The French Review 66.2 (1992): 318-319.
BEVAN, D.G., AND P.M. WETHERILL. Sur la génétique textuelle. Atlanta and Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1990. ISBN 90-5183-168-4. Pp. 205. $30.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
Recently French critics have traveled back to the future, as it were, by focusing on the importance both of the manuscript and of the author under the rubric of "la critique génétique." In an issue of Poetics Today (11.3 [Fall 1990]), two essays by Michel Pierssens (617-625) and Frank Paul Bowman (627-646) provide an extremely useful starting point for understanding the premises and trajectories of this critical approach. Subsequently, D.G. Bevan and P.M. Wetherill have offered twelve in-depth practical essays on la génétique, i.e. on manuscript studies related to specific authors, and three more generally theoretical essays on the approach's possibilities and limitations.
In their "Avant-Propos," the editors emphasize that the new orientation of la génétique lies in recognizing the constant changes that occur in methods of composition linked to cultural and intellectual changes from one era to another. In the opening, theoretical essay, Jacques Neefs reiterates, "Il faut se défaire de tout absolutisme et de tout positivisme en cette matière . . . Ce que l'on peut espérer faire, en remontant vers les processus d'élaboration et de significations à l'oeuvre dans le manuscrit de travail, c'est construire une analyse des modes de l'invention et de l'activité de penser-écrire qui ait valeur heuristique" (14). P.M. Wetherill complements Neefs's essay with a rather fragmented, yet important "déblocage" of la génétique in terms of cultural sources that nourish "pratiques génétiques" within a particular era.
Neefs's theoretical questions regarding the revelation in manuscripts
of "la conception narrative," of "la pratique du
documentaire" by the author, and of "la forme de l'existence
éditoriale des textes" (14-15), inform the studies
of specific authors that follow. Focusing on the nineteenth-century
writers Balzac and Sand (Nicole Mozet), Nerval (Peter J. Edwards),
Flaubert (Marie-Thérèse Mathet, D.A. Williams), these authors examine various "pratiques d'écriture" evident in different manuscripts during the early period of genetic studies. In "Une prise d'histoire dans le manuscrit," Philippe Willemart develops the questions, "quand est-ce que quelque chose existe dans l'écriture et ensuite pour l'écrivain?" (91), that further complement Neefs's and Wetherill's essays in considering "genesis" properly speaking, i.e. the crystallization of disparate words into l'oeuvre envisaged as writing techniques and as the author's creative impetus. Following seven essays on the twentieth-century writers Proust (Marcel Muller, Anthony R. Pugh, Eugène Nicole, Kathryn Hamer), Malraux (Christiane Moatti), and Beckett (Yves Thomas, Brian Fitch), Graham Falconer's concluding "plaidoirie" argues for la génétique conceived as "un carrefour, un lieu déchanges, et non une méthodologie" (191). Falconer describes both the positive consequences of this re-conception and his own "réserves" regarding risks run by généticiens of fetishizing the writing act, of resisting theoretical generalizations, and thus of having too limited an impact beyond the "champ génétique" (195-97).
My own "réserves" have little to do with this critical domain in itself, but rather with the cruel irony that a collection whose topic is the state of the manuscript should be diminished from the outset by evident editorial inattentiveness, manifested notably in the "table des matières." The reader will find there no authors names, thus receiving the erroneous impression that all of these essays are written by the only names that precede them, Bevan and Wetherill. Moreover, midway down this page in bold print and centered, one finds "APPENDICE I," suggeting that essays six through fifteen are mere appendices to the opening five. Since the essays are presented chronologically, the editors could have easily and thoughtfully organized the volume simply by placing a roman numeral I before essay 1 and II before Willemarts responding theoretical reflection that precedes the essays on twentieth-century authors. In any case, readers will have understood that despite these irritating, but minor shortcomings, this volume provides a valuable elaboration of a field of study whose time has come not only for the development of critical editions of authors works, but also and especially for understanding the complex processes contributing to the constitution of the travail textuel understood in its broadest sense.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University