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Contemporary Visions

The ‘Events of May 68’ in Adam Thorpe’s No Telling: a Silent Revolution?

Les événements de mai 68 dans No Telling d’Adam Thorpe: une révolution silencieuse?
Alexandre Privat


Le but de cet article est de remettre en cause le présupposé courant qui assimile la révolution à un changement drastique, en justifiant pourquoi le modèle linéaire et son corollaire, la rupture, ne constituent pas les seules manières de penser la relation témoin-événement. Prenant pour objet d’étude le cinquième roman d’Adam Thorpe, No Telling (2003), l’objectif est d’analyser comment ce roman, en se détournant de la relation classique de coïncidence entre l’histoire familiale et l’histoire collective, propose à l’inverse un mode original d’articulation fondé sur un écart irréductible ou, en termes d’optique, une tache aveugle. Cette articulation singulière oblige à réviser l’idée que l’apparition de l’événement est une totalité révélée. À travers le choix du point de vue excentrique d’un garçon de douze ans, l’intrigue de No Telling dépend de la conjugaison entre l’intermission et la médiation, interconnectant en silence, au lieu de simplement lier, le témoin innocent avec l’événement collectif, l’ordinaire avec l’épique.

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  • 1 This relationship is called ‘syntactic’, because it obeys the minimal rules of logic and linguistic (...)
  • 2 Alain Badiou gives a ‘formal’ theory of the subject-event relationship, which is entirely dependent (...)
  • 3 In making ‘événement-Badiou’ distinct from ‘événement-Deleuze’, Jean-Jacques Lecercle wants to demo (...)

1Can revolutions be silent? This thought-provoking interrogation is driven by the question of whether events, and all the more so revolutions, can be only conceived of through rupture and its indispensable counterpart, violent encounter. If most of the recorded events are obviously perceptible, as many people can bear witness to their happening, they are for the most part the results of silent and hardly perceptible change. The phenomenology of events, which designates the various ways in which events are perceived and experienced, have long been interpreted through the lens of ontology, which posits that an event cannot be named as such unless it happens to someone. This model assimilates the witness-event relationship to a syntactic structure, in which the event plays the role of the subject and the verb of the sentence while the witness is the object.1 Predication is another way of describing this influential model that still determines Alain Badiou’s formal theory of the subject, whose multiple variations are described in detail in the first book of his Logiques des mondes.2 In contrast to the ‘événement-Badiou’, as Jean-Jacques Lecercle playfully names it,3 all of Adam Thorpe’s novels help envision a new way of thinking about events which would qualify the common understanding of the event qua rupture and, as a consequence, the myth of revolution that can no longer be thought solely as a momentary ‘wide-reaching change’ (OED).

2Events in No Telling, Adam Thorpe’s fifth novel, are characterised by their great allusiveness, which testifies to the author’s original style as regards the narrative configuration of events. Since his first novel Ulverton (1992), the overall effects derived from reading his novels have been those of perceptive opacification and informational omission, so that events only manifest themselves through echoes, fragments, rumour and allusions, requiring the reader’s constant attention to the minutiae of the text. These fragments of events are similar to partially obliterated pre-histories to which characters are unwillingly exposed. Intermission designates the intermittent, discontinuous and fragmentary mode in which events do not appear, but seep out, like distant echoes. One of the main challenges induced by intermission is the construction of a plot that could combine the analeptic echoes, coming from the distant past, and the proleptic fragments of upcoming collective events such as May 68. No Telling appears as a convincing tour de force that succeeds in combining tragedy with comedy, the ordinary with the horror, proposing a modified encounter with the events.

  • 4 Cathy Caruth’s writings have been quite influential on this domain. In Unclaimed Experience, she dr (...)

3Told exclusively from the eccentric perspective of a thirteen-year-old narrator, named Gilles Gobain, No Telling chronicles the unrecorded pre-histories of the ‘events of May 1968’, by concentrating on a conservative middle-class family living in the Paris suburb of Bagneux, between 1967 and 1968. The young and observant narrator, confronted with the secretive behaviour of his parents and sister and the unresolved questions brought up by puberty, cannot make sense of the world surrounding him until he and his mother stumble upon History in the making, as they are, against their will, involved in the events. They fall victims to the CRS’ blind violence, exacerbated by the students’ demonstrations on May 1st 1968. What is then commonly referred to as the ‘events of May 1968’ takes on a different shape in No Telling, as the domestic micro-events are given precedence over the crisis of May, of which an oblique, yet memorable glimpse is offered to the reader. The repressed events of family secrets are interlaced with the almost imperceptible social changes affecting French society between the 1950s and the 1960s, which culminate in the events and general strikes of May 1968. If the theme of family secrets inevitably calls to mind the haunting effects of trauma, No Telling cannot be restricted to trauma, whose application to fiction has been mainly analogic and dependent on the distinction between individual and collective identities.4 If the very title, No Telling, alludes to negativity, it should not be readily confined to the sublimities of the traumatic unsaid. The reason for not telling in the novel arises as much from the denial of shameful acts as from the silence imposed by the strict Catholic morality prevailing in the Gobain family. If the refusal of telling silently moves to partial telling after some five hundred pages, it never coincides with total revelation. No Telling is therefore a deliberately encrypted text, whose particular mode of narration mimics in fact the non-linearity of intermission.

4By eschewing coincidence and rupture, intermission abolishes the distinctions between individual and collective identities to foreground instead a particular mode of articulation working on the deviation from rupture, in other words ‘écart’ of which there is no satisfying equivalent in English, except for ‘gap’. The great advantage of the word ‘écart’ is that it not only refers to a negative void but also to an irreducible tension, according to his main theorist, François Jullien: ‘Le propre de l’écart—et c’est là pour moi l’essentiel—est qu’il n’est, par suite, pas proprement aspectuel ou descriptif, comme l’est la différence, mais productif—et ce dans la mesure même où il met en tension ce qu’il a séparé. Mettre en tension : c’est à quoi l’écart doit d’opérer’ (34). Although Jullien’s approach is concerned with cultural relationships rather than the ways narrative events can be configured, his development of ‘écart’ helps question the dual parameters of the writing of events in fiction. These are often presented in terms of optics (perceptibility as opposed to imperceptibility), narrative structure (linearity as opposed to fragmentariness) and scale, (micro-event as opposed to macro-event). These three parameters can be subsumed under the model of linearity and rupture that helps form the conceptual construction of the event. In reaction against this construction, No Telling offers the impression of a silent and seamless interweaving of the family’s past silenced events with the social changes of collective history. The major interest of this novel is that the combination of intimate micro-events with collective macro-events does not abide by the rules of dramatic coincidence but that of silent intermission. Here I use ‘silent’ in reference to François Jullien’s notion of ‘silent transformations’ (‘transformations silencieuses’), which he develops in his eponymous essay as an alternative to the dominant ‘rupture’ of the event.

5After examining the relationship between optics and the intermission of fragmented events, I will concentrate on the dramatic tension between intermission and mediation before studying the problematic witnessing of the Revolution.

Seeing the Fragmented Events: Intermission and Optical Accommodation

  • 5 For a comprehensive analysis of the role of optical devices in contemporary British fiction, see Di (...)

6The first problem raised by the silent intermission of fragmented events touches upon the question of optics, as intermission, resting on a necessary gap (inter in Latin), assimilates the seeing of the event to a blind spot. Optics, generally known as the science of measuring and transforming imperceptibility into perceptibility, has been a point of major concern for Adam Thorpe since his second novel Still (1995). This extremely experimental novel, presenting itself as a postmodern ‘text-film’, taps the visual as well as modulatory potential of the camera-eye, which, unlike the human eye’s static condition, can shift back and forth from close-ups to wide-angle shots. Still expresses in metaphoric terms the search for a dynamic structure in which optical accommodation would have regulated the various shifts from microscopy to macroscopy and from not seeing to seeing. No Telling is the first attempt at establishing such optical accommodation, which is not so much a device as a flexible structure whose functioning heavily depends on the reader’s observation and interpretative skills.5 Yet, before detailing this functioning, it is worth remembering that the articulation between the event and seeing first partakes of the model of rupture and linearity from which all of Adam Thorpe’s novels diverge.

  • 6 ‘En quoi, servant au mieux l’idéologie de la rupture qui est si chère à l’Europe, l’événement ne ce (...)
  • 7 ‘En effet, comme un tel réchauffement se produit infinitésimalement, au fil des jours et des second (...)
  • 8 The exact and full quotation is the following: ‘No single man makes history. History cannot be seen (...)

7The happening of the event, metaphorically assimilated to the visible brightness of revelation is by definition contrasted to the obscurity of unknowingness. French philosopher François Jullien observes that the revelatory and alethic function traditionally ascribed to the event can be traced to the double tradition of the Greek philosophy of Being and the Judaeo-Christian belief in theophany, or the revelation of divine secret truth delivered to humankind. He affiliates such a vision to the Western ‘ideology of rupture’ and detects its overpowering influence on Alain Badiou’s philosophy of the event.6 In opposition to this view, François Jullien, taking the example of global warming, argues that events are the results of imperceptible change, so that the organic metaphor of maturation is more fitting than that of purely logical rupture.7 Similarly, Adam Thorpe has expressed his fascination for one of Boris Pasternak’s quotes, extracted from Doctor Zhivago, namely that the making of history is but an invisible process from which events emerge. The making of the events of History cannot be seen, just as one cannot see the ‘grass growing’: ‘the thing itself, as Boris Pasternak maintained, speaking of history, is no more visible than “the grass growing”’8 (14). If from an empirical perspective, such a statement cannot but ring true, the silent and seemingly imperceptible intermission of fragmented events raises, however, a representational difficulty when it comes to fiction: how could they be sensed by the reader without being described? Mainly through allusions. It is here that the metaphor of optical accommodation proves highly significant, in that it allows for an allusive ‘dramatic irony’.

  • 9 ‘In writing about the rhetoric of fiction, I am not primarily interested in didactic fiction, ficti (...)

8One of the distinctive features of No Telling is to provide a renewed understanding of dramatic irony which determines the rhetorical relationship, in the sense given by Booth,9 between the implied reader and the implied writer. For Booth, dramatic irony, meant to conjure up comic or tragic effects, is a ‘stable’ type of irony as it relies on the strict divide between what the audience is expected to know and see, and what the character is expected neither to know nor see:

Dramatic irony always depends strictly on the reader’s or spectator’s knowing something about a character’s situation that the character does not know’ [. . .] ‘Moments of this kind are possible, as we have seen, only when the author is sure that we know that he knows that we know—which is to say, the author and the audience stand together watching the characters from above as they make their mistakes’ (Booth 1975, 255).

  • 10 ‘On peut en effet raconter plus ou moins ce que l’on raconte, et le raconter selon tel ou tel point (...)
  • 11 For Modernist writers, the child’s perspective offered the possibility of apprehending the self no (...)
  • 12 Even Henry James who was one of the first to limit the character’s point of view to ‘one center and (...)

9However, unlike dramatic irony, the reader in No Telling knows no more than the character does, simply because the ‘narrative information’, to borrow Genette’s expression,10 is dependent on the child’s limited perspective, rendered by extremely simplified syntax and vocabulary. The child’s close perception imparts to the text an impression of sensory immediacy, an effect meant by the author who maximised the fragmentariness by sticking to the same point of view: ‘I increased the fragmentariness or incompleteness of his comprehension by keeping to his child’s vision, while thereby increasing the sensory directness of his experience’ (21). Compared to other well-known modernist child-centered novels and short stories, as can be seen in James, Faulkner, and Mansfield,11 the optic device in No Telling is pushed to the extreme, as no effort is made to accommodate the macroscopic and stabilizing adult narrator’s perspective with the microscopic and confusing child’s perspective.12 If the restricted perspective obviously creates some comic effects, pertaining to classic dramatic irony, as when the innocent Gilles, unaware of the secrets of human procreation, believes that babies are born out of their mothers’ ‘tummy-buttons’ (89) and wonders about the meaning of ‘maker of angels’ (325), it also suggests an effect of opaque groping in terms of visibility and readability, favouring the dissemination of textual blanks.

10The reader is exposed, like Gilles, to the fragments of silenced events whose Hamletian echoes reveal how disturbed the boy’s family life is, under the guise of petit-bourgeois normality. His mother, Danielle, is remarried to his uncle Alain and she becomes unaccountably pregnant, despite her advanced age. His Ophelia-like sister, Carole, is interned to a mental hospital after the mother gives birth to a brain-damaged baby and the circumstances of his father’s death are shrouded with a halo of mystery. The very name of his late father, Henri, is systematically followed by prolonged silences, as when Gilles asks his mother questions after she mentions her daughter’s beginnings at ballet, dropped soon after her husband’s death:

‘She started when she was six. Completely her own idea. I didn’t know anything about ballet. Then she stopped because of what happened.’
There was another pause.
‘Henri,’ she said.
Now there was a long silence, only the engine moaning. It was always like this, when it came to mentioning my father’s death’. (101–102)

11The causal link between the sister’s sudden refusal to dance again and the father’s death is visibly and audibly missing in this passage (‘another pause’, ‘long silence’). The periphrastic formulation (‘because of what happened’) casts shadow on the actual cause of Henri’s death, which is persistently silenced (‘It was always like this’). This example illustrates how the child’s restricted perspective, by favouring opacification and inexpressibility, constitutes the main instrument to encrypt the text, thus leaving room for the reader’s interpretative skills. As a consequence, generational intermission appears not only as the main theme, but also as a formal narrative device, so that the fragmented phenomenology of events is inseparable from a fragmented phenomenology of reading.

12The reader is set the task to restore some linearity, create possible causal links, only partially confirmed after some hundred pages, and accommodate the child’s microscopic viewpoint with a tentative macroscopic viewpoint. Optical accommodation, by considering the blind spots of the child’s vision, seems to rely on the junctive function of Wolfgang Iser’s Leerstellen or textual blanks. Indeed, for the German phenomenologist of reading, these blanks fulfil a necessary junctive function, by granting to stories some ‘dynamism’, establishing what he calls the ‘virtual’ dimension of the text:

Indeed, it is only through inevitable omissions that a story will gain its dynamism. Thus whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections—for filling in the gaps left by the text itself. (285–286)

  • 13 ‘“Distance” et “perspective”, ainsi provisoirement dénommées et définies, sont les deux modalités e (...)

13No Telling, as it calls for inference and observation, similarly invites the reader to fill in the gaps of intermission, which implies to tear away oneself from the character’s viewpoint and adopt a macroscopic perspective, in order to establish some connections and dispel momentarily the opaque haze covering the telling and the seeing of the events. Yet, the gaps in No Telling slightly differ from Iser’s phenomenology of reading, in that they are not only the result of the reading activity itself, but are, above all, pre-conditioned by the plot structured by intermission. What Still conveys metaphorically through its self-presentation as a ‘text-film’, No Telling translates it into structural terms, by coupling intermission with optical accommodation, using textual blanks as an articulatory mode of narration. Intermission appears then as an alternative to the usually spatial metaphors of distance and proximity, as far as points of view are concerned.13 If this peculiar combination does away with rupture, it cannot but raise the question of the dramatic construction or plot, that is, the organising force connecting the domestic micro-events with the national macro-events.

Intermission and Mediation: Articulating the Fragments of Micro-History with Macro-History

14Given that the whole of Adam Thorpe’s fiction problematises the event qua rupture, it cannot but interrogate the issue of dramatic structure, in particular the indispensable resource without which there can be no narrative: action. Action is caused by the double role of the event, which is generally viewed as both destructive and restorative, as Ricœur explains in Soi-même comme un autre: ‘l’événement narratif […] participe de la structure instable de concordance discordante caractéristique de l’intrigue elle-même; il est source de discordance, en tant qu’il surgit, et source de concordance en ce qu’il fait avancer l’histoire’ (169). Ricœur’s definition is perhaps too universal to account for narratives such as Adam Thorpe’s, in which rupture is radically minimised, though not abolished, which leaves sufficient room to construct an apparently silent narrative dynamic. One of the peculiar aspects of No Telling is that the encounter between micro-history and macro-history, the ordinary subject and the event, does not correspond to a meeting point, but looks rather like a reverberating process through which the past events are made resonant with the present ones. This effect of resonance is achieved through a successful combination of intermission with mediation, a notion generally associated with a dialectical form of thinking, which here deserves qualification.

15No Telling could hardly fall into the category of canonical historical novel, as identified for example by Marxist critic Lukács. In his influential essay The Historical Novel, he proposed to view the historical novel as the well-balanced mediation of dramatic collusion with the epic totality of objects. While the intensity of drama revolves around a central collision, concentrating the ‘historical explosions and eruptions’ (150), the modern novel inherited from the epic a propensity to embrace the cosmic world, hence the emphasis on a ‘thoroughly concrete, complex and intricate world inclusive of all the details of human behaviour and conduct in society’ (139). It is for him Scott’s mediocre characters that dialectically combine the dramatic and the realistic poles, thus offering a conception of English history as one of ‘middle course asserting itself through the struggle of extremes’ (37). Instead of an objective and mediating hero set in a historical crisis, No Telling provides an eccentric and fallible child’s perspective, through which family silenced events subtly and intermittently reverberate with collective events, by means of traces, site, rumours and technological media. If the genre of the novel is by definition less concerned with drama’s spectacular collisions than the details of the everyday—a feature particularly fitting for No Telling, absorbed in the ordinary—the great challenge faced by the novel is to operate a mediation of perceptual fragmented totality with hardly dramatic minuscule collisions.

16What first needs to be remembered is that No Telling is structured by a linear progression, offered by the imitation of the apprenticeship novel covering the years 1967 and 1968 during which Gilles slowly moves from childhood to early adolescence. The terminal point of this linear progression is set beforehand on May 11th, the date of an intimidating micro-event for the superstitious Gilles who is due to celebrate his Solemn Communion. The exaggeratedly tragic importance he grants to this event sounds particularly comic: ‘May the eleventh had a carefully-drawn red Cross in its rectangle, with GILLES in green ballpoint. As if I’d died. When I thought of my communion, these days, I got butterflies: the red cross was like something spiky I had to get past’ (320). However, within this linear progression, the novel is punctuated by a great number of intermittent and dilatory reversals, during which the secrets of the Gobains partially and slowly seep out, in a way closer to secretion than revelation. The plot then unfolds not successively, but intermittently, and the gradation of rupturing events is replaced by the accumulative intermission of brief and partial glimpses, so that the intermittent structure mimics the operating mode of secrecy.

17Indeed, secrecy should not be seen as merely the fact of concealing from others some forbidden or shameful information shared with a limited number of people, but as a special type of phenomenon through which the invisible and the unknown become partially, but never totally, visible and known. In Mille Plateaux Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe secrecy as operating in a way similar to Bergsonian ‘becoming’. For them, secrecy bears resemblance to impossible containment, so that what is hidden always transpires, through hardly perceptible and unwillingly spread signs:

Le secret, défini comme contenu qui a caché sa forme au profit d’un simple contenant, est inséparable de deux mouvements qui peuvent accidentellement en interrompre le cours ou le trahir, mais en font partie essentiellement: quelque chose doit suinter de la boîte, quelque chose sera perçu à travers la boîte ou dans la boîte entrouverte. (352)

18In No Telling, secrecy takes the form of seepages which always occur at unexpected moments, set in the thick of the ordinary, that is, sheer uneventfulness. This is what happens in chapter 12, roughly in the middle of the novel when Gilles has an ordinary conversation with his friend Christophe, to whom he suggests going to the cinema in Paris the next day. No sooner has he made his suggestion than he is indirectly informed by his friend that his mother’s baby whom he believes to be his brother, is in fact his nephew:

‘I’ll show you where I went with my sister. There’s a Wimpy on the Boul’Mich. She always took me there.’
‘Chic’, he said. ‘My dad said to me your sister had the kid, it wasn’t your mother.’
I stared at him for a moment. His legs swung to and fro. He had a smirk of embarrassment on his face.
‘Yeah.’ (226–227)

19The passage is illustrative of the way secrets are not revealed, but take the oblique turn of secretion in the middle of the ordinary, so that the momentousness of revelation is flattened out. The insertion of French realia (‘Boul’Mich’) and now old-fashioned oral expressions such as ‘chic’ are meant to anchor the conversation in the everyday of the 1960s. Yet, what is striking about this scene is the absence of transition between the informal chatter and the seepage of the family secret. Though Gilles’ astonishment (‘stared’) is thrown into relief through the use of the italics (‘what?’), his friend’s banal reply (‘yeah’) tones down the protagonist’s stupor whose first impulse is to deny the information: ‘“Piss-head liars”, I murmured to myself’ (227). But after a few lines, the two children resume their idle chatter when Christophe brings up cinema again: ‘I’ve saved quite a bit’, he added, ‘we can go to Wimpy’s and watch two films’ (227). In retrospect, this apparently insignificant passage confirms some of the narrator and reader’s intuitions.

20In spite of the appearances, Gilles cannot be reduced to a simply ingenuous and unreliable narrator. As reviewer Adam Mars-Jones wrote, he is an insightful boy who ‘sees a number of things without distortion’, unlike his parents whose vision is obscured by prejudice and bigotry. In the first chapters, Gilles, after being falsely informed that his mother was pregnant, notices some slight inconsistencies in his home: his sister, a Communist activist who despises her parents’ petit-bourgeois mentality, has decided to stay in the family for a few months, which ‘astonishes’ him: ‘‘A few months?’ This astonished me. I pulled a face’ (39). However, the only thing that Gilles notes about her sister’s physical change is that her face gets ‘plump’ (47). It is no surprise then that the mother’s supposed delivery is occulted, which is materialised in the text by ellipsis, as Gilles is sent to his grand-father’s, near Le Bourget (44). The aforementioned seepage helps the reader infer that the secret is concerned with the sister’s teenage pregnancy, deemed shameful by the Catholic mother who prefers silencing it. Seepage appears then as the reverse of Aristotle’s dramatic peripeteia, often translated by ‘revolution’, whereby the expected events are reversed, turning ignorance into knowledge, secrecy into revelation, happiness into misery: ‘A revolution is a change (such as has already been mentioned) into the reverse or what is expected from the circumstances of the action’ (22-23). But seepage does not only fulfil a dramatic purpose. It is indeed constitutive of the way in which family secrets manifest themselves. Psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, specialised in family secrets, suggests the French word ‘suintements’ which are at the basis of the child’s difficult symbolisation of the adult’s secret events: ‘Ce sont ces formes partielles de symbolisation qui constituent les suintements du secret’ (75). As the secrets of the Gobains intermittently ooze out, by dint of successive informants, they are simultaneously and loosely interconnected with the traces of collective events, namely the landmark wars of French history from the 1870 Franco-Prussian war to the so-called civil war of May 68.

21The diachronic fragments of the familial and national past events are interconnected to the synchronic events of French society, so that the echoic pre-histories of past events resound with the modern changes of French society. Thus, revolution in No Telling cannot be possibly compared to a punctual dramatic change, or the result of a teleological progress, but instead to an ascending, allusive and barely perceptible phenomenon, akin to François Jullien’s ‘silent transformation’ whose progress cannot be heard:

La transformation silencieuse, en revanche, ne force pas, ne contrecarre rien, ne se bat pas; mais elle fait son chemin, dira-t-on, infiltre, s’étend, se ramifie, se globalise—fait ‘tache d’huile’. Elle s’intègre en désintégrant; se laisse assimiler en même temps qu’elle défait à mesure cela même qui l’assimile. C’est aussi pourquoi elle est silencieuse: parce qu’elle ne suscite pas contre elle de résistance, qu’elle ne fait pas crier, ne suscite aucun rejet, on ne l’entend pas progresser. (Jullien 2009, 68)

22In No Telling, this unheard-of progress takes the shape of silent indicators, relying on the intercession of the geographical site and the trace and other media like the radio. All of them are indicative of intermission, as the linear relationship usually linking place to memory and the signifier to the signified is affected with the presence of gaps. If site and trace disrupt linearity in favour of intermittent contiguity between micro-history and collective history, they in turn follow a dramatic trajectory, as the various traces are progressively brought together by the reader and the narrator, converging towards the same theme, ballet.

23All the silenced events in Gilles’s family revolve around ballet, as his father died after slipping on the wet floor the day when his sister was practising ballet. As Gilles soon realises, all the objects or words related to ballet, when found or pronounced, are always and inexplicably followed by anger or uneasy silence from his parents. When he for example enquires if his mother has any photos of Carole practising ballet, she replies that she may have burnt them (118); or when he borrows a book on ballet from the local library, his mother glares at him, the ‘whole of her trembling slightly’ (215). In all these micro-events, he realises he impinges on a tacit prohibition. In parallel to these domestic seepages, the protagonist is acquainted with the traces and remains of the different wars of French history. For instance, his grand-father tells him that he found bullets on the very site where the show-room attached to the house now stands (52). Some thirty pages later, Gilles learns from an ancient book that these bullets are the traces of a forgotten and ‘unimportant’ battle that took place in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war (89). This show-room, in which the father is said to have died, interconnects intermittently the family fragmented events with the fragmented national events. In this respect, the geographical site plays a role of the utmost importance. It is on the site of the ruined military hospital in which Gilles and Christophe establish their own ‘secret republic’, that is, their private playground, that they unearth a German side-car dating from the Second World War (93). Later on, they discover that the building hosted the Gestapo headquarters during the Occupation, after finding some anti-Semitic books in the ruins (170). As Gilles is more and more exposed to the traces of national events, he also witnesses the microscopic social changes or modernisation of French society.

24These changes manifest themselves through the same allusive mode as the family secrets and affect the conservative and church-going Gobains, but always indirectly and silently. To give a few examples, the site of the derelict military hospital is slowly transformed into a building site where modern council estates are being erected, to Gilles’ bemusement: ‘We’d come to our old secret place. It was still a shock to see it’ (326). At his private Catholic school, he attends the course of a ‘modern type of priest’ (135) and the church service in Latin is slowly replaced by French, after the Vatican II reformation, though Gilles has never heard of it (229). In adopting allusiveness as his favourite writing style, Adam Thorpe shows his debt to his modernist predecessors, in particular Woolf who in the later part of her production was much interested in transcribing the passing of time, as in The Years and in Three Guineas where she wrote that years ‘changed things, slightly but imperceptibly’ (42). The intermittent coordination of anti-linear intermission with linear mediation results in smoothing down the distinctions between family history and collective history whose articulation no longer depends on coincidence nor the dialectics of the fragment and totality, but on resonance. As a consequence, No Telling offers an alternative to the predominant realist tradition of metonymy, taken as a mode of connecting individual characters to the totality of the real, in which the individuals’ destinies are refracted by the destiny of the nation.

The Precarious Witnessing of the Revolution: A Resonant Interrelation

25It is perhaps towards the end that No Telling best illustrates the paradoxical confrontation between Gilles, an innocent witness, and the revolution of May 68. If the word ‘revolution’ evokes the whole political mythology of violent rupture, to which befits an epic style magnifying heroism, violence and resistance, No Telling undertakes to distort this mythic reading by introducing not so much a dual encounter as a resonant interrelation between the synchronic collective event and the repressed familial events. In this context, interrelation weaves together, without mixing them, the dramatic collision with the epic magnitude of the event. Yet this weaving does not give rise to an either tragic or epic meeting, but an interrelation marked by an irreducible gap, as the central figure, neither a hero nor a anti-hero, is a minor and innocent witness who simultaneously maximises and minimises the scope and the consequences of the event. In No Telling, the witness-event relationship does not fall into the opposition between epic active involvement or traumatic passive suffering, but defies syntactic adequation to foreground a precarious articulation hinged on a perceptual and participatory gap.

26This original articulation has been the hallmark of Thorpe’s vision on the event, as James Hynes rightly remarks, commenting No Telling: ‘It’s simultaneously the most epic of his books and the most domestic, starting with a ruefully comic examination of middle-class French life, working through a series of tragic secrets, and culminating with the riots of May 1968’. But it took the author four novels to reach a dramatic interaction of the two. His second novel Still was an inconclusive attempt at setting ordinary half-blind protagonists in the thick of the First World War. Rick, the pompous filmmaker of Still, wants to make an epic film without action but does not know how to do it: ‘This is not an action movie, it’s an epic movie but it’s not an action movie’ (97). In No Telling, the domestic crisis of the Gobains enters in resonance with the students’ upsurge through a similar half-blind teenage character who marginally gets involved in the aftermath of the events. Indeed, the protagonist is exposed to the echoes of the forthcoming events. On the same day, as he indirectly learns that violent events already happened in Europe (‘then a report from Italy about riots, about young Italians smashing windows and policemen’), his family life is shattered by the indirect revelation of a family secret: his uncle’s adultery is divulged through a phone-in radio programme (331). The literal transcription of the confession delivered by the former mistress, whom Gilles knows, stresses the indirect dimension of the rupture brought about by this news. The radio plays in this regard a significant dramatic function, but in a parodic thumb of nose to its well-known historical role in the spreading of the events of 1968, as it does not reach the masses, but is destined to an isolated individual. The uncle, though unaware of the revealed secret, is ominously compared to a policeman, paving the way for the subsequent witnessing of the revolution: ‘“Hang on, chum.” He had raised his hand like a policeman’ (360). However, the witnessing of the event, as ever with Adam Thorpe, is not, as one might have expected, sensationally represented, but partially truncated. The now mythical figures of 68 such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit are glaringly absent, so that the witnessing appears as a paradoxically normalised culmination. This effect of truncation is achieved through various devices, starting with the microscopic viewpoint and the structure of the narrative.

27The witnessing is fractured into two main episodes, first what can be called the ‘seeing’ of the event and second the ‘experiencing’ of it, though this distinction is more complex in the text. What lies in between is taken up by the performance of the Coppélia ballet, to which Gilles and his mother are invited by their distant relatives, the upper-class Despierre-Chéronnets on May 1st 1968 (chapters 21 and 22). Such a division in chapters results in establishing a temporal gap at the origin of which stands the non-coincident relationship between the witness and the event. In the first episode (chapter 20), the characters are simply by-standers, as they are on their way to the performance and end up stuck in a traffic jam in Paris. Gilles’ perception is exceptionally matter-of-fact, as he and his mother, slowly driving by the Sorbonne, glimpse unusual commotion, though they fail to understand the cause of it: ‘there were people running. [. . .] More people were running and I saw a group of policemen or maybe soldiers in shiny black helmets and long black macs running in the same direction, waving sticks’ (376). The description is extremely vague and hesitant, as the characters find it difficult to identify who is doing what (‘people’, ‘policemen or maybe soldiers’), yet what they make out foreshadows all the violence that is about to break out. The depiction of the policemen, clad in black, which suggests imminent violence as they are wielding their weapons (‘waving sticks’). Spotting some ‘blood’ on a woman’s face, Gilles and his mother wonder whether there has been an ‘accident’ (378) or more plausibly a ‘demonstration’ (380). Hence the seeing of the events wavers between factuality and blindness, the comic and the ordinary. At one point, they comically take tear-gas for the fumes of cars, blaming the pollution:

I saw nothing but confusion. Then within seconds the people running about got fewer and we were again moving quite fast. My eyes and nose were prickling, now, and my mother’s hand was over her mouth.
‘Awful smell, dear’, she said. ‘It must be pollution.’ (380)

28The characters’ blindness to the event is made even more comic once they have arrived at the theatre, when they discuss what they saw with Geneviève Despierre-Chéronnet. She exaggeratedly describes her husband, a ridiculed champagne socialist intellectual, versed in Marxist theory, ‘participating in the historical dialectic’ (391) while humiliating Gilles and his mother who, unable to see the historic dimension of the event, are at a loss for words ‘Danielle, my darling, he’s fighting the Revolution. You’ve not been listening. [. . .] My mother and I stood, in silence’ (391). However, this comic interlude, written like a piece from a comedy of manners soon gives way to the tragic experience, so to speak, of the event.

29Gilles and his mother never take part in the event nor experience it, for the reason that they take leave of the Despierre-Chéronnets at night, after the event has subsided. Only the traces of it can be still perceptible, despite the darkness: ‘there was [. . .] a lot of mess on the road, including chairs from a café thrown all over the place . [. . .] It was the protests’ (437). Yet, what they truly experience is the after-effects of the event, the frenzied Nemesis-like violence that it has unleashed. Indeed, the mother is savagely beaten up by one CRS, for no purpose at all. The scene is viewed from a bewildered thirteen-year-old boy whose eyes, like camera lens, zoom in on the policeman’s truncheon: ‘the stick seemed bendy as it came. Two of the other policemen saw what was going on and ran forward to stop him. Then their bendy sticks went out more to the side and came swishing back onto my mother’s head and shoulders’ (442). The scene is devoid of pathos, but lays the emphasis on physical concreteness through verbs of motion (‘went’, ‘came’). The subject of the sentence is not the policeman, but his weapon which enhances the violence and the hyperrealist ordinariness of this unfair event befalling ordinary people. As for Gilles, his sensory responsiveness seems anaesthetised until he feels pain: ‘I realised that the sharp ache on my shoulder was because I was being hit like my mother. My arms and back were being hit, now, and I could hear the grunts from the policeman doing it’ (442). This peculiar depiction of a micro-event on the margins of the ‘revolution’ stresses of course victimisation, but the affectivity attached to it is not represented. It has to be imagined by the reader. The experience of the event alters the scale of the collective event whose epic mythology is minimised, even ridiculed through light social satire levelled at the elite, represented by the Despierre-Chéronnets, to the benefit of the maximisation of the wanton violence affecting unimportant people. This event also fulfils a dramatic function in reverberating the silenced events of Gilles’ familial history with the past and current revolutions.

  • 14 Laplanche gives an explanation of his theory of traumatic seduction in Nouveaux fondements de la ps (...)

30The Coppélia ballet polarizes the silenced familial micro-events with the collective events, bringing into resonance, one hundred years apart, two different revolutions, the 1870 Commune and the 1968 riots. Gilles is intuitively attracted to the Coppélia story which he finds to be reminiscent of Carole’s secret ailment: ‘I sat on the rug and found the right page and began to get goose-bumps, because the story kept reminding me of Carole’ (249). Inserted into the textual fabric of No Telling, this story offers some inferences to be drawn between the narrator’s family life and the collective events. The storyline of the ballet, while alluding to the incestuous relationship between Dr Coppélius, the father and, Swanilda, the daughter, bears some resemblance to the family secret of the sister’s mental disorder, arising, in all likelihood, from Laplanche’s ‘trauma of seduction’,14 though no sufficient information is revealed at the end to corroborate fully this interpretation. The reader only knows that Henri, the father, slipped on the wet floor of the show-room and died after watching (or leering at?) his own daughter practising ballet. This is what the sister confesses to Gilles at the very end, though she cannot mention her father’s name:

‘I’d look up and see him watching me through the window’.
‘Him. It put me off.’ (500)

31But the ballet Coppélia also alludes to a larger historical context, the Franco-Prussian war and the revolution of the Paris Commune. In his book, Gilles learns that the ballet was first performed by ballerina Giuseppina Bozzacchi, who died at the age of seventeen during the siege of Paris. This tragic minor figure and the revolution that she metonymically points to parallels Gilles’ own destiny and his witnessing of the after-effects of the revolution of May 68. Many echoes bring the events into resonance. When Gilles is hit by the policeman, the photograph of the ballerina is trampled on by the policeman (443). Likewise, the young and naïve protesters that Gilles meets after the events all idealise the mythologised memory of the Commune which they compare to the current events, proudly demonstrating that what they lived was a historic moment, History ‘in the nude’ (463). By contrast, Gilles trivialises the event, by reminding the protestor that his mother was hit and left in the car (463). Therefore, No Telling can be read as a partial reaffiliation to epic, even though the emphasis on an ordinary and eccentric perspective precisely hinders the very purpose of the epic, which is to fuse the subject into a community through a collective event. The individual destiny almost coincides with the collective destiny, though it never reaches the fusion-like adequation of epic, as Lukács summarises: ‘It is traditionally thought that one of the essential characteristics of the epic is the fact that its theme is not personal destiny but the destiny of a community’ (Lukács 1971: 66). The stress laid on ordinariness is not meant to produce a parodic effect, but instead gives rise to a precarious non-coincident relationship between the subject and the event, making witnessing always precarious.

32In final analysis, No Telling eschews the common structuring method of narratives based on linearity and rupture, shedding light on a new understanding of ‘revolution’. Revolution is no longer synonymous with a tremendous change or war-like greatness, but is demystified to the benefit of humble witnessing, involving ordinary people, falling victims to events that they fail to understand. Yet, it would be simplistic to draw from this account the conclusion that No Telling pits heroes against victims and ability against failure. What I referred to as optical accommodation, the tension between intermission and mediation and epic ordinariness are all attempts at stressing an irreducible gap that undermines any syntactic or dialectic relationship of the subject and the event, which has prevailed in literary theory as well as in the philosophies of the event. What Thorpe’s novels display is an uncommon type of relationship, half-way through duality and disjunction, which could be termed ‘precarious’, given that the subject in his novels is always dis/connected to and from the event.

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Badiou, Alain, Logiques des mondes : l’être et l’événement 2, Paris: Seuil, 2006.

Booth, Wayne C., A Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.

Booth, Wayne C., A Rhetoric of Irony, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.

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Laplanche, Jean, Nouveaux fondements pour la psychanalyse. La séduction originaire, Paris: PUF, 2016.

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Lukács, Georg, The Historical Novel, London: Merlin Press, 1962.

Mars-Jones, Adam, ‘Paris 68: tear gas, riots, The Beatles—and that very odd business with the vacuum cleaner’, rev. of No Telling, The Guardian 8 June 2003, last accessed at on 19 January 2019.

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1 This relationship is called ‘syntactic’, because it obeys the minimal rules of logic and linguistic syntax. Carlo Diano, in Forma ed evento, demonstrates that this syntactic definition of the event as necessarily befalling an individual, turned into an object, is based on Aristotle’s theory of predication and is constitutive of the event itself that cannot be reduced to contingency: ‘Evento è perciò non quicquid evenit ma id quod cuique evenit: τι γίγνεται ἑκάστῳ, come scrive Filemone, ricalcando Aristotele. La differenza è capitale. Che piova, è qualcosa che accade, ma questo non basta a farne un evento: perché sia un evento, è necessario che codesto accadere, io lo senta come un accadere per me’ (72). ‘The event is, therefore, not whatever happens, but that which happens to anyone: whatever happens to anyone, as Philemon wrote, remembering Aristotle. The difference is essential. If it rains, it is something that happens, but this is not enough for it to become an event. For an event to happen, I need to feel that this happening happens to me.’ [my translation].

2 Alain Badiou gives a ‘formal’ theory of the subject-event relationship, which is entirely dependent on the supreme value of truth: ‘Nous sommes donc acculés à dire : la théorie du sujet est axiomatique. On ne saurait la déduire, puisqu’elle est affirmation de sa propre forme. Mais on ne saurait non plus l’expérimenter. On en décide la pensée sur l’horizon d’une empirie irrécusable, que nous avons illustrée dans la préface : il y a des vérités, et il faut qu’il y ait une forme active et identifiable de leur production (mais aussi ce qui entrave ou annule cette production). Cette forme a pour nom : sujet. Dire « sujet » ou dire « sujet au regard d’une vérité » est redondant. Car il n’y a de sujet que de vérité, à son service, au service de son déni, ou de son occultation. Et donc, « sujet » est une catégorie de la dialectique matérialiste’ (58).

3 In making ‘événement-Badiou’ distinct from ‘événement-Deleuze’, Jean-Jacques Lecercle wants to demonstrate how the theories proposed by Badiou and Deleuze help read different types of texts: ‘Mon objectif est donc de décliner les déterminations de ces deux concepts. Il est aussi de voir en quoi ils peuvent nous servir à analyser les textes littéraires. Mon idée est que l’un et l’autre servent, mais pas pour les mêmes textes, et pas de la même façon’ (250).

4 Cathy Caruth’s writings have been quite influential on this domain. In Unclaimed Experience, she draws on Freud’s analogic method, as practiced in Moses and Monotheism, and conceives of collective History as inherently traumatic. The latency at work in individual trauma is analogous to that of the Jews’ collective History: ‘It is therefore, I would like to suggest, precisely in the very constitutive function of latency, in history, that Freud discovers the indissoluble, political bond to other histories. To put it somewhat differently, we could say that the traumatic nature of history means that events are only historical to the extent that they implicate others. And it is thus that Jewish history has also been the suffering of others’ traumas’ (18). This analogic view has been challenged by recent social theoretician Jeffrey C. Alexander in Trauma: A Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012).

5 For a comprehensive analysis of the role of optical devices in contemporary British fiction, see Diane Leblond, Optiques de la fiction. Pour une analyse des dispositifs visuels de quatre romans britanniques contemporains (PhD Dissertation, Paris Diderot University, 2016).

6 ‘En quoi, servant au mieux l’idéologie de la rupture qui est si chère à l’Europe, l’événement ne cesse de féconder encore aujourd’hui la philosophie. Quand Alain Badiou considère que ce qui convoque à la “composition” d’un Sujet doit nécessairement intervenir en plus du donné objectif […], il demeure dans le parfait sillage de cette mythologie européenne qui fait de l’événement la seule voie d’effraction possible vis-à-vis du conditionné, et donc d’une affirmation de la Liberté. Le voici qui investit dans la Révolution la façon (qu’il a par ailleurs si bien décrite) dont Paul apôtre construit l’Événement (du) Christ’ (Jullien 2009, 122–123).

7 ‘En effet, comme un tel réchauffement se produit infinitésimalement, au fil des jours et des secondes, qu’il relève d’une corrélation indéfinie de facteurs, qu’il ne peut pas même être discerné comme phénomène à part et que c’est “tout”, sur la terre, qui se trouve concerné, on ne voit pas la terre se réchauffer’ (Jullien 18).

8 The exact and full quotation is the following: ‘No single man makes history. History cannot be seen, just as one cannot see the grass growing. Wars and revolutions, kings and Robespierres, are history’s organic agents, its yeast’ (Pasternak 375).

9 ‘In writing about the rhetoric of fiction, I am not primarily interested in didactic fiction, fiction used for propaganda or instruction. My subject is the technique of non-didactic fiction, viewed as the art of communicating with readers—the rhetorical resources available to the writer of epic, novel, or short story as he tries, consciously or unconsciously, to impose his fictional world upon the reader’ (Booth 1961, xiii).

10 ‘On peut en effet raconter plus ou moins ce que l’on raconte, et le raconter selon tel ou tel point de vue; et c’est précisément cette capacité, et les modalités de son exercice, que vise notre catégorie du mode narratif: la “représentation”, ou plus exactement l’information narrative a ses degrés; le récit peut fournir au lecteur plus ou moins de détails, et de façon plus ou moins directe’ (Genette 183).

11 For Modernist writers, the child’s perspective offered the possibility of apprehending the self no longer in the metaphysical terms of subject-object relationship, drawing on the distinction between intelligibility and sensitivity, body and soul, but in terms of interaction. Judith Ryan, contextualising the rise of modern psychology at the instigation not only of Freud, but also ‘critical empiricists’ in the late 19th century, showed how influential they had been in dismantling the belief that there was something behind the senses: ‘The empiricists attacked metaphysics as postulating a reality “behind” or “beyond” that of the senses. Similarly they rejected the dualism of subject and object. For them, there was no separate “object-world”: everything that was, subsisted in consciousness itself . [. . .] If as the empiricists claimed, the subject was purely evanescent, how could literature be written at all? Many of the most striking formal innovations of early-twentieth century can be seen as responses to this challenge’ (Ryan 3).

12 Even Henry James who was one of the first to limit the character’s point of view to ‘one center and keeping all within his hero’s compass’ (Preface to The Ambassadors), maintained in other novels some balance between a limited perspective and a reflector, a ‘witness or reporter’ (Preface to The Golden Bowl) who helps the reader see more clearly and interpret what is not told. For more details, see Peter Rawlings, American Theorists of the Novel: James, Trilling, Booth (New York: Routledge, 2006).

13 ‘“Distance” et “perspective”, ainsi provisoirement dénommées et définies, sont les deux modalités essentielles de cette régulation de l’information narrative qu’est le mode, comme la vision que j’ai d’un tableau dépend, en précision, de la distance qui m’en sépare, et en ampleur, de ma position par rapport à tel obstacle partiel qui lui fait plus ou moins écran’ (Genette 184).

14 Laplanche gives an explanation of his theory of traumatic seduction in Nouveaux fondements de la psychanalyse: ‘La confrontation adulte-enfant enveloppe une essentielle relation d’activité-passivité, liée au fait inéluctable que le psychisme parental est plus “riche” que celui de l’enfant. Mais à la différence des cartésiens, nous ne parlerons pas ici de plus grande “perfection”, car cette richesse de l’adulte est aussi bien son infirmité: son clivage d’avec son inconscient. Par le terme de séduction originaire nous qualifions donc cette situation fondamentale où l’adulte propose à l’enfant des signifiants non-verbaux aussi bien que verbaux, voire comportementaux, imprégnés de significations sexuelles inconscientes. Ce que je nomme signifiants énigmatiques, il n’est pas besoin de chercher loin pour en donner des exemples concrets’ (125).

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Alexandre Privat, « The ‘Events of May 68’ in Adam Thorpe’s No Telling: a Silent Revolution? »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 56 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2019, consulté le 25 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Alexandre Privat

Alexandre Privat is ‘professeur agrégé’ and a Ph.D. student in contemporary British literature at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier 3. He has been a member of EMMA since 2015. His field of research is devoted to the whole of Adam Thorpe’s fictional work and explores the notion of ‘precarious witness’ in relation to history, psychoanalysis and ethics and its literary application to contemporary fiction.

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