Par Pierre Force & Dominique Jullien

Extrait de Yale French Studies, numéro spécial :
After the Age of suspicion : The French Novel Today
1988, p. 285 à 315

 Renaud Camus was born in 1946 in Chamalières, near Clermont-Ferrand. He studied law, political science, and philosophy. He spent a year at Oxford and lived in the USA as a lecturer in two universities, in New-York (CUNY) and in the South (Hendricks College). He recently spent two years in Italy, as a fellow of the French Academy in Rome (Villa Medicis). Renaud Camus lives in Paris, rue du Bac. Unlike most young writers, he has chosen to make his living by his writings.

Renaud Camus is not famous yet, although his last two novels (Roman Roi, 1985, Roman Furieux, 1987) have begun to attract a wider audience. Very little criticism is available on him. Roland Barthes wrote a preface to Tricks ; Gérard Genette mentions him several times in his latest book, Seuils  (1987), as an example for his use of pseudonyms, footnotes, ad other aspects of the literary "liminaire".

Roman Roi  was the first of Renaud Camus's novels to receive wide critical attention. While the French press unanimously agreed in proclaiming the remarkable originality of Camus's work, most critics attempted to constitute lists of authors to whom Renaud Camus owed something. (1)  A comparison between those lists shows they have very few names in common : if we merge them, we come to a total of at least three dozen names. This total list, however, seems short if we compare it to the one provided by Camus himself in a previous work, Eté, where sixty-four titles of films, cartoons, novels, criticism, and other sorts of written material are listed. As far as Eté is concerned, speaking of literary influence would be a misunderstanding. The main writing technique of Eté is plagiarism : we read on page 383 : "Here is the most original novel ever published : its author hasn't written a single line of it." In the postface of Passage, Renaud Camus's first novel, thirty-four authors are given credit for a quarter of the book, the rest consisting of "passages taken from the authors's previous writings". (2)

It is fairly easy to give a critical account of Camus's work, since most of the information necessary for such a purpose is already contained in the work itself. In that respect, a key to Camus's idea of literature can be found in the now canonical chapter 21 of Barthes's S/Z (Irony, parody) ; although this particular chapter is not mentioned, one other chapter to which it is intimately related (chapter 59 on Flaubert's irony) is quoted in Eté. In chapter 21, Roland Barthes, stating that irony acknowledges the origin of quoted sentences, defines modern writing as an attempt to go one step beyond ironical discourse. On the contrary, "Ecriture refuses all claims to property and, therefore, can never be ironical". According to Barthes, the quick obsolescence of literary forms leads literature to parody ; forms are reused in an ironical manner. Previous authors are quoted ironically. Since nothing new can be invented, the modern text cannot avoid being a sequence of quotations from existing literature. The task left to the modern writer is "to abolish quotation marks." This is exactly what Renaud Camus does in a work like Eté.

Not all of Camus's works, however, belong to the category of polyphonic writing. Several essays and chronicles combine autobiographical elements with reflections on the interpretation of signs in everyday life. The Journal d'un voyage en France  (1981), following the tradition of nineteenth-century travel diaries, offers critical additions to the Guide bleu, detailed descriptions of provincial cities, meticulous accounts of the author's sexual encounters, health problems, financial difficulties, a comparative study of the quality of service in French hotels, and numerous digressions of all kinds. Tricks (1979), Notes achriennes (1982) and Chroniques achriennes (1984) deal with homosexuality from the point of view of an author who believed that homosexuality should be a topic of no more and no less interest that any other topic related to human behavior. Camus writes in the foreword to Tricks, "if this book helps to make its subject banal as subject , it will not have been written in vain". In so saying, Camus renews the classical doctrine according to which literature has both the power and the duty to influence moral behavior. (3)  This moral purpose is also clear in Notes sur les manières du temps (1985), which deals with manners in everyday life. Though a subtle analysis of real-life situations, Camus tries to overturn the widespread Rousseauist ideology which values sincerity and spontaneity in social behavior. His praise of rules and conventions is based on the assumption that civilization is a set of arbitrary rules which must be accepted as such. In a social context, spontaneous behavior means a diminished civilization and more brutality. Therefore, convention has a higher moral value.

Such statements could easily be translated into the vocabulary of Pascal's Pensées. In Buena Vista Park (1980), Camus quotes Pascal's thought on the hierarchy of opinions in society, which ranges from the opinion of the "populace" to that the "clever", with an intermediate step, the "half-clever". (4)  This clearly shows that Camus's praise of convention, although very difficult to distinguish from traditional, conservative discourse, is to be understood as a step beyond the questioning of convention, that is to say, in Camus's vocabulary, a third-degree position. Camus makes a universal use of bathmologie (Barthes's neologism for the science in degree in speech). Bathmologie is a key to all of Camus's productions : its applications range from considerations on manners to statements on literature itself.

Novelists born after 1968 must be divided into two families. Those who continue to repeat their lessons in Freudolinguistics and wonder about the birth of the text in the depth of their ego. And those who more modestly accept the use of the inherited language to tell intelligible stories, which is far more difficult. (5)

This statement of contemporary French literature could be a quotation from the literary supplement of Le Figaro. However, what is relevant is not its origin but its bathmological status. If we consider it as a third-degree opinion, it explains why Camus moved away from polyphonic writing in Roman Roi (1983) and Roman furieux (1987), which belong unambiguously to the novelist genre. Indeed, his allegiance to genre  leads him to reactivate the conventional stance "this is not fiction" which characterizes eightenth-century novels. In a television presentation of Roman roi, Renaud Camus boldly asserted that Roman roi was the true story of Roman, king of Caronia, born in 1920 and detroned by the Communists in 1948. (6)  From this perspective, one is tempted to retrace Camus's career as a progression from criticism to fiction, in a French literary tradition which considers that, after Bouvard et Pecuchet, writing has become impossible. (7)

It seems, however, that such an itinary (from steril criticism to creation) has little to do with Camus's personal history as a writer. Camus, who published twelve books in twelve years, never felt the anxiety of the blank page. On the contrary, what strikes us is a remarkable fecundity and an obvious pleasure in writing. This is the reason why works like Eté do not seem to be an experimental step toward a more conventional form of fiction. One should first take into account that some passages of Eté contain characters and situations that are later developped in Roman roi and Roman furieux.  Secondly, Eté is a part of "Les Eglogues", a trilogy in four books and seven volumes, "of which three volumes are still to come". Therefore, Camus's novelistic cycle could just as well be considered a by-product of this more ambitious project, which will end with an appendix entitled Lecture (comment m'ont écrit certains de mes livres). (8)

Camus is not likely to abandon polyphonic writing because, even though he knows what must come after them, works like Eté and the Eglogues in general are still facing indifference and misunderstanding. As one would say in bathmological terms, a vast majority of readers are still used to first-degree novels (traditional nineteenth-century writing, perpetuated by most of today's authors), while polyphonic writing and the Nouveau Roman are popular among academics (second degree) and have become cliché in avant-garde  circles. Therefore, according to Renaud Camus, statements like the following should be strongly supported :

Literature is running late : painters are, fortunately, seldom asked what their paintings represent, but when it comes to writers, the majority of the public still wants to know what the subject of their novels is and what it is about. (9 The idea that the subject of a work should be only itself, its composition, thearrangement of its elements is now more or less admitted by the doxa  when it comes from artits, but it is rejected if one talks about novelists. (10)

This throws light on the titles Camus gave to his polyphonic writings : Passage, Echange, Travers, Eté (Travers II) and those to come, (Travers III,Travers Coda Index, Lecture). More than information about the contents of the books, these titles refer to a certain kind of writing. Therefore, they could well be interchangeable. Passage, Echange, Travers refer to relation between meanings, not to meanings themselves. Of course, these relations become meaningful in their turn; if Camus actually wrote a texte entirely made of quotations, he could reject the accusation of plagiarism by quoting Pascal : "Do not tell me I have said nothing new : the arrangement of the matter is new." (11)

In his polyphonic writing, Camus gathers sentences that are powerless, banal or cliché in their original context, because of the obsolescence of literary forms. As they become a part of Camus's text these meanings play and interact in many unexpected ways. They come back to life. The reader is swiftly carried from one voice to another, from one style to its parody, from one time to another, from criticism to fiction, and vice-versa. Of course, in these wandering, the crossing of borders are so complex that the reader never exactly knows where he is. In Eté, Camus use up to twelve levels of footnotes, making the distinction between note and main text irrelevant. This technique and others of the same kind lead to what we can only call a Balkanization of writing.

In fact, saying that these heterogeneous fragments of meanings are gathered to become Camus's text is already saying too much. Modern writing, says Barthes, abolished the notion of literary property. Camus, in a move that reminds us of some very ancient conception of literature, tends to abolish the notion of author. Camus's use of pseudonyms does not aim at hiding a personality or a private life. The opposition usually made between confession and impersonal literature is irrelevant in his case. Ther is not even a clear distinction between Camus's own name and the various pseudonyms he uses. These form a continuum that goes from slight alterations of the author's officially registered name (Renaud Camus) to name which are totally different (Jean-Renaud Camus, J.R.G. Le Camus, Renaud Camus et Tony Duparc, Renaud Camus et Tony Duvert, Denise Duparc, etc.) Not included in this list are those pseudonyms to be found in text itself : anagrams, such as Duane Markus.

The meaning of all these games is clear. Renaud Camus (the author), in the way Borges once wrote a story called Borges and I, is a character, if not several characters in his own book. Therefore, it is not surprising to find sentences like this one in Eté : "Ronald, Duane, Renaud and I took a taxi with Markus to go to his house". (12)

It may seem paradoxical to assert that, in total, Camus's ultimate goal is simplicity. But as Barthes says, "speaking simply belong to a higher art, writing". (13)  One may also be surprised by Barthes's assessment of Camus's writing :

Our period interprets a great deal, but Renaud Camus's narratives are neutral, they do not participate in the game of interpretation. They are surfaces without shadows, without ulterior motives. (14)

Obviously, there is a great deal, of interpretation of Camus's writing. The Voyage en France and Notes sur les manières du temps are entirely hermeneutic. Buena Vista is a treatise on interpretation. But those works may not be interpreted in a usual way because they are based on a virtue which belongs both to ethics and hermeneutics : good will. Common interpretation is forever in search of hidden motives and intentions. Its favorite tool and highest value is supicion. (15)  Renaud Camus on the contrary, one step beyond sarcastic distance, considers meaning with kindess. The way he reports the sometimes naive words of his sexual partners, and the way he quotes texts of various origins, show the same absence of irony. What common interpretation would consider ridiculous, pedantic, naive, impossible to say, boring, too difficult to understand, or passé finds its place in Camus's writing.

Camus's slogan on interpretation could be : less is more. Meaning dissolves itself in commentary. Therefore, Camus chose silent ways of interpretation. Rearranging old material is already all the interpretation we need. It is also all we need to produce new meaning.

Dominique Jullien et Pierre Force



(1) Here are a few examples : Abel Hermant, Jean d'Ormesson, Maurice Donnay, Alphonse Daudet, Musil (Le Figaro); Arsène Lupin rewriting Les Mémoires d'outre-tombe (Quinzaine littéraire) ; Albert Camus's La Chute (Gai-pied hebdo); Stendhal, Jules Verne, Michelet, Roussel, Walter Scott, Hergé's le Sceptre d'Ottokar (Le Nouvel Observateur). The same magazine charcterizes the novel as U.L.O. Unidentified Litterary Object.

(2) Passage (Paris : Flammarion, 1975), 207.

(3) The forging of the term achrien, an arbitrary, and therefore unconnotated neologism for homosexual, is based on this assumption.

(4) Buena Vista Park (Paris, Hachette, 1980), 56.

(5) Eté (Paris : Hachette, 1982), 233.

(6) The book itself provides us with a map of Caronia and a geneological tree of the royal family. A publisher's note on the back cover insists that the story is true.

(7) This does not mean that people will stop writing novels, any more that there would be no more works of art.

(8) A parodic reference to Raymond Roussel's famous Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres.

(9) In english in the original.

(10) Eté, 123. Camus immediately gives the antithesis of this statement in a footnote : "Of course; this because language is, by nature, and intrinsically, representative. On the other hand, a literature that would give up speaking of the world and would refer only to itself, wouls, in fact, in that meaningless specularity, encounter only derision and death."

(11) Quoted in Eté, 231.

(12) Eté, 307

(13) Preface to Tricks, trans. Richard Howard (New York : St. Martin's Press, 1981), vii.

(14) Op. cit, viii.

(15) A literary expression of this attitude would be Nathalie Sarraute's L'Ere du soupçon.