The Roving Shadows
In 2002, Les Ombres Errantes won the Prix Goncourt—possibly the most prestigious award a French literary work can receive—despite the fact that it is not a novel. Before considering The Roving Shadows in its own right, it is worth pausing to reflect on the significance of that and its subsequent publication in English. Almost one half of the winners of the Prix Goncourt have yet to appear in English translation and in that sense, this translation by Chris Turner is truly an event.
The Roving Shadows is a remarkable work, primarily because it straddles the line between contemporary French literature, which is vastly under-read in the United States, and French critical theory, which is probably more popular outside of France than it is inside. Indeed, it is difficult to say which genre of writing it actually fits. On the one hand the book contains many examples of sensuous description and personal memoir—you know, the type of thing one expects to find in a literary work. On the other hand it also is full of thought-provoking aphorisms and historical anecdotes, favored modes of expression by the critical theorists. Quignard’s book straddles the divide between critical essay and narrative in a way that is highly idiosyncratic. Instead of segregating the work into discrete, genre-specific parts, as Nabokov did in Pale Fire or The Gift, Quignard treads freely over the border between styles, often alternating within a single paragraph.
I seek only thoughts that tremble. There is a flush that belongs to the interior of the soul. The sixth book of the Chin P’Ing Mei (The Plumin the Golden Vase) sees the sudden appearance of the scholar Win Pi’Ku. He isn’t yet forty.
The first sentence is personal narrative, the second is a kind of aphorism, and the third is the beginning of a historical anecdote that continues through most of the chapter. In fact, Quignard actually starts the book by roving across two different modes of writing, his poetic list-making style and his confessional one.
The crowing of the cockerel, the dawn, the barking of dogs, the gathering daylight, a man rising, nature, time, dreams, lucidity—everything is fierce.
I cannot touch the coloured covers of certain books without feeling a painful sensation rise within me.
The uniqueness of this work’s style presents a problem to the reader and the critic. Against which body of works should one judge The Roving Shadows, then, literature or critical theory? The overwhelming majority of the book’s passages are concerned with advancing the narrator’s theses about his own life and the world around him. In this sense, the book feels more like an example of post-modern philosophy than it does of literature. Unlike a work of critical theory, however, The Roving Shadows develops no useful interpretive apparatus. It also advances no support for its positions whatsoever. To fault The Roving Shadows for these two failures, however, is a bit like faulting an orange for not being an apple. There is no indication that The Roving Shadows was intended to be critical theory. The only reason for thinking that it should be critical theory is that it so forthrightly advances profound ideas, ones that challenge the way most people approach the world.
In my mind, the genre-bending literature of ideas that Quignard presents in The Roving Shadows was anticipated by the work of two enormously talented and very different writers: Friedrich Nietzsche and Françoise-René de Chateaubriand. The resemblance of Quignard’s work to Nietzsche’s is the more obvious of the two. The Dawn, for examples, present a very similar blend of unsubstantiated philosophical theses, ad-hoc personal reflection, aphorism, and poetry. Like Nietzsche’s works, The Roving Shadows succeeds in so far as it challenges the reader to question his or her own existence. And indeed, The Roving Shadows raises a host of questions about literature, about writing, about reading, and about criticism. It raises the kind of wonderment that one finds in reading critical theory, but it does so in a way that is far more accessible than your Cixous, Derrida, or Deleuze. The theses it presents can be viewed on their own terms without apparatus; its anecdotes are interesting and keep one entertained while reading, and it leaves the impression of being a “deep” book one could think about for a long time without ever making real progress at understanding.
In a more subtle way, The Roving Shadows is really a work that follows the writing prescriptions of Chateaubriand, the founder of French Romanticism. In The Genius of Christianity, Chateaubriand argued that the writers of his time were missing an enormous opportunity to tap into the imagery, the aporia, and the literary tropes suggested by Catholic theology. His works Atala and René developed a new kind of literature, one whose subject matter and stylistics were both totally unexpected and yet oddly familiar. The Roving Shadows is literature in a similar vein, it’s just that the philosophical framework from which it draws its inspiration is not Catholicism but post-Modern French philosophy. Indeed, the work is best classified as a distillation of critical theory into literary form. For this reason, it is an important work, an interesting work, and a landmark in French literary/philosophical thought.