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Frédérique Amselle. Virginia Woolf et les écritures du moi : le journal et l’autobiographie

Claire PÉGON
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Frédérique AMSELLE. Virginia Woolf et les écritures du moi : le journal et l’autobiographie. Montpellier : Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2008, 277p. ISBN 978-2-84269-825-6.

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1Of the many, often tremendous, U-turns in literary theory and criticism since the infamous “death of the author”, the most challenging is perhaps the recent shift of focus from mainstream, finished, commercially successful works to memoirs, correspondence, first drafts and diaries. The result has not of course been a return to a pre-structuralist “life and times” approach to an artist and their work, but a focus on the various ways in which secondary or marginal writings can be seen to contribute to our understanding of the canon, and indeed shift our perception of what canon and centre actually mean. In her superbly organised and elegantly presented work, Virginia Woolf et les écritures du moi, Frédérique Amselle goes one step further to suggest that a writer’s more self-enclosed, even private, biographical sketches are not just rich perspectives from which to tackle the literary works, but should be seen as essential literary productions in their own right. And by taking the extremely prolific and rich autobiographical fragments and diaries left by Virginia Woolf as her core texts, she offers us a powerful and convincing example of where literariness begins, and which aesthetic and ethical perspectives such texts can invite. The work clearly offers a double interest from the outset: for Woolf scholars, it opens up yet another avenue of stimulating research, suggesting new ways of reading the major texts, and an original means by which to explore the inevitable paradox between’s Woolf’s impatience with the « egotistical I », and the intensely self-oriented journals. It also fits in with a whole recent trend of criticism focusing on writings of the self, and the overlaps and contradictions which abound when a fiction writer speaks in the first-person or constructs selves through which to look back over a supposedly factual chapter of their life story.

2 The first part of the study is devoted essentially to generic questions raised by the study of autobiography and diaries, and while an essentially normative slant is inevitable, definitions are always sufficiently evasive or porous to avoid categorical formalism. Rather, Amselle approaches rules via the paradoxes which underlie them, in this case the inherent tug between authenticity and distortion, between quests for truth and the truthfulness of lies and doubt, between spontaneous scribblings and organised retrospection, as well as the sometimes contradictory slants of writing (in) the present and looking back and ahead over what was, or might have been. She insists convincingly on the various masks the (auto)biographer and diarist are called to don, so that the self is always a construct and a contrived alter ego. An unexpectedly rich angle of approach in found in the very physical nature of the written text: the type of notebook, the pen or ink, the writer’s awareness of her materials and how they shape her textual production. A similarly enriching perspective emerges concerning the real and imagined audience or readers of the texts; if Leonard Woolf is very clearly a reader of and in the text, so too are other members of the Bloomsbury Group gathered for the Memoir Club, their expectations and literary aspirations clearly coming to bear on the author’s self-scrutiny.

3 The second chapter develops around the various forms of an identity crisis that proves to be part of Woolf’s intense self-awareness. Various creative and stylistic manoeuvres are brought to light to show how the writer becomes, and avoids becoming, both the subject and the object of her text. Amselle examines questions such as how the writing was first conceived, and at whose invitation. We see to what extent writing about the self can actually defer or deflect self-scrutiny, and the various forms of linguistic polyphony (direct, semi-direct and indirect speech patterns for example) that bring others’ voices into play, erasing the boundaries of self-expression. Here too, the reader’s attention is brought to the physicality of textual production, even looking at the scissors and glue that bring textual fragments together. We are thus faced with the kaleidoscopic contours of autobiographical writing, as “moments of being” welded into an apparently unified portrait. The contrasts and comparisons set up between the very different scope of retrospective autobiography, and synoptic diarising prove particularly insightful here, for example the different relations the author builds up between her writing self and her body in the two genres: the autobiography, we learn, tends towards delight, unity and closure, the diary to complaints, ills and bodily grievances.

4 The third and final chapter is founded on what Spark would define as the poetry of the commonplace, the trials and tribulations of daily life, together with the need to observe and record time so as to capture them. Once again, Frédérique Amselle’s  familiarity with not just the printed texts but the manuscripts proves invaluable as she shows how various pages of the diary map out time but record nothing, or rather record the events of which Woolf will not speak. Here the reader appreciates the ways memory and its elusiveness shape the genre of self-writing, for the remembrance of time past is so clearly a question of affect and imagination in Woolf’s (and not only Woolf’s) work. This final part inevitably turns to the question of how to note, annotate and make sense of death, whether as the slow encroachment of old age or the cruel trials of bereavement and mourning, so that death is always both the essential blind spot, and the central focus of writing a self. And here, as elsewhere in this very rich study, the reader cannot but appreciate the delicacy and discretion with which F. Amselle  tackles the subject, never sinking into the temptation of mawkishness dealing with a life as death-centred as Woolf’s, yet never skirting round the poignant realities of her biography. What is so important here, as elsewhere, is the aesthetic angle which is maintained, for as the author is so keen to emphasise, the study is never intended as a documentary or biographical record, but as a concerted attempt to explore the literary devices of writing the self, reminiscent of the mentir-vrai underpinning  Aragon and Elsa Triolet’s depiction of selves.

5 Amselle’s study makes enriching and instructive reading, not only because her primary texts are so rich and enchanting, but also because she is clearly at ease with the entire Woolf œuvre, no small undertaking in itself, as well as being conversant with a whole variety of critical schools, from narratology to psychoanalysis, from print-based theories of a novel’s material existence to the “auto-bio-graphical” approaches to a writer’s conception of self. Her bibliography alone makes a superb contribution to early 21st-century criticism, which all students and specialists in her different fields would do well to consult; her fluid, elegant writing bestows additional and much appreciated charm on the study, making it a very readable book for browsers and non-specialists too. More importantly, perhaps, in an era when increasing attention is being paid to the European reception of English-language writers, showing how much a national literary history and critical tradition has to gain from dialogues with European specialists, Frédérique Amselle’s work makes an important contribution to Woolf studies in France which in turn might feed into Woolf studies in Great Britain and the States. It is worth noting that while F. Amselle’s critical scope obviously encompasses much recent English and American scholarship, its critical and historical anchorage is very much in the French tradition. It is with French writers that Woolf is most frequently compared, and to French theories of writing the self and French philosophy that the author most often turns, making the study a rich overview of French scholarship in recent times. English-speaking scholars would thus find this work a welcome introduction to cross-channel perspectives on autobiography and self-authorship.

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Claire PÉGON, « Frédérique Amselle. Virginia Woolf et les écritures du moi : le journal et l’autobiographie », E-rea [En ligne], 7.1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2009, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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Claire PÉGON

Lerma, Aix-Marseille Uiversité

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