sky, and only the smallest, far-off clouds as ceiling. (141)

24These lines recall Ovid's dream of dissolution through a metamorphosis into a liquid self ("I am a pool of water. I feel myself warm in the sunlight, liquid, filled with the blue of the sky.... A breeze shivers my surface... I am broken again. The disturbance is fearful, a noisy crashing of waves against the edges of me," 61-62) and show the analogy between Ovid's subjectivity and the natural environment he is soon going to become one with, preparing the ground for his final dissolution.

25The first section of the novel centres around Ovid's reflection on the identity he has lost in exile, now that his civic self has been denied and his linguistic identity proves useless in the primitive and barbaric context to which he is confined. One of the main themes of the novel is, therefore, Ovid's initial desire to reconstruct the official identity that has been cancelled. He appears to be in a condition strikingly similar to that described by Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text: "As an institution, the author is dead: his civic status, his biographical person have disappeared" (27). While at first Ovid resents the severing from his culture and language, little by little he comes to realise that the Latin language which he thought he had mastered and which made him part of frivolous Roman society is useless in his new environment and far removed from what he now understands to be the highest form of communication: an intuitive and sympathetic silence which can lead to the identification with nature and with every creature of the universe. It is the language which enables the Child that lived with the wolves to feel "I rain" and "I thunder" instead of saying "it rains" and "it thunders" (96). Now, as this realization comes over him and he embarks on the final voyage beyond the limits of the known world and the limits of speech, Ovid feels his self dissolving into a myriad selves and points of view:

The spirit experiences what the body does but in a different form. It does not move along a line with the body, dividing the grasses' light. It expands to become the whole landscape, as if space itself were its dimensions; filling the whole land from horizon to horizon and the whole arch of the sky, its quality now the purest air, a myriad particles of light, each one a little center from which the whole can be grasped at a single glance, and from whose vantage point, above, I see those tiny figures crawling, who are the Child and myself. From a point far ahead I see us approaching. From a point a whole day's distance behind us, I see us moving away. (142)

26Even the body dissolves at the end: "I am growing bodiless. I am turning into the landscape. I feel myself sway and ripple. I feel myself expand toward the blue roundness of the sky." (146) Ovid reflects:

I think sometimes that if I were to listen hard enough I would hear my own body breaking forth in the same way, pushing at the thin, transparent envelope that still contains it, that keeps it from bursting forth.... (148)

27Ovid's voice stops as he "dissolves" at the end of the novel. He has reached "the point on earth where [he] disappear [s]" (150). " It is spring. It is summer. I am three years old. I am sixty. The Child is there" (151). Later, in the closing lines of the novel, it seems that his soul has "burst forth," revealing itself to be one with the child, the world, including the whole of his life into this final moment:

He is walking on the water's light. And as I watch, he takes the first step off, moving slowly away now into the deep distance, above the earth, above the water, on air.
It is summer. It is spring. I am immeasurably, unbearably happy. I am three years old. I am sixty. I am six.
I am there. (152)

28The transformation is an active, not a passive process. The novel is a celebration of the power of the human mind to create the conditions for change by imagining them and striving towards them. It is this creative power of the poet's mind that enables Ovid to achieve his metamorphosis and gives sense to the word "imaginary" in the novel's title.

  • 4 It is interesting to notice that both Malouf's and Ackroyd's novels, in different ways, " dissolve (...)

29Although it is impossible not to relate the theme of the dissolution of the poet's body and subjectivity to the context of the contemporary problematization of the notion of self, Ovid's dissolution also responds to the internal logic of the choice of the author of the Metamorphoses as the main character of Malouf's novel. As Malouf writes in the afterword of An Imaginary Life: "My purpose was to make this glib fabulist of 'the changes' live out in reality what had been, in his previous existence, merely the occasion for dazzling literary display" (154). On the contary, Chatterton exploits the theoretical sources (especially the notion of the dissolution of self) rather more overtly. When Wallis completes the painting of Chatterton's death, the work becomes "very bright, as in one last effort towards life," and it is "infused with the soul of Chatterton." The soul then escapes through the window into the world: "Neither he nor Chatterton could now wholly die" (170). At the end, Ackroyd's novel brings together the three main characters Chatterton, Charles, and Meredith--as himself and as the "Chatterton" of the portrait; earlier on Meredith had wondered, pointing at the painted body on the canvas:'"But is it Meredith or is it Chatterton?"', and Wallis's reply was: "There will come a time when even you will not know the difference" (161). The subject of representation and the representation itself become one, indistinguishable, endowed with inseparable identities. Chatterton and Charles die in the same posture fixed by the painting. In a transhistorical and trans-subjective moment their souls join together up above and link hands, bowing at the sun, knowing now that they will not die (233-4), infusing the world with their spirit and their collective myth.4 The fake portrait itself, made up of several layers of paint and giving its subject a haunting and ambiguous look, finally dissolves. The solution of the "mystery" of the middle-aged Chatterton comes, as it were, with the dis-solution of the painting, under light strokes of a chemical dissolvent:

The dissolvent was reacting with the freshly exposed paint. Small bubbles and creases were forming on the surface of the picture, and the image of the sitter seemed to shudder before beginning to shrivel, to bend, to drop away in flakes of paint which floated down from the canvas onto the tiled floor of Merk's studio. And as he watched in horror the dissolution acquired its own momentum: the top surface was being stripped away, and the various underpaintings were now crackling and bubbling. The face of the sitter dissolved, becoming two faces, one old and one young; as the paint decayed before Merk's eyes, the flakes becoming clots of colour which dropped onto the floor, these two faces recurred in a series of smaller and smaller images until after a few moments they had entirely disappeared.. Within a few minutes nothing remained: except, curiously enough, certain letters from the titles of the books which now hovered in indeterminate space. (228)

30The dissolving of the painting coincides with the dissolution of the illusion. What remains of the visual and linguistic construction of this other, imaginary self of the "marvellous boy" is only a few incoherent letters from the titles of his books.

"Part of the joke"

31Brian Finney writes of Ackroyd's fiction that it refuses to "differentiate between historical fact and imagined fact, between Chatterton the poet who wrote the Rowley poems and Chatterton the poet who wrote some of Blake's poems.... There is no narrative bias favoring the'historical'over the invented poet" (258). This is one possible reading, and it has the advantage of squaring with the "canonical" postmodernist interpretation of the hybridization of genres and the ontological breakdown of the boundaries between reality and fiction, art and life. Chatterton seems to pose however other problems. If there is no narrative bias in favour of the historical or invented poet, there may perhaps be one at the level of the aesthetics of biographic metafiction in favour of the existence of the former.

32At the end of the novel we discover that the portrait of the middle-aged, plagiarist Chatterton, the greatest forger of all time and therefore the greatest poet of all time ("for the truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry, 87), is in fact nothing else than a fake, a prank played by a bookseller who had been accused in one of Chatterton's letters, just before his suicide, of having bought up his work and abandoned him: And what better weapon to use against a forger than another forgery?" explains the present owner of the forged documents, a descendant of the offended bookseller. "He decided to out-trick the trickster, do you see?... He just wanted to leave it behind, to blacken Chatterton's name. It was a sort of joke. Charles's friend Philip, who is investigating into the origin of the manuscripts and the picture, reflects:

So that was it, after all, a joke. The memoirs had been forged by a bookseller who wanted to repay him in kind, to fake the work of a faker and so confuse forever the memory of Chatterton; he would no longer be the poet who died young and glorious, but a middle-aged hack who continued a sordid trade with his partner. (221)

33And as to the portrait, "'His son painted that. It was part of the joke, you see.'" (222)

34But what does this mirroring of forgeries and display of tricks and countertricks imply? The novel is built on the assumption that Chatterton had forged his own death (turning it into something akin to the metaphorical death of the author" celebrated by Barthes, Foucault, etc.) and had lived on. The novel's end in effect reinstates the official, accredited version of history, i. e. that Chatterton actually died. The novel is constructed on a hypothesis which is shown to be just "a sort of joke." The ontological transgression put forth by the text, its confusion of planes of reality and fiction, lasts only for the time and space of the story; after that, the illusion flakes away and history is restored, still within the boundaries of the text.

35One of the questions that arise is whether biographic metafiction may be seen as an author's attempt to revive, in some way, the author that criticism has "killed". In other words, can we take the effort of a novelist to celebrate another author in writing as an implicit reaffirmation of his or her own "life," his or her own control over language, his or her own capability to create and perpetuate personal myths? And in what ways, under what forms is the author given new life (only literary, alas, not that different after all from the phoenix-like power attributed to "factual" biography by Nadel)? Is it just as a paperauthor, a textualised entity (not an individual) as Roland Barthes has described it? Or perhaps, by inscribing his/her own agency in bringing the subject back into the text, the writer reasserts the existence of an individual author endowed with a will and intentions, furnished with ideas about writing and composing? An affirmative answer to the last question would appear to subvert the implications of the theories exploited, a fact that now seems to find support in some recent critical works that mount a critique against the "deletion" of biography and of the figure of the author. For instance, in his essay "Biography and Intention" Stanley Fish has argued in favour of the impossibility of reading independently of biography and of intention, while Seán Burke, in The Death and Return of the Author, points out that post-structuralist criticism has not so much "killed" the author as criticised one type of author (the author writing in the realist tradition) and has in fact implied all along the author's "return" at the same time as it declared his death. Fish does admit that, however, "All the traditional questions remain, questions about what constitutes a biography, about what is and is not biographical evidence, about what kind of entities can have biographies, and so on" (15). Our problem remains too: how do we distinguish between historical, biographical and fictional subjects in such cases as the rewriting of history, in biography, historical drama, historical novels, and so on? How do we distinguish the different degrees of "reality" of Ackroyd's Chatterton, the Chatterton described and recounted in biographies of the poet, and the Chatterton who lived in eighteenth-century England and died (at least we think so) at the age of eighteen in a London attic in Brooke Street? (Or, for that matter, of Shakespeare's Richard II, of the historical king and of the king of the chronicles?) And what about the relationship between Chatterton the writer of the poems, the Chatterton written in the poems and the Chatterton written by Ackroyd?

36What we have on our hands is the complex question of reference. Linda Hutcheon suggests that postmodernist fiction--historiographic metafiction in particular--foregrounds the problem of reference and challenges the distinction between fiction and reality, not by denying the existence of the referent but by asserting the "relative inaccessibility of any reality that might exist objectively and prior to our knowledge of it" (A Poetics of Postmodernism, 146). Reality, therefore, is knowable only as a linguistic, discursive fact: "Metafiction teaches its reader to see all referents as fictive, as imagined... their allusions are to intertexts... they... refer to textualized entities" (153); in the end, postmodernist metafiction "neither brackets nor denies the referent," it problematises "the entire activity of reference" (152).

37This is one aspect of this intricate question; as Hutcheon reminds us, semiotics, and Saussurian linguistics before it, have taught us that the linguistic sign has a content, but that the referent is extra-linguistic.

  • 5 A distinction must be made here between Malouf's and Ackroyd's novels on the one hand and Adair's (...)

38The problem of reference in historiographic or biographic metafíction cannot however be left at this. When Ackroyd lets us contemplate the possibility that Chatterton did not die, and in several other instances of fictional biographies,5 the aesthetic enjoyment of the work does not depend so much on the fact that reality is knowable only as textualised, it also depends on shared assumptions about reality and about the already existing. It is playing with these certainties that constitutes the literary game and founds the aesthetic pleasure of biographic and historiographic metafíction. The reader is expected to recognize "real" characters and "real" events and try to unravel them--often with difficulty--from what is new, invented, added. The pleasure of the text lies also in the identification of what is "historical" and what is "fictional."

39Thus, if different ontological planes of existence may be confused in the novel, at least two considerations arise: the first, already pointed out above and specific to Chatterton, is that the ontological transgression turns out to last only for the time and space of the novel, at the end of which the "truthfulness" of accredited history is reinstated. The second, valid for biographic metafíction as a genre, is that the existence of the referent is implied and appears as necessary--more: it is the conditio sine qua non for the aesthetic success of these novels. Reality may be epistemologically uncertain for fictional biographies and metafíction in general, but it must be an ontological certainty in order for these works to be possible and successful discursive acts. The success of the surprise and amusement provoked in the reader of Stephen Marlowe's The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes by Cervantes's meeting with Christopher Marlowe in an international Renaissance spy story and his hope that Shakespeare may not die yet because he knows that they are going to die in the same year, or by the possibility of Ovid's metamorphosis in the steppes of the north, or by Chatterton's forgery of his death, requires the reader's acceptance that the laws of nature and the records of history are true and real. If this belief failed, there would be no surprise and therefore no aesthetic pleasure. The whole question may be rephrased, perhaps less naively, by saying that the dialectic in metafíction is not between reality and fiction, but between what is already recorded, and therefore conventionally accepted as true, and what is written for the first time, and therefore (since it appears in a novel) interpreted as fictional. The condition however remains, and the condition is that willing, momentary suspension of the necessary belief in the reality of reality.



Ackroyd, Peter. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983.

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984.

Ackroyd, Peter. Chatterton. 1987. London: Abacus, 1988.

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Adair, Gilbert. The Death of the Author. 1992. London: Minerva, 1993.

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." 1968. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977.142-148.

Barthes, Roland. "From Work to Text." 1971. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977.155-164.

Barthes, Roland. "From Work to Text." 1971. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ed. Josué V. Harari. 1979. Trims. J. V. Harari. London: Methuen, 1980. 73-81.

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. 1974. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Cape, 1976.

Bradbury, Malcolm. Mensonge. 1987. London: Arena, 1989.

Burke, Seán. The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P, 1992.

De Man, Paul. "Autobiography as De-facement." Modern Language Notes 94.5 (1979): 919-930.

Finney, Brian. "Peter Ackroyd, Postmodernist Play and Chatterton." Twentieth Century Literature 38.2 (1992): 240-261.

Fish, Stanley. "Biography and Intention". Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism. Ed. William Epstein. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue U P, 1991. 9-16.

Forster, Edward Morgan. "Mr. Andrews." Collected Short Stories. 1947. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.166-170.

Foucault, Michel. "What Is an Author?" Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist-Criticism. Ed. Josué V. Harari. 1979. London and New York: Methuen, 1980.141-160.

Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. 1980. New York and London: Methuen, 1984.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

Madélenat, Daniel. La Biographie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1984.

Malamud, Bernard. Dubin's Lives. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Malouf, David. An Imaginary Life. New York: Braziller, 1978.

Nadel, Ira B.. Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form. New York: St. Martin's, 1984.

Nye, David. The Invented Self: An Anti-biography, from Documents of Thomas A. Edison. Odense: Odense U P, 1983.

Woolf, Virginia. "The New Biography." New Herald Tribune. October 30, 1927. Rpt. in Granite and Rainbow. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1988.149-155.


1 Cf. In particular Narcissistic Narrative and A Poetics of Postmodernism. Hutcheon is one of the critics who have most extensively contributed to the study of " historiographie metafiction." The definition itself has been adopted by her, and it is thus explained in A Poetics of Postmodernism: " By this I mean those well known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflective and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages " (5).

2 Stephen Heath's translation (" figured in the carpet," 160) renders the reference to Henry James more explicit.

3 Interestingly, Ackroyd has also written a fictional autobiography of Oscar Wilde (The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, 1983), a diary of the Irish writer's last days in Paris.

4 It is interesting to notice that both Malouf's and Ackroyd's novels, in different ways, " dissolve " their characters into the air, nature, time, so that their spirits and their myths are liberated into the world and " enrich " it, while at the same time the spirits themselves are granted eternity. This recalls a motif which can be found in Ε. M. Forster's writing, especially the shorter fiction, significantly dealing with a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis and community with nature. Cf. in particular the end of the short story " Mr. Andrews ", where the souls of Mr. Andrews and of the Turk consciously decide to abandon heaven and, joining hands, let the atmospheric pressure break the thin envelope which surrounds their souls and thus diffuse into the world, enriching it with their experience: " As soon as they passed the gate, they felt again the pressure of the world soul. For a moment they stood hand in hand resisting it. Then they suffered it to break in upon them, and they, with all the experience they had gained, and all the love and wisdom they had generated, passed into it, and made it better." (170).

5 A distinction must be made here between Malouf's and Ackroyd's novels on the one hand and Adair's on the other. The Death of the Author is modelled on the life of Paul de Man, but de Man's name appears nowhere, and the reference shifts from the person himself to the theory. The literary game is rather like a riddle (" to whose life does this story correspond?"), whereas in the case of Chatterton and Ovid we are dealing with the juxtaposition or replacement of a "real" and " known " life with an imaginary life built round a real name. Adair's novel however is relevant to the present discussion: theory and biography and their difficult--but necessary-cohabitation are called into question in the novel exactly because the biographical and intellectual vicissitudes of the American scholar's life can be exploited narratively to throw some malicious, dark light on the theory itself and its effects on biographical criticism. In Burke's words: " At a time when critical theory thought to have dispensed with the idea of authorship, the posthumous revelation of de Man's wartime writings brought the author back to centre stage " (1).


Université de Pise

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1995

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier