Danielle Mémoire: Lecture publique suivie d’un débat (Public Reading Followed by Discussion)
The basic premise of this novel is very simple. It is just as the title says. A reader is to read from his work-in-progress before an audience and then there will be a discussion with the audience. However, this novel is not simple.
The first problem is that the reader does not have a work-in-progress. When he accepted the invitation, he thought he did have a work-in-progress or rather would have plenty of time to write one but he did not. He phoned to cancel but no-one answered. So here he is.
Of course, he can and, indeed, will improvise. And the theme? Well. of course, it is about a man giving a public reading. He tells us that it takes place early in the morning at a top of a tower. The reader is a man. Stately and plump, he appears at the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lie crossed. He wears a yellow dressing-gown. We very quickly realise that we are not, perhaps, at the beginning of our reader’s work-in-progress but, in fact, at the beginning of Ulysses.
The book is ludic and playful (aren’t they the same? perhaps they are ) and also intertextual. Let’s deal with the latter first as it is easiest. Ulysses and Heinrich Heine put in an appearance as do Nabokov and Proust and others, including various songs. We are told that our audience is well-read and they recognise all the references.
Back to the ludism. The audience are not surprisingly disappointed about the lack of work-in-progress.There is a discussion about stately and plump – you will recall that Buck Mulligan from Ulysses is stately and plump – at which it is agreed that you do not often find those two words together. The French uses the words majesteux and dodu which, I would agree are not often used together. Dodu is more slangy than plump. You could, I believe, use plump to describe Louis XIV of France or George IV of England (though not, of course to their face), though in fact, As Beau Brummell said with regard to the future George IV, they were, in fact, both fat. However, I do not believe that you would have called either dodu. the equivalent of which, in English, might best be podgy.
Let me stress that this has nothing to do with our translator, K. E. Gormley. Joyce used plump while Mémoire translated it as dodu. Indeed, this may have more to do with the paucity of the French language rather than any failing on Mémoire’s part.
I am getting sidetracked but then this books is full of sidetracks. Where were we? Oh yes, the audience was not amused. So they do what audiences do when they are not amused. They leave. But the reader, feeling a rare pang of conscience, calls them back. He produces another work-in-progress. He reads a very short story. Has he written it yet? It appears not. So the audience changes the story, for the story is, of course, about a reader reading a story to an audience.
Perhaps there are multiple readers? Perhaps the reader is a woman? Perhaps the audience are the readers and/or the writers of the story? He has a dog with him. Or is it two dogs? Or three dogs? Is/are the dog(s) indeed,his? And there is the cat. It changes its name or, rather, he changes its name – frequently. It seems to change its colour. Indeed, he and his wife disagree on this. Has he lost it? Has he found it? Is it Schrödinger’s cat? (That’s my comment, not the audience’s, not the reader’s, not Mémoire’s). And I won’t mention the bird. Too sad. Though it might be a robin or a blackbird or an owl.
So back to the reading. The audience – some of them, anyway – have stuck it out but they are not always happy with how it’s going. Sometimes they are. We enjoyed it, we enjoyed it. Only, as you said, it was very short.
Gradually, other characters start creeping in. However, other authors start creeping in as well. Did our reader write it or was it, perhaps, his brother, a man obsessed with leprosy? And is our reader Robert or is that his brother? And which – if either of them – is Albert? And are there multiple authors and is there a woman author?
How many texts are there? And how many stories? And do they make sense? (That really started to drag near the end there, and we couldn’t make head or tail of it. Can you help us out a little?…Sadly, no, I cannot: I couldn’t make head or tail of it myself. And what is his main theme? Salvation by storytelling. But, at the end, the audience are not impressed. I call bullshit on your story. It makes no sense!
So what is going on? We can take it in several ways. Firstly, maybe, Mémoire is just our author playing games, having fun at her readers’ expense. While that is undoubtedly an element of this book, I feel that there is a lot more to it.
The traditional books that we read have three distinct roles. There is the author. There are the characters. There is the reader, you and I. Yes, the author and characters can overlap to some degree and, of course, there are books where the author plays some games with the role of the reader. This occurs more in the theatre. Pirandello‘s Six Characters in Search of an Author is an obvious example but we can also see it, for example, in children’s pantomime, where the audience is invited to take part by, for example, warning a character of a threat. In prose fiction, it has been also been used in children’s works such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
I have examples on this site of something similar in adult literature: Julio Cortázar‘s Rayuela (Hopscotch) allows you to read the book in conventional order or in a more random order. B. S. Johnson goes a step further with his The Unfortunates which allows you read the chapters of the book in any order. There are lots of other examples of metafiction.
Mémoire has simply taken this a step further by completely breaking down the boundaries between author, characters and reader. Our audience, as well as being the readers (which they are not as there is nothing to read, though one of them seems to have a text) are also the characters and, indeed, the authors. Our author (confusingly called reader as he is giving a public reading), not only passes on some of his authorial creation to his audience, and makes them his characters (to a certain degree), he may not even be the author. He may not even be a he. When he does throw in a story, which he does, we are left wondering whether he is one of the characters and, if so, his real life and fictitious relationship with the other characters. In short, the boundaries have broken down.
There is another broader way of looking at this novel. Mémoire is saying that there are multiple realities, not just one. We all have different ones. You and I can both look at the same landscape or read the same book ,yet have very differing views on both. In this book, we see this quite concretely, with the author (and the cat) having different names, the number of dogs and trunks on the stage changing, the cat changing colour and also whether it is lost or not, whether the author has a work-in-progress or, indeed, multiple works-in-progress and so on. Reality is mutable, fluctuating and differs for all of us.
I really enjoyed this book. Some of the time I was not sure what was going on but that, of course was the point. It was funny but also very serious in that it makes the reader think about changing reality, different perspectives and the boundaries between the author, the characters and the reader.
First published in 1993 by P.O.L.
First published in English in 2021 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by K. E. Gormley