The French Review, vol. 72, no. 6 (May 1999)

 Producing Publications, I: Conferencing -- Sample Abstract

Charles J. Stivale
Department of Romance Languages & Literatures
Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202 /

"'Like The Sculptor's Chisel': Voices 'On' and 'Off' in Barbey d'Aurevilly's Les Diaboliques"

In several persuasive treatises on the novel, M. Bakhtin/V. Volosinov has insisted on the need for a dialogic understanding of novelistic prose, and this necessity is perhaps nowhere more acute than in studies on the fiction of Barbey d'Aurevilly. To consider only the six tales which constitute Les Diaboliques (1874), one finds abundant scholarship addressing their levels of narration, focalization, and how these narrative strategies intersect the texts' various themes. But only rarely has this research emphasized the predominant tensions produced by the dialogical tug-of-war of voices within these texts, i.e. not only what Bakhtin calls the "dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object," but also "the profound influence of the answering word that [the initial word] anticipates" (The Dialogic Imagination 279-280). This dialogic orientation gives rise to an active, "responsive understanding," one that can help us account more fully for the complex dialogic tensions and interplay which occur in the texts in Les Diaboliques-, especially in providing insight regarding their diabolical thematics.

The essay which I propose will itself participate in this dialogical process of understanding by studying the directions and misdirections prevalent in the six tales of Les Diaboliques from the perspective of narrative voice and its dialogization, i.e. by unveiling the interplay between narrative levels and deploying my own "response" to the implicit questions posed by the textual dialogues as a necessary step of active understanding and reading. As has been noted, the multi-tiered framing devices for the conversational "ricochets" in each tale allow Barbey to focus the reader's attention on each text's seemingly all-important central, embedded tale, and to divert him or her from the marginal framing dialogues. However, other critics (notably Eileen Sivert and Peter Brooks) have observed how these apparent "margins" are of equal import to the tales' narrative structure and dialogic unfolding. As Bakhtin notes, "the framing context, -like the sculptor's chisel-, hews out the rough outlines of someone else's speech, and carries the image of language out of the raw empirical data of speech life" (DI 358, my emphasis). Thus, given that "one can sense behind each utterance the elemental forces of social languages" (DI 356), the dialogic perspective insists on the text's inherent socio-ideological tension created by the interplay between narrative border and center.

It is through the "responsive understanding" of these textual dialogics that I propose to examine the double-voiced relationships in these tales, i.e. how their narrative "object," or story, maintains a constant tension in regards to the multiple "answering word" not only as textualized interlocutor and narrator of each tale, but also as reader. For I will argue that the reader's understanding of the dialogical interaction depends both on resisting the author's narrational ploys that would establish a centripetal, center-oriented reading, and on embracing the narrative and socio-ideological constructions developed through the textual interplay of voices "on" and "off" in these anecdotal dialogues. These reflections will permit me to conclude by drawing a parallel between the strategies at work in Barbey's text and in the film by H.G. Clouzot bearing the same title, especially as regards the diabolical thematics and their relationship to dialogical interaction.