Reading Christine Montalbetti

Context N°23

Warren Motte

Christine Montalbetti’s books are innovative, compelling, and slyly enticing constructions that provide some of the finest readerly experiences that French fiction currently has to offer. They put on stage a wide variety of characters, situations, and events, yet each book testifies in similar ways to a profound reflection on narrative art, and each pays close attention to the critical dimension of contemporary writing. That this should be the case is logical enough, once one realizes that Montalbetti leads a double life. On the one hand, she is beginning to make her mark as one of the most intriguing young novelists in France; on the other hand, she is a professor of literature at the University of Paris, and the author of a number of important critical and theoretical works that have confirmed her as a scholar of narrative. Insofar as her fiction is concerned, its most salient trait is undoubtedly the manner in which it takes the reader into account. These are generous texts wherein the author invites her reader to inhabit textual space, and to participate in a meditation focusing both upon the book of the future and the future of the book. For my own part, I am persuaded that it is precisely in such texts that the contemporary French novel realizes its potential and seeks to renew itself. From their very first sentences, Montalbetti’s books call upon their readers relentlessly, inveigling us, flattering us, cajoling us, attempting to persuade us that we have a role to play in the process of storytelling. Western, for instance, begins thus:

Call him anything you want, this thirty-year-old in the checkered shirt who rocks back and forth under the roof of this porch in what can only be called a makeshift apparatus, haphazardly, with nothing like the harmonious movements of an actual rocking-chair—the slow movement of its curves in an ergonomic unity conducive to day-dreaming—making do, under the circumstances, with this senescent chair, even being a little too hard on it, a chair covered in nicks and smudges telling of past carelessness (see that chipping, those splotches, the gashes on its rungs, the scars in its back), a rustic model;(notice how thick the rungs are, the clumsy spindles fanning out), pushing it just a little bit too far, having wedged its back legs into a crack in the floor, while its front legs, like the lone two fangs, if you will, in some scarcely populated jaw, bite erratically at the ground, as though that jaw were snapping shut.

An imperative in the first-person plural is one of the most characteristic signatures in Montalbetti’s writing. It suggests a complicity between narrator and reader that she wagers upon throughout her work, proposing a narrative contract steeped in complaisance, one which guarantees that, whatever else may come to pass, author and reader are—and shall remain—allied. Yet that very complaisance serves a variety of purposes other than that of merely putting the reader at ease, I think; and it sets the stage for a series of canny maneuvers that Montalbetti practices elsewhere.

The key technique that she practices is that of “intrusive” narration, and it colors each of her novels and short stories. Narrative voice in her writing is utterly irrepressible; her narrators are unrepentant causeurs who condition our reception of the text in crucial ways. Yet to be fair, as intrusive as they may be, they constantly invite the reader to engage in dialogue with them, as if both narrator and reader were present in the story, and in position to shape it productively. Montalbetti uses a variety of effects intended to engage us, and some are less subtle than others. Flattery, for instance: she often positions her reader as the one individual who is capable of appreciating the kind of storytelling she is putting forward. In one of her short stories, she remarks, “you are the one person who may imagine flawlessly the particular trouble that the unlucky hero of this story experiences.” Another translation of this passage, this time cast in barefaced blarney, suggests itself: You are a smart and resourceful reader, indeed an ideal one; I have foreseen your readerly responses and have predicated my own narrative strategy upon them; I shall tell you everything you wish to know in this, my story.

Another technique, one closely akin to flattery, is cajolery. Montalbetti resorts to that tactic when she feels that the reader’s attention might be flagging, or when she senses that the reader might be unwilling to make the kind of interpretive leap that a particular narrative situation demands. In the middle of an especially garrulous passage describing a sunrise in Western, Montalbetti enjoins her reader, “come on, there you go, easy now, easy . . . I want you even more passive, more trusting, that’s good . . . you’re floating, you paddle around, come on, let yourself go, reading can be wonderfully regressive . . .” She strokes her reader here as one might stroke a golden retriever, fondly and benevolently. It is quite a different figure, then, from the one she habitually appeals to, a reader distinguished by intellectual acuity, by resourcefulness, and by active interpretive participation. Yet the manner in which she attributes shifting characteristics to her reader is very much a part of the game she plays in her discursive strategy, and its ludic quality is meant to be savored.

As she deploys the array of effects designed to grab and retain our attention, Montalbetti occasionally puts that very process on display, and asks us, with transparent sincerity, to consider it, as she does on one occasion in The Origin of Man: “But what wouldn’t I do to retain your attention?” What indeed? For her solicitation of the reader seems to acknowledge no boundaries, and the pact that she attempts to seal with us includes a clear hospitality clause, “because you’re my guest, after all.” Yet it nonetheless becomes clear—and indeed Montalbetti takes pains that it should—that such effects are surface phenomena intended to function on a first level (just as polite conversation renders a more purposeful dialogue possible), and that both writer and reader, working within the complicity that those effects help to establish, recognize them as such. As complaisant as they may appear, then, they are nonetheless intended to reinforce the notion of narrative authority; and each of those techniques is calculated to make us imagine that we are hearing the author’s voice in each instance where that interpretation is even barely possible—and to make us feel, too, that that voice is addressing us directly and without mediation.

Montalbetti takes her time in her books, and she calls insistently upon her reader to follow her through the dilatory meanders of fiction. These are “loiterly” texts (to borrow a term coined by Ross Chambers), which put forward the notion that we are fundamentally loiterly by nature, and that we take pleasure in digression. However else stories may come to be, they are certainly not made in an instant, Montalbetti argues, and they should not be told in an instant, either. In their final form, they bear the traces, more or less legible depending upon the case, of a lengthy imaginative process. That process is a wandering one, Montalbetti argues, rather than a strictly ortho-linear one. Stories are governed by teleological principles, certainly, but they proceed toward their goal in a crablike fashion, going this way, then that way, then this way again. In short, they take their time—and so should we.

Montalbetti’s fiction posits plot only to shy away from it, deferring plot while constantly whetting our appetite for it, playing on our desire to know what “happens.” In so doing, she practices a dexterous sleight of hand, playing a textual shell game, keeping us guessing about where narrative truth lies. Each of her digressions tells a story, one that may be related to the principal story at hand only by the most tenuous of links. They are anecdotal and offhanded, chatty, and apparently spontaneous on the surface; yet a closer reading confirms that they are also deeply calculated. Just in that light, then, Montalbetti’s digressions may be seen as fictions within a fiction; and as such they perform an intriguing critique upon fiction itself, destabilizing conventional narrative norms and enabling other, less conventional dynamics to come into play. The skepticism that they display with regard to tradition may prompt us to think about process issues in the text at hand, and to appreciate the manner in which those process issues adumbrate new narrative prospects. In short, Montalbetti uses digression strategically, as a critical tool, in fictions that adopt an overtly critical stance, casting a speculative gaze on their own conditions of possibility.

Montalbetti encourages her reader to consider the notion that the interest of fiction may not be principally invested in plot, but rather in elements of narrative that we usually view as being peripheral to plot. She launches one of her short stories, for example, in the following manner: “I don’t know about you, but for my part, when I look at a painting, it’s often not the main subject that I focus upon; rather, it’s the little scenes in the background, those secondary subjects, limned quickly by the brush, and positioned vulnerably apart from the central figure.” She is clearly attempting thereby to shape our reading of the text to follow, exhorting us to make the broad leap of faith that it demands—that is, to entertain the possibility that more interest may be found in the margins of things than in what we have always thought of as their vital center.

The idea of discursive freedom is pivotal here, I think. It is a principle that Montalbetti claims for herself, but it is also one that she extends to us, as if fiction were, more than anything else, an unfettered conversation between author and reader. The kind of conversation that Montalbetti puts on offer in her books is a suavely playful one; moreover, it is one that does not hesitate to call the boundaries that we normally erect between fictional worlds and real worlds severely into question. From time to time, she postulates wormholes connecting those worlds, inviting us to follow her through them, imagining for instance situations where a character speaks directly to the reader, or consulting us about which way best to tell her tale, or indeed positioning us as characters in a fiction that she has constructed. We implicate ourselves deeply in the stories we tell and the ones that we read, Montalbetti argues, and sometimes we may lose ourselves therein. “You too, to a certain degree, inhabit a parallel world,” she says, making a crucial move in the game she plays with us, suggesting that different worlds do in fact collide, causing temporary havoc and opening troubling, aporetic vistas perhaps, but also—and more importantly—enabling us to see things anew.

In such a manner, Christine Montalbetti seeks to remind us that narrative may be a construction, but that it is nonetheless part of our world, whether it be a case of the stories she chooses to tell, or that of the stories we habitually tell to ourselves. We inhabit those constructions happily, sadly, blithely, earnestly, in work, in play, turn and turn about—in fact, just as we inhabit our more obviously material edifices. If we have no quarrel with the idea that the world is played out in fiction, why should we balk at the notion that fiction may be played out in the world? In such a light, the future of fiction will inevitably be decided both in fiction and in the world, in a debate that shuttles purposefully back and forth between illusion and reality, causing the boundaries between those sites to seem increasingly dubious. For the most urgent message of Christine Montalbetti’s writing contends that fiction, just like the world of phenomena, is staggeringly unconfined.

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