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Selves and Subjectivities: Reflections on Canadian Arts and Culture

Selves and


Edited by
Manijeh Mannani and Veronica Thompson


Selves and Subjectivities
Manijeh Mannani and Veronica Thompson

A Semiotic Reading of Hédi Bouraoui’s The Woman Between the Lines
Elizabeth Dahab

Mourning Lost “Others” in Ronnie Burkett’s Happy
Janne Cleveland

Putting an End to Recycled Violence in Colleen Wagner’s The Monument
Gilbert McInnis

Representations of the Self and the Other in Canadian Intercultural Theatre
Anne Nothof

Pulling Her Self Together: Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic
Veronica Thompson

“New, Angular Possibilities”: Redefining Ethnicity Through Transcultural Exchanges in Marusya Bociurkiw’s The Children of Mary
Dana Patrascu-Kingsley

The Elegiac Loss of the English-Canadian Self and the End of the Romantic Identification with the Aboriginal Other in Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers
Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber

Playing the Role of the Tribe: The Aesthetics of Appropriation in Canadian Aboriginal Hip Hop
Thor Polukoshko

Toward a Theory of the Dubject: Doubling and Spacing the Self in Canadian Media Culture
Mark A. McCutcheon

List of Contributors

Selves and Subjectivities

Manijeh Mannani
and Veronica Thompson

Canadian identity and its manifestations in the arts are the central themes in Selves and Subjectivities, a collection of essays that explores emerging concepts about the representation of the Self and the Other in contemporary Canadian arts and culture. The essays touch upon a variety of issues, most notably gender and sexuality, displacement, trauma, performativity, and linguistic diversity on at least two levels: the individual and the collective. The original call for papers for this collection was broadly conceived to address emerging concepts of identity formation. To our delight, the majority of the submissions had a Canadian focus, which is reflected in these selections. The response made apparent the continuing problematics of identity and the centrality of this debate within the Canadian imagination.

Canadian literature and culture have long been preoccupied with questions of identity, and it can be difficult to discuss representations of Canadian identity in the arts without succumbing to clichéd tropes and turns of phrase; without considering watersheds moments in Canadian identity formation; without restating Northrop Frye’s renowned claim that the essential Canadian question is, “Where is here?”; without claiming that “to be Canadian … is to exist in a constant state of becoming” (Pevere and Dymond viii). Questions of identity are evident in many of the earliest depictions of Canada and Canadians in explorer and settler art and writing; the arts in Canada continue to grapple with evolving questions of identity into the twenty-first century.

Encounters with the Other characterize the exploration and settlement periods of Canadian history, as Aboriginal, French, and British peoples came into contact in the “New World.” Articulations of the Self and representations of the Other in exploration and settler period art and writing expose early and deep ambivalences surrounding identity and identity formation; during the settler period, as the settler finds his or her own indigeneity increasingly questioned in the imperial centre and always questioned in Canada, equivocacies of identity are often foregrounded. Crises of identity persist beyond the settler period, despite, and perhaps due to, post-Confederation desires to establish a unified identity distinct from Britain and the United States in a “newly formed” Canada. Post-Confederation nationhood transformed into cultural nationalism, and for several decades literature and the arts were perceived as imperative to establishing a sense of a national identity, a Canadian Self.

A resurgent desire to ascertain a unified Canadian identity emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, in part linked to expanded opportunities for publishing Canadian books, increased government grants to support Canadian arts, and the addition of Canadian literature courses in university English departments. However, a definitive Canadian identity remained elusive, and inadequate, given the regional and cultural differences spanning the country. Recognition of racial, ethnic, gender, and class inequalities, too, precluded a unified national identity; the Multiculturalism Act belied it. Instead, and as a result, debates around Canadian identity in the past two to three decades have explored the multiplicities of Canadian identities. Selves and Subjectivities enters this debate, presenting a collection of essays that embodies and articulates recent manifestations and delineations of Canadian identity, and that questions and challenges existing ones.

This volume also enters current debates about Canadian identity advanced through analyses of the arts in Canada. Sherrill Grace’s On the Art of Being Canadian, for example, asserts that “the art of Canada continues to tell us what ‘being Canadian means’” (4; emphasis in the original) and then substantiates her claim through a study of a wide range of Canadian arts, including fiction, film, and photography. Grace approaches various art forms to ask, “What do the arts and our artists show us or tell us about being Canadian or about being ourselves?” (7) and to illustrate the “persistent yet changing concerns with Canadian identity” (12). In Canadian Cultural Poesis: Essays on Canadian Culture, editors Garry Sherbert, Annie Gérin, and Sheila Petty, too, consider ways in which Canadian identity is interpellated and challenged in a collection of interdisciplinary essays organized around the topics of media, language, identity, and politics and connected by shared ambivalences about Canadian identity. According to the editors, “Canadian cultural poesis may … be described as an act of hospitality, the invention of new gestures, new ways of welcoming the marginalized other, the stranger, and the foreigner, in order to construct new cultural arrangements between the universal Canadian identity and their own particular identity” (Sherbert et al. 20). The essays collected in Selves and Subjectivities contribute to these continuing debates on Canadian identity by moving beyond the act of “welcoming the marginalized other”; the essays further acknowledge and theorize the complex negotiations of the Self and Other in Canadian arts and culture as persistently dialogic and multiple.

The essays collected here also reaffirm Diana Brydon’s assertion about “the need to rethink Canadian literature beyond older forms of nationalism and internationalism and toward multiscaled visions of place — local, regional, national, and global — each imbricated within the other” (14). Brydon continues: “Writers and critics are rethinking relations of place, space, and non-place in ways that complicate understandings of where and how the nation fits” (14–15). “They are not transcending nation but resituating it,” she concludes (15). Accordingly, the contributors to this collection are re-evaluating and resituating the parameters of subjectivity vis-à-vis the Other. The resulting reflections on the Self and the Other are equivocal and ambivalent, and they speak to the complex political and social debates that are attempting to achieve a definitive understanding of Canadian identity.

The varied backgrounds of the artists studied and of the contributors themselves mirror the multifaceted makeup of this country: both engage with a broad spectrum of genres and adopt a wide range of methodologies. Among the artists examined are Tunisian-Canadian poet, writer, literary critic, and scholar Hédi Bouraoui; iconic poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen; Aboriginal rap group War Party; Governor-General’s-award-winning playwright Colleen Wagner; feminist poet and novelist Daphne Marlatt; film director David Cronenberg; actor, writer, and puppeteer Ronnie Burkett; and Ukranian-Canadian author and media scholar Marusya Bociurkiw. The authors, too, are diverse in their scholarly interests and are at different stages of their academic careers: some are upcoming scholars; some are well established and internationally recognized. The selection of these articles is based on their overarching coverage and convergence of both mainstream and marginal genres in contemporary Canadian culture such as the novel, poetry, puppet theatre, rap, dub music, documentary films, science fiction movies, and plays. The theoretical apparatus encompasses many philosophers and critics, from Jacques Lacan to Julia Kristeva, René Gerard to Marshall McLuhan, Frantz Fanon to Homi Bhabha. Poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, feminism and gender theory, race theory, performance and media theory are among the critical schools of thought that inform these analyses. It is noteworthy, however, that in their analyses of identity formation, the contributors offer distinct interpretations of the Self and the Other based on the subjects of their exploration and the theoretical approaches undertaken. Finally, while all of the articles tackle art produced by Canadian artists, not all of them are preoccupied with the specificities of Canadian space: some probe beyond into a global context.

The first two chapters by Elizabeth Dahab and Janne Cleveland belong to the category that transcends the Canadian locale. Elizabeth Dahab introduces readers to a relatively unexamined Canadian writer of Tunisian origin, Hédi Bouraoui, and his novel La femme d’entre les lignes (The Woman Between the Lines). In her essay, Dahab engages Roland Barthes’s concept of jouissance, itself inspired by “an expression used by Arabic scholars to qualify the body of a text as the definite body” (11), to explore the (amorous) relationship between the reader and the writer in her reading of this novel. As Dahab contemplates Bouraoui’s themes and leitmotifs, she mimics his style and coins her own neologisms, such as amour-mots (17), that exemplify, clarify, and characterize his writing. “Transculturalism,” a term Dahab credits to Bouraoui (Voices 174), thematically mirrors his blending of words and genres and presents a blending of cultures as “an alternative construct [of migrant experience] ranging somewhere between ethnicity and total assimilation” (175). This concept of exilic identity is enacted through the relationship between the protagonist, Lisa, and the unnamed francophone narrator of La femme d’entre les lignes, a relationship that has for ten years taken place exclusively through letters, quite literally between the lines. The dual nature of writing and reading processes, conveyed allegorically through the characters, motifs, and themes in the narrative, open up a space for acceptance of dualities and multiplicities. According to Dahab, intertextuality is yet another key concept in Bouraoui’s oeuvre. She explicates the echoes of other works and novels in Bouraoui’s writing which replicates Barthes’s own use of intertextuality.

Janne Cleveland, in her “Mourning Lost ‘Others’ in Ronnie Burkett’s Happy,” draws upon predominantly Freudian psychoanalytic theories of mourning and melancholy to discuss how Canadian theatre artist and master puppeteer, Ronnie Burkett, delves deep into the issues of the loss of the Self and the mourning of the Other, when the Other upon whom the Self’s existence depends is lost. While the play itself is set in western Canada, it transcends this setting in its preoccupation with the trauma of individual loss and “the traumas of the human condition” (36), as enacted by the internationally renowned characters that populate the Gray Cabaret. Cleveland discusses two different ways of dealing with loss and keeping the Self intact: through remembering and reliving lost relationships and through retaining intimate objects that belonged to the lost Other. The experience of loss is amplified by the liminal subjectivity of the puppets. Objects themselves, the puppets emphasize the “contested duality of subject/object relations — a duality that has a parallel in Self/Other dynamics” (48). Moreover, in her detailed discussion of the “uncanny,” Cleveland sees the puppet/puppeteer relationship as an allegory for the Self/Other relationship. The allegory reveals the complex and persistent connection between the Self and the Other and how the mitigation of grief requires the acknowledgement and acceptance of both.

Colleen Wagner stages another traumatic loss in her play The Monument, which is the subject of Gilbert McInnis’s essay. McInnis contests the generally held idea that Wagner’s play is inspired by the Bosnian War and the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Rather, he asserts that the 1989 massacre of fourteen women by Marc Lépine at École Polytechnique in Montréal and the subsequent decision by a group of women in Vancouver to “create a monument in memory of the fourteen students” (70) form the backdrop against which the play was written. McInnis focuses on the interplay between the two characters, Stetko, a soldier charged with the murder of numerous women, and Mejra, the mother of Ana, whom Stetko murdered during an unidentified war somewhere abroad. Set in the aftermath of this war, the play investigates the horrific violence and ensuing monumentalizing of its victims. Applying René Girard’s distinction between the superficial and deeper levels of meaning in a play (the first corresponds, in Girard’s description, to the “cathartic or sacrificial reading” of the play and the second to the “revelation of mimetic rivalry and structural scapegoating”) (70), McInnis draws parallels between the play and the documentary Marker of Change: The Story of the Women’s Monument, which is based on the commemoration of the fourteen murdered women.

As The Monument moves toward reconciliation and forgiveness, McInnis highlights how the dynamics of the victim-victimizer relationship are explored through a reversal of roles: in the first instance, Ana is the object of Stetko’s brutality; in the second, Stetko is victimized by Ana’s mother, Mejra. As Stetko changes from a victimizer to a victim, he is forced to recognize the subjectivity of his own victims. In his explication of the parallel dénouements of the play and the documentary, McInnis points to the connection between the ritualistic ceremonies during which the names of all the murdered women of both the Montréal massacre and the war are spoken to rehumanize them.

In the next essay, Anne Nothof provides a comprehensive overview of “visible minority theatre artists” (95) in Canada and contextualizes the problematics of acclimatization and assimilation within the mainstream society. The article attends to the diasporic theatre from South and East Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and South and Central America. After delineating clear definitions of multiculturalism, transculturalism, crossculturalism, intraculturalism, and interculturalism, Nothof expresses her agreement with critic Ric Knowles, who argues that interculturalism encourages the “potential negotiation, exchange and forging of new and hybrid subjectivities” and allows for “spaces between cultures” and thus perceives it as what Nothof calls a “positive, if tenuous, possibility” in this discourse (97). Yet she is also cognizant of how difficult it is to disagree with Josette Feral, who views interculturalism as a form of homogenizing globalization that “threatens the diversity of cultures” (97). According to Nothof, this dialogic discourse allows for a representation of cultural Self in response to the Other rather than in opposition to it, and she explains how the representations of the Self and the Other are complicated within the plays. In her analyses of different plays and their productions, Nothof looks at the ways that playwrights and producers view the immigrant experience and the dialectics of the relationship between the Self and the Other. Finally, she posits the importance of the “company mandates and the predilections of theatre practitioners” (98) that decide if, when, and how the cultural Other can be represented as the cultural Self as both endeavour to find a space within the Canadian theatre tradition.

In “Pulling Her Self Together: Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic,” Veronica Thompson turns to an examination of the colonial past and postcolonial present of Canada. Grounded in the intersections across feminist and postcolonial theories, the essay investigates the connections between language and maternal experience in settler-invader identity formation in Marlatt’s canonical novel. By juxtaposing the theories of language of Homi Bhabha, Dennis Lee, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, Thompson provides a reading of the female body and the mother-daughter relationship in colonial and postcolonial spaces that create new possibilities of selfhood for the protagonist, Annie. In her reassessment of her roles as wife and mother, Annie constructs a story for Mrs. Richards, a figure whom she discovers in the Vancouver library’s historical archives. Despite scant historical information, Annie and, by extension, Marlatt embellish significant details of Mrs. Richards’s life that function as both metaphor and catalyst for Annie’s own birth in the narrative, details such as the birth of a child, and a potential lesbian relationship. Annie’s historical reconstructions serve to question and supplement established patriarchal, colonial history, and the novel culminates in a redefinition of Self that recovers female histories.

Gendered ethnicity is the prominent issue in Dana Patrascu-Kingsley’s examination of Marusya Bociurkiw’s novel, The Children of Mary. Patrascu-Kingsley identifies the need in contemporary Canadian culture to move beyond defining ethnicity as merely the superficial differences among communities and to interrogate “traditional static notions of ethnicity” (154). She posits the necessity to challenge “the binary model of us/them” (151) and to engage in reflective and thorough cross-cultural dialogues. The essay analyzes the ways in which Bociurkiw’s narrative destabilizes stereotypes associated with ethnicity, gender, and race as they intersect. Largely relying upon Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter and Gender Trouble, Patrascu-Kingsley argues that ethnicity, like gender, is performative. By laying bare the relationships among the main characters, such as the lesbian relationship between the Métis Angélique and the Ukranian-Canadian Sonya, the novelist reveals how performances of ethnicity and gender are constructed according to one’s immediate milieu. Moreover, Patrascu-Kingsley queries collective concepts of traditionalism and assimilation within the heteronormative Ukranian-Canadian society by characterizing individuals who are representative of a wide range of ethnic, sexual, and racial identities and who discover ways to bridge the gaps across generations.

In his analysis of Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber examines the causes behind the “loss of the Self … for the modern English Canadian” (175) which he sees as complicated by the mechanization of quotidian life and the resulting nihilism and spiritual emptiness of a post-Confederation Canada. Both the essay and the novel recognize the numerous losses that shape Canada’s colonial history and the need for a stable and encompassing national identity based on that shared history of loss. In the early stages of the novel, Cohen seems to propose that the embracing of an Aboriginal way of life and a return to nature could compensate for the metaphysical vacuum the Self experiences. However, Archibald-Barber stresses Cohen’s recognition of the inherent risk in idolizing and romanticizing the Aboriginal Other in ways that echo pre-Confederation representations of the indigenous Canadian. Since Cohen has reservations about turning wholeheartedly to Aboriginal systems, he puts forth the use of a “universal concept of magic” (177) that transcends both Aboriginal and Christian cultures and negates all belief systems. With a critical eye on assimilation and conversion, Archibald-Barber points to the break with nature that occurred following the forced conversion of the indigenous peoples to Christianity, causing a divide between nature and consciousness, as well as assimilation into a world fractured by “pestilence, disease, alienation, and nihilism” (188).

The final two essays of the collection focus on iterations of the Self in Canadian music and media. Thor Polukoshko’s essay, “Playing the Role of the Tribe,” deals with the concepts of identity politics in Canadian Aboriginal rap music and of appropriation vis-à-vis its African-American counterpart. Polukoshko draws upon the similarities between Canadian Aboriginal and African-American experience to theorize the performance of race and to explore the marginalization of the First Nations. The author carefully examines the way tribal imagery finds its way into First Nations rap music and how, for Aboriginal peoples, “playing Indian” can function as a subversive “means to validate their own identities” (210). Making use of Fanon’s theories of race, Polukoshko emphasizes dialogism as integral to both African-American and Canadian Aboriginal rap music, positing that both “must continually construct identities that exist, in part, in relationship to white oppression” (220). Polukoshko reads the appropriation of rap music as a means of asserting “racial and artistic authenticity” (209).

In “Toward a Theory of the Dubject,” Mark McCutcheon offers a new theorization of subjectivity, one that is “mediatized and remediated … through technologies of mechanical reproduction” (236). He coins the term dubject to make obvious “the dubbed and doubled” nature of Self in the postmodern “mediated spaces of representation” (237). McCutcheon uses the practice of remixing tracks of music (“dub”) as a metaphor for new configurations of Canadian identity. He then points to unlikely connections between dub and a variety of Canadian cultural texts including David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome; Tony Burgess’s novel Pontypool Changes Everything; Bruce McDonald’s film adaptation, Pontypool; Margaret Atwood’s autograph technology, the LongPen; and Glenn Gould’s “live” music performances and interviews recorded in solitude. McCutcheon employs Judith Butler’s, Paul Gilroy’s, and Marshall McLuhan’s theories in his articulation of dubjectivity as it is reflected in Canadian media culture. The essay begins and ends with “incarnations and iterations” (261) of subjectivity articulated within Canada’s colonial history.

Despite the broad spectrum of the artistic and cultural texts examined and the distinct approaches employed, the essays demonstrate significant shared concerns about representations of Canadian identity. Throughout the essays we find numerous references to assimilation; liminality; performances of ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality; various forms of loss; interactions between the past and present; and generational disparities that influence the formation of the Self and the Other. The interconnections of these themes are apparent in essays dealing with First Nations, settler-invader, immigrant, and ethnic experience. The repeated attention to transcultural encounters, exchanges, and alliances; challenges to and of cultural diversity; and the dialectics of forgiveness and acceptance emphasize the constant politically charged nature of investigations of and incursions into the question of Canadian identity.

Works Cited

Brydon, Diana. “Metamorphoses of a Discipline: Rethinking Canadian Literature Within Institutional Contexts.” Trans.can.lit: Resituating the Study of Canadian Literature. Ed. Smaro Kamboureli and Roy Miki. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. 1–16.

Dahab, F. Elizabeth. Voices of Exile in Contemporary Canadian Francophone Literature. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.

Grace, Sherrill. On the Art of Being Canadian. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009.

Pevere, Geoff, and Greig Dymond. Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey. Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1996.

Sherbert, Garry, Annie Gérin, and Sheila Petty, eds. Canadian Cultural Poesis: Essays on Canadian Culture. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006.

A Semiotic Reading of Hédi Bouraoui’s The Woman Between the Lines

Elizabeth Dahab

Le texte est (devrait être) cette personne désinvolte qui montre son derrière au Père Politique.

The text is (should be) this carefree person who shows her behind to Father Politics.

Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte, 84

In a 2007 study subtitled “Au pays du Migramour, la transfusion des mots sans visage” (“In the Country of Migralove, the Transfusion of Words Without Face”), the critic Claudette Broucq very aptly qualified Hédi Bouraoui’s La femme d’entre les lignes (2002) as “un livre rare, écrit d’un autre langage que celui que nous connaissons” (“a rare book, written with a language other than the one we know”; 87).1 Broucq’s remark is highly evocative of Roland Barthes’s judicious observation in Le plaisir du texte, an observation inspired by an expression used by scholars of Arabic to describe the body of a text as the “definite body” or, in the words of Barthes, le corps certain (“the body itself”). Barthes writes:

Il paraît que les érudits arabes, en parlant du texte, emploient cette expression admirable: le corps certain. Quel corps? Nous en avons plusieurs; le corps des anatomistes et des physiologistes, celui que voit ou que parle la science . . . mais nous avons aussi un corps de jouisaance fait uniquement de relations érotiques, sans aucun rapport avec le premier. . . . Le texte a une forme humaine, c’est une figure, une anagramme du corps? Oui, mais de notre corps érotique.2 (Le plaisir 26)

The notion of a “definite body” refers to the double nature, or dual reality, of both the human body and the literary text (the object of study of physiologists and philologists, respectively), a reality that belongs to the realm of the physical, on the one hand, and to the realm of intense enjoyment, or jouissance, on the other. This dédoublement, or twinning, one akin to symbolist aesthetics, is the mark of Bouraoui’s singular novel — with particular emphasis, in my view, on the jouissance aspect of the reading and writing experience that occurs throughout.3 The novel reads like a partial application of Barthes’s semiotic interpretation of amorous discourse and the interaction between reader and writer in literary texts. A love story is enmeshed in the deceptively simple, self-reflexive plot, and dédoublement is seen here as well with regard to the loving subject (the writer) and his devoted female reader, each of whom is supplanted by a mirror reflection, or a double, at the very end. Bouraoui’s highly metafictional, self-reflexive novel revels in its own making, ultimately supplanting itself.4

The title itself, La femme d’entre les lignes, occurs no fewer than five times throughout the novel. Does it speak of Lisa, a protagonist born between the lines, who will transfer into reality and back between the lines, or vanish altogether, throughout the narrative? “Entre les lignes” (“between the lines”) also comes to refer to the silent complicity at work between the two characters, the delight sensed by the male narrator and his female reader, Lisa, in seeking pleasure around the text itself, in “l’entre-les-lignes qui nous enivre, dans l’euphorie des blancs où stagnent des millefeuilles de sentiments muets” (“the between-the-lines that intoxicates us, in the euphoria of blank spaces where lie stacks of delicious sheets of silent feelings”; 62).5 The notion evoked here pertains to jouissance, qualitatively different from plaisir, which, unlike the latter, cannot be expressed. In the words of Barthes:

La jouissance est in-dicible, inter-dite. Je renvoie à Lacan (“ce à quoi il faut se tenir, c’est que la jouisssance est interdite à qui parle comme tel, ou encore qu’elle ne puisse être dite qu’entre les lignes”). (Le plaisir 36; emphasis added)

Jouissance is inexpressible, for-bidden. I recall Lacan (“it is important to remember that jouissance is forbidden to the one who speaks of it as such; it can only be spoken between the lines”).

“Between the lines” is, in essence, the intent of the novel titled after this common expression. That silence, necessary for the survival of the love relationship, is best expressed by the narrator speaking of the correspondence he held with Lisa for a decade, in the following terms:

De toute façon, ce n’est pas dans le corps de ses lettres que j’ai flairé cette attirance pour la substantifique moelle de mon écriture, mais dans les non-dits éloquents, dans les écarts entre les signifiés de ces mots que nous parvenions à échanger entre nous. (96)

Anyway, it was not in the body of her letters that I sensed that attraction to the substantial marrow of my writing, but in the eloquent unsaid, in the discrepancies between the signified of the words we managed to exchange.

In fact, though there is constant allusion, throughout this first-person narrative, to the intense textual enjoyment occurring in the discretional space entre les lignes, there is also a reluctance to speak or name that joy, lest it become tarnished: “Une fois nommée, toute chose perd sa force et son mystère” (“Once named, everything loses its strength and its mystery”; 94), a statement highly reminiscent of Barthes’s aforementioned pronouncement on the impossibility of speaking about the element of jouissance in a text unless one speaks from within it, in its own terms — “en lui, à sa manière” (Le plaisir 37–38). To the extent that the essence of a text lies in the ineffable experience of jouissance, the text will remain impervious to external appraisal, a fact that explains why critics have found but few “handholds” with which to tackle Bouraoui’s novel (Sabiston 143).6

The book is divided into two parts, the first titled “Le parchemin de la mémoire” (The Parchment of Memory) and the second, and significantly longer part, “Migramour” (Migralove), a term encountered in one of Bouraoui’s earlier novels, La pharaone (1998), and a neologism constructed so as to include love, death, and nomadism (migration). Part One introduces Marguarita Felice, nicknamed Lisa, an avid reader of an unnamed narrator who sells the Encyclopedia Britannica to support himself. Lisa is a journalist stationed in Milan, where she works for a newspaper, La Repubblica, as editor of the literary section, in which she includes sympathetic book reviews of the narrator’s works. The nameless narrator is a francophone writer who is at home on three continents and is originally from North Africa. He is single; he has had at least one major love relationship with a woman reminiscent of Lisa, and he travels extensively. For ten years the pair has communicated in absentia about the narrator’s work and about art and poetry. Finally they meet in Lisa’s native Italy, where they enjoy more than textual pleasures (though this remains ambiguous and intimately intertwined with the textual jouissance that is the hallmark of their rapport) before he returns home by Québec Air, thus suggesting that Canada is his home. The little we learn about Lisa’s life is as follows: she lives with her invalid and tyrannical mother for whom she cares; she is single and childless and has a niece, Anna, on whom she dotes.7

Throughout this first-person narrative, there is an abundance of references to the avid pleasure Lisa derives from reading the work of the narrator, who lives as much to be read by her as she herself lives to read him. Most significantly, the word mots (“words”) is the most frequently encountered term, occurring no fewer than forty times.8 In fact, mots constitutes the very last word of the novel; we find it as well on the second page, where the narrative convention on which the book-in-the-making rests is still being established and where it stands for the only remaining expedient of the unhappy narrator separated from and madly in love with Lisa: “je n’ai aucun recours sauf celui de l’aimer avec mes mots” (“my only recourse is to love her with my words”; 10). This statement evokes the quip by Francis Ponge taken up by Roland Barthes in Fragments de discours amoureux, “Je parle et tu m’entends, donc nous sommes” (“I speak and you listen to me, therefore we are”; 198).9 This aphorism can easily be rephrased in the novel at hand to read, “I write and you read me, therefore we are,” in what comes to suggest the “extreme solitude” that, Barthes held, characterizes a lover’s discourse (Fragments 5). By extension, I would add, this extreme solitude is an attribute of the creative process as well, since in La femme d’entre les lignes, both themes, love and the making of a novel, are woven into the very fabric of the narrative. But perhaps the closed circuit in which the narrator-poet and his reader-critic communicate partakes in a self-reflexive process of which the narrator-lover is increasingly aware; indeed, he tends to reiterate, perhaps in order to understand it, the phenomenon that links him to his admirer. In his own words:

Pendant dix ans, elle s’est penchée sur mon corps textuel glanant, comme une abeille laborieuse, le pollen de mes mots pour en faire son miel journalier, et ses ébats nocturnes. (11)

For ten years, she has bent over my text-body, collecting, like a laborious bee, the pollen of my words to make of it her daily honey and her nightly pleasures.

Incapable de résister à la chimie particulière des mots . . . (63)

Incapable of resisting the special chemistry of my words . . .

Nous ne sommes pas seulement tombés amoureux de l’amour, ce farceur de première classe, mais par les ‘mots,’ nous en avons fait la passion de notre vie. (70)

We did not only fall in love with love, this first-rate prankster, but with “words” we made it the very passion of our life.

Mes poèmes sont une rivière où Lisa s’abreuve. (71)

My poems are a river where Lisa quenches her thirst.

elle se laisse éclabousser . . . par les mots qui la tiennent en éveil (83)

she lets herself be splashed . . . by words that keep her awake

Les mots deviennent des baisers lancés à la sauvette. (83)

Words become kisses stealthily given.

. . . et c’est dans mon alphabet passionnel, dans sa glorieuse disponiblité que Lisa, s’articulant poème, s’identifie à moi. (91)

. . . and it is in my bodily alphabet, in its glorious availability, that Lisa, becoming a poem, identifies with me.

Lisa m’a déclaré qu‘elle était fécondée, au tournant d’un quatrain irrégulier aux rimes internes. (125)

At the turn of a quatrain with internal rhyme, Lisa told me she felt as if she’d become pregnant.

Throughout the narrative, amour and mots could almost be used interchangeably, the one substituted for the other, in what comes to constitute what I have called amour-mots, a self-explanatory construct rich with implications. The narrative’s language of love is infused with metaphors pertaining to the human body. It will draw heavily on images evoking the latter, eventually displacing those images to become itself a body. The novel is replete with such examples, among them those above: “splashed by words,” “chemistry of my words,” “my bodily alphabet,” and, of course, Lisa “fertilized” (fécondée) at the turn of a quatrain. The image of a corps-texte, or “text-body,” which occurs in the first of the quotations above (“mon corps textuel”), as well as a number of other times in the novel,10 is a prime instance of Bouraoui’s attempt, whether conscious or not, to bring an idea across, namely, that of a heavy interlinking between love, words, and eroticism. From bodily flesh to the flesh of words, such is the key concept of the corps-texte (in keeping with a dual notion of reality, as both physical and non-material, the narrator will distinguish “le corps-texte” from “le corps tout court” [64]) and the essence of that “amour rare qu’on extrait des livres,” that “rare love extracted from books” (13), which is displayed in La femme d’entre les lignes. But how does this mechanism work in relation to the two main protagonists, the reader and the narrator of this novel?

To reply to this question, we need to recall that Barthes has advanced the notion that the pleasure of a text, in the act of reading, lies in an erotic rapport between two subjects, two personal pronouns, a je (I) narrator-writer who calls for a tu (you), the reader who is, so to speak, courted by the writer: “Sans ce mouvement amoureux, ce mouvement du désir, il n’y a pas de texte possible” (“Without that amorous movement, that movement of desire, there is no possible text”; Jouve 103). The reader undertakes a sensual operation whose foundation is the body itself (or, more precisely, the reader as a specific subject) to (re)structure a given text in order to attain what Barthes calls signifiance, defined as meaning produced sensually.11 “Le corps, c’est la différence irréductible, et c’est en même temps le principe de toute structuration” (“The body is the irreducible difference, and at the same time the principle of every structuration”), contends Barthes (qtd. in Jouve 101). In this sense, the act of reading and the organization that happens therein are akin to the act of courting. Both the lover and the reader embark on a trip of desire where they seek novelty through the Other.12 This inner mechanism underlying the reader-writer relationship (as well as the role of the reader as creator of the text) is at work throughout La femme d’entre les lignes, a novel that can be read as an illustration of this mechanism.13 Says the narrator about Lisa-the-reader:

Dans l’enchantement, son corps avance vers la vie qui circule dans le texte, vers les choses qui lui racontent leurs histoires. (96)

With delight, her body advances toward the life that circulates in the text, toward things that tell her their stories.

The sensuality of the text (especially related to the sense of taste) in La femme d’entre les lignes is visually established in a passage very early in the narrative, during the very first live encounter between the two main protagonists after their ten-year correspondence. The narrator offers Lisa, his narrataire (“narratee,” or privileged reader), four copies of an art book, and in between the books he puts a package of dates stuffed with almond paste flavored with orange blossom (a gift that is hardly appreciated), with the aim of compensating the otherwise abstract nature of writing with an immediate touch of sensuality: “le goût, l’odorat de ce fruit-là sortiront, peut-être, de l’abstraction de l’écrit” (“the taste and smell of that fruit will perhaps emerge from the abstraction of the writing”; 14). The “delectation” that Lisa is supposed to experience when eating the dates is corroborated, this time explicitly, in the second part of the novel. Speaking of a social occasion where Lisa was present, the narrator-lover delights in the silent complicity charged with love at work between Lisa and himself:

Ainsi, nous faisons l’amour en plein public sans que personne ne puisse en décoder le moindre signe, à la manière d’une dégustation de texte dans l’intimité de la lecture. (116; emphasis added)

So we make love in public without anybody being able to decipher the slightest sign, in the manner of a text tasting in the intimacy of reading.

The key expression here is dégustation de texte, equated with the intimacy of lovemaking. Here again, it is the notion of text-body, explained above, that comes through, a notion that will subsume every aspect of the novel, including the love of art, crystallized in the second part of the novel.

In Part Two of La femme d’entre les lignes, entitled “Migramour,” the narrative becomes highly allegorical. Lisa is supplanted by her own Palimpsest, created by her lover-narrator, and she in turn creates a fictional character, Virebaroud (incidentally an anagram containing two of the three syllables of Bouraoui’s name), whom she takes as lover, displacing her writer-narrator.14 She then “kills the father who nourishes her fantasies” (Elle tue le père qui féconde — ses fantasmes; 137), Virebaroud himself, who seems to have mutated from created character to writer-creator — as Lisa, in turn, not unlike the troubadour who appropriates the words of the poet, is transformed from reader-critic into writer-creator before she disappears altogether. Once more, the key issue here is mots, words that have entranced her and in which she found her raison d’être. In one of her letters to the narrator, she writes:

Séduite par le pouvoir des mots, je suis tentée de voguer à ma guise, recréant le héros que je nomme Virebaroud, et qui incarne la synthèse de tous tes personnages. Ce protagoniste principal erre en moi, comme s’il était en chair et en os. (103)

Seduced by the power of words, I am tempted to wander at my leisure, recreating the hero that I name Virebaroud, one who incarnates the synthesis of all your characters. This protagonist wanders in me, as if made of flesh and bone.

The narrator-lover in turn feels the necessity of setting himself free from the father figure presiding over his creative process, in order to master his own destiny: “dans mon acte d’écriture, il est nécessaire que je me débarrasse du père” (“In my act of writing, I must get rid of the father”; 139). He kills that paternal presence, just as Lisa-Palimpsest has killed him in Virebaroud, and, toward the end of the narrative, he is carrying his father’s cadaver, trying to find him a burial place as he wanders across the five continents, in a gesture much reminiscent of Wadji Mouawad’s Littoral, in which the protagonist, Wilfrid, sets out to bury his father in his native land. But whereas the latter managed to find at least a burial place in the bottom of the sea, our narrator-lover is condemned, in his own words, “to perpetual wandering” (à l’errance perpétuelle; 139). Lisa-Palimpsest and Virebaroud, perhaps more real than the pair who created them, will end the narrative with a new set of epistolary exchanges, which mirror the pre-transformation epistolary exchanges between Lisa and the narrator in Part One. Perhaps the novel ends when the process of its making has reached maturation or when pleasure has become impossible with the death of the father. Says Barthes, “La mort du père enlèvera à la littérature beaucoup de ses plaisirs” (“The death of the father will take away from literature a lot of its pleasures”; Le plaisir 75). Perhaps Lisa had to leave her writer confronted with a blank page to set him free from the tyranny of love and words, or amour-mots, in order to become a creator in her own right: “elle se débarrasse ainsi de l’auteur, et s’y substituant, elle devient, elle-même, l’auteur” (“she gets rid of the author, and, by taking his place, she thus becomes herself the author”; 137), says the narrator.

The narrator-lover, “who is subtly undermined by his creator, and finally displaced” (Sabiston 153), will have to begin a new book or become a character himself, as he begins a new amorous relationship with Pia, the incarnation of Lisa-Palimpsest. Thus the reading/writing adventure continues through renewed, or transferred, love and pleasure. Significantly, Pia is involved, if not in writing, at least in all aspects of book production. Is this new love triangle (the narrator, Palimpsest, and the possibility of a new book) foreshadowed in Part One by the umbrella that awkwardly stands between Lisa and the narrator during their first encounter, as Sabiston (151) suggests? Does the sliding back and forth from reader (Lisa) to character (Virebaroud and Lisa-Palimpsest) to writer-creator (the narrator and then Lisa), a constant shift occurring in the narrative between characters, functions, and roles, suggest that, ultimately, reading and writing, the reader and the writer, the narrator and the protagonist, are one and the same, interchangeable so to speak? Towards the end of the narrative, the narrator proclaims the twinning/dédoublement that is the essence of the novel, in the following terms:

Je viens donc de me détacher d’un moi pour narrer à la troisième personne, l’histoire de mon autre en moi qui est attelé au couple créé pour l’amour de percer l’énigme d’un migramour à l’aube d’un siècle nouveau. Narrateur et personnage sont, en effet, distanciés et confondus . . . (133)

So, I have just walked out of myself in order to narrate in the third person the story of my-other-in-myself attached to the couple created for the love of piercing the enigma of a migramour at the dawn of a new century. Narrator and character are, in fact, distanced and fused together . . .

The novel is, in fact, an exteriorization or an outward manifestation of a phenomenon akin to semiosis, understood as a verbal space where the play of signs can occur, and as an illustration of the erotic literary effect on reader and writer alike. La femme d’entre les lignes can easily be entitled “The Adventure of a Reader,” after the story by Italo Calvino, since it partakes in the postmodernist tradition of fragmentation, parody, pastiche, allegory, and fouillis (hodgepodge). A ludic dimension is also at play here, such as when Lisa kills the author and recreates him in the image of Virebaroud.

La femme d’entre les lignes can also be said to stand as a metaphor for the relationship at work between the two subjects that constitute the polarity of the writing/reading axis. As early as Le plaisir du texte, Barthes advanced the thought that textually there is no such thing as a passive body behind the text (the reader) and an active body in front of it (the writer). Rather, there are two subjects who act upon each other in a relationship of creation and re-creation. The book creates its reader who thus exists as a result of having encountered it, restructuring and recreating it in turn. The initial trio that forms the characters in La femme d’entre les lignes, namely, the narrator, Lisa and her Palimpsest, followed by the fourth and fifth Virebaroud and Pia (the latter herself the incarnation of Lisa-Palimpsest) are all attempts to model a process of perpetual duplication and dédoublement, whereby the book that is lived is also the one being read and the one being written — where one can be at once a reader, character in a book, and a living character. Here, second-order characters may claim to be the “original verbal conceptor” (concepteur verbal original; 139) and to displace their author. Says the reconciled narrator-lover in a Pirandellian, metafictional moment very much reminiscent of Six Characters in Search of an Author:

Je ne suis plus l’auteur à la recherche de personnages ou d’histoires. Mes personnages, à leur tour, ne sont plus à la recherche de leur auteur. (72)

I am no longer the author in search of characters or stories. My characters are in turn no longer in search of their author.15

The metafictional nature of the book-in-the-making is emphasized at the end of the narrative by one of the characters, who asserts that “l’oeuvre contient une partie de réflexion sur son propre processus créateur” (“the work contains a part of reflection on its own creative process”; 137). Thus Lisa-the-reader is confident enough to inform the narrator-writer about the style of his books, which she qualifies in the following terms:

souvent en état de crise . . . un post-modernisme . . . y éclate de partout sur fond de conservatisme prônant la stabilité. (100)

often in a state of crisis . . . a postmodernism . . . bursts forth on all sides against a background of conservatism that preaches stability.

But wherein lies that stability, if it exists at all? The constant mise en abyme and mirror reflections of book, reader, and character at work in this novel call to mind a matrioshka, the Russian doll inside which is a series of duplicate dolls in decreasing sizes, culminating in the smallest unit, the quintessential matrioshka, possibly itself a symbol of the ultimate book, “le livre absolu” evoked by the narrator (123). It is perhaps because of the combination of factors outlined above that novelist and critic Jean-Max Tixier has rightly dubbed La femme d’entre les lignes “a linguistic novel” (366), an appellation worth mulling over; witness the constant play of signifiers present in the novel and the neologisms that permeate it.16

Transexuer, a neologism built upon the adjective transexuel, referring this time to sex and gender exchange with someone else, is hinted at in the first part of the novel and constitutes a transitional point between the two sections of the narrative, foreshadowing the migramour of the second, with its state of flux, transfer, and interchangeability. A gender switch is already implicit and latent in the following statement by the narrator-lover: “Lisa se nourrit de mes mots comme jadis maman me nourrissait de son amour” (“Lisa feeds on my words as Mother used to feed me with her love”; 56), setting the terms of the comparison as follows: the narrator’s mother/himself (as nurturing figures), on the one hand, and, on the other, Lisa/words (as nurtured child and ...

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