La disparition du Général Proust,
by Jean-Pierre BALPE (France), 2005-2006
Where am I going? ...
"I am not going anywhere".
November 12, 2005)1
The "General" has disappeared. He has been assassinated. A family plot, political intrigue, or perhaps both? There is an investigation, and in a "Salon" a dozen people who were close to him meet to discuss the circumstances of his disappearance and the possible motivations and secrets each of them may hold. "Everyone was watching everyone else"; "mistrust took hold"; so too did "confusion". At the same time, "passion" reigned:
"It is a question here of a woman . . . or rather of a woman and a man, or even several men and several women, and what they say to each other, what that means, the way in which they feel their way, find themselves, flee each other, ignore each other, love and hate each other. . . . The dangerous things they conceal from each other and which bind them together and set them against each other, the faults which make them appear guilty in each other's eyes. . . . Of their lives, in which each event offers a new ending to the story, in light of which everything that came before must be re-examined . . . of what was expected and unexpected in those lives because-each level representing only one side of a large volume to be revealed-everything can be modified and improved upon, revised, endlessly renewed. . . . What else could it be a question of, if it is a question here of literature?"
The story these events tell, however, is fragmentary: cut up, by virtue of the medium chosen, into short passages (chapters?), each bearing a title and a quotation serving as an epigraph, most of them taken from Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, or from Racine (Phèdre, Esther, Athalie), which Proust, as we know, himself quoted throughout his work. It appears that quotations here play a "pre-textual" role or serve as a motor for the writing. Often in a passage we find Proust's words inserted into the characters' descriptions or speech. The overall style, however, is not Proustian. Rather, its detailed descriptions of places and "decor elements", the uncertainty, doubt and mistrust which hover over events and their temporality, which seems to float and vacillate, and over the relationships among the characters, suggest the work of an author such as Robbe-Grillet. In sum, the style of Balpe's story, and the way it unfolds, takes as a model the description of the setting which opens the text:
". . . the building as a whole creates a frame in which each window, lit from inside, is itself a frame which in turn contains, by means of the effect distance has on reducing perspective, a great number of other paintings or screens-at this distance, they are inanimate-which, reflected in no less numerous mirrors, create a mise en abîme of paintings and representations whose details can not be made out but which create an overall baroque architecture both fairy-like and troubling in the expansion of limits and surroundings, wherein interior and exterior merge in the same artificiality and break space up into a multitude of enclosed sub-spaces, each one destined to receive fragmentary scenes which can take on meaning in the chaotic overall vision, however, only from a particular point of view".
Thus the hyperfiction La disparition du général Proust is a work in progress, "a narrative of narratives in perpetual expansion" which is "subjected to constant changes" and has no "definitive version".
Multiplying the points of view and the break points, this hyperfiction runs on several blogs (thirteen to date4) which develop in parallel, cross, sometimes, playing the ones against the others, in counterpoint, but without being unified into one.
The blogs adopt different tones, and even mediums: novel, journal, poetry (along with drawings), photographs...
Thus, apart from the blog given above, which reports the General's disappearance, we can read on another blog entitled Les inédits de Marc Hodges the adventures of a woman detective (a certain Albertine Mollet);
elsewhere, "Charlus" ponders the difficulties of writing, flickering memory and the vanity of everything in his journal;
in Ganançay, the characters (including someone named Saint-Loup) speak of their fascination with coding, with word play and name play.
On the same blog one can also follow Saint-Loup's adventures in Uzbekistan and his affair with a certain Zita.
In addition, the narrator intervenes in some passages to comment on events and reflect upon his work of writing a hypertextual text.
The blog entitled Les carnets d'Oriane contains quotations from authors, most often famous, followed by personal comments by the title character.
But we should note that, even though some of these "characters" re-appear in different blogs (but are they the same?) and sometimes read each other's work (Albertine Mollet reads Ganançay and Un roman de Marc Hodges, Charlus reads Le Général Proust)…
The links between them appear at first (and even with time) quite tenuous (some characters) and sometimes hold up more because of the reader's willingness to go along than because of a narrator's designs. And moreover, the narrator seems to possess quite a shifting personality.
Actually it seems that the narrator is not Jean-Pierre Balpe, but one Marc Hodges, who even go as far as turning Jean-Pierre Balpe into one of his characters, a character with a dubious past, moreover (in both senses of the word . . .) In turn this character comes back into the story, as a "parasitical" narrator. Here the boundary between the (auto)biographical (and self- derision) and the fictitious is unclear, creating a kind of mise en abîme, a rather unsettling and certainly ironic play of mirrors between the author's person (the author's character) and that of the narrator : who is telling the story ? who is part of the story?
This is not the place here for a single narrator, with all the wires in his hands like a puppet master.
But it is precisely this conflict, this defeat and this abandonment that push the work to go on, indefinitely, with all its blogs. Less by design that by challenge:
"This HyperFiction will be thus like a combat between the writings of Marc Hodges (mine thus) and those (parasitic) of Jean-Pierre Balpe. Perhaps of others still, who knows [... ] In all cases those who will come to join to us will be welcome: life is a fiction. Fiction is life."
Thus this hyperfiction is being written day after day, like life itself. Less it seems to tell a story, or bits and pieces of stories, then to put narration itself front and centre. For its role is to look for meaning despite everything, even though the events and characters described there, as well as the hypothetical relationships they may have amongst themselves, possess only an evanescent coherence and remain as immaterial as a phantom.
With, for result, relativity and doubt which invade all - but which, at the same time, becomes to some extent the raison d'être of the writing, and push it to continue, indefinitely.
In this world, which plays at becoming organised and, at almost the same time, at becoming disorganised, and to put itself into doubt as it is being written, it thus falls to the reader to play the role of the investigator to the best of his or her ability. Reading this hypertext, like writing it, can only be carried out in a fragmentary manner. In this way the reader can, for example, decide to follow what appears to be one of the main threads: the reference to Proust.
All those names, first of all, beginning of course with that of Proust himself. And those of all his characters: Albertine, Gilberte, Norpois, Bréauté, d'Argencourt, Saint-Loup, Charlus, Oriane, Françoise, Rachel, Elstir, Norpois, Palancy/Ganançay. . .6 We might recall that in Proust's work proper nouns (people and places) are one of the principal motors of the fiction7: the stuff that dreams are made of, and also (therefore) causes for deception, and surprise, good or bad.
For people (and places), in the end, are never what they appear to be at first (or at last) sight - and even less what one's think or imagine : they are always fleeting, ever-changing, fluctuating; in sum, always inverted.
Indeed, as Roland Barthes remarked, the form À la recherche du temps perdu's discourse is inversion8. And we might say that the work reaches a conclusion when the narrator sees this procedure extended to everything. Identity is illusory, but people exist and only "subsist" by following several modes in numerous ways: past and present, memory and oblivion (and also imagination) are telescoped. But this, once it is acknowledged, can be shown and become the source of joy and knowledge (in memory and in the book).
Is the same true in Balpe's way?
The proper nouns borrowed from Proust do seem to play a role of a motor for the fiction here as well-just like the quoted passages from À la recherche du temps perdu and given in epigraph, as we have seen, in almost every "chapter" of the blog Général Proust.
In the end, however, we don't know much about these characters. They file by and clear off, cross paths and spy on each other, dissolving into a decor of paintings, volutes and gardens, television images and surveillance cameras, as insubstantial as ghosts. Their different appearances don't add up, but seem on the contrary to cancel each other out. Here, then, there is no "concomitant syntax"9.
This is because here the Book no longer exists. We know that Proust, when he was writing À la recherche du temps perdu, already knew the beginning and the end. It was thus written "not by extension but by internal inflation", as Gérard Genette remarks10: The famous "paperolles" technique is one example of this.
With Balpe, on the contrary, the medium commands a form of unfolding which is endless, indefinite and in a state of "constant expansion". As the author (the author's character) himself explains:
"Writing for blogs has its own constraints-like any writing which depends on the apparatus with which it is broadcast.
The blog complies with a chronology of daily life in which each day-even if nothing is concealed in it and remains in the memory-follows on the last. So much so that the readership is unstable and chancy. One reader arrives because he asked a search engine to find him a site with the words "pause" or "blog"; another because she searched Libération's blogs (http://blogs.liberation.fr/); and yet another comes from Les Carnets d'Oriane. . . . I would be very surprised if some of them came with the absolute desire to find this blog and what I have put on it. The blog is like fishing, and the writing has to take this into account.
With La disparition du général Proust Jean-Pierre Balpe brings the hypertext into an era of suspicion.
Thus, by means of what we might describe (following Umberto Eco) as an (acknowledged) technique of intertextual irony,12 À la recherche du temps perdu, which infuses and inhabits blogs, also serves to reveal its own absence, or the impossibility of the book.
La disparition du général Proust attempts to take into account all of these constraints, in which narratives unfold in different spaces, cross paths, overlap, are modified, have an effect on each other while attempting, however, to take account of space, of the specific possibilities of various blogs in which some of its elements can be found. Each blog does not have the same possibilities: one may be better suited to photography, another makes it possible to navigate by category, another publishes statistics, etc. Few of them-at least the free ones-offer every possibility. This virtual space is dynamic and is constantly being reconfigured."
1 : Blog Jean-Pierre Balpe, Nevember 12 2005.
2 : Blog Général Proust, « La passion ronge les visages ».
3 : Blog Général Proust, « Un sentiment de justesse absolue ».
4 : For the list of blogs, see liens (links).
This short outline simply seeks to give an idea (very limited...) of the contents of some of these blogs.
But it will be understood that it is impossible to be exhaustive here...
5 : Blog Jean-Pierre Balpe, 3 novembre 2005.
6 : However, besides the names, Balpe's characters do not have a lot in common with those of Proust: different time, different social status...
But of course the similarity of the names almost forces to establish or at least to seek certain bonds between them.
7 : See Roland Barthes, « Proust et les noms », in Le degré zéro de l'écriture, suivi de Nouveaux essais critiques, Éditions du Seuil, Collection Points, 1953 et 1972, pp : 121-134.
8 : See Roland Barthes, « Une idée de recherche », in Recherche de Proust, Éditions du Seuil, Collection Points, 1980, p : 35.
9 : Ibid, p : 38.
10 : Gérard Genette, « La question de l'écriture », in Recherche de Proust, Éditions du Seuil, Collection Points, 1980, p : 8.
11 : Blog Ganançay, « Pause dans le récit (note de Marc Hodges) », 17 janvier 2006 (11:44).
12 : Umberto Eco, « Ironie intertextuelle et niveaux de lecture », in De la littérature, Édition Grasset et Fasquelle, Le livre de poche, Collection Biblio Essais, 2003, pp : 281-311.
(Translated from French by Timothy Barnard)