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Comptes rendus

Ann Jefferson. Biography and the Question of Literature in France

Bibliographical reference

Ann JEFFERSON. Biography and the Question of Literature in France. Oxford University Press, 2007, 426 pp., €88.73, ISBN 978-0-19-927084-2.

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1Ann Jefferson’s provocative study, Biography and the Question of Literature in France, examines not only the relationship between literature and biography but also the critical discourse that has accompanied what she calls “the blur of generic boundaries, blending biography with autobiography, or fiction with reportage and the essay.” Jefferson’s limpid prose makes this study a pleasure to read. She opens her study with the eighteenth century when the term biography first entered the French language and examines literature in “the modern sense of the term as it began to take form in the mid-eighteenth century.” Having established the vivifying give and take between biography and literature, an exchange which, Jefferson claims, encouraged authors to revise, even contest the sacrosanct fixity of literature as an exclusively aesthetic enterprise, she devotes chapters to, among others, Rousseau, Hugo, Gautier, Verlaine, Mallarmé and Baudelaire before turning to Gide, Neval, Michel Leiris, Pierre Michon, Max Jacob, Roland Barthes, Roger Laporte and Jacques Roubaud. Jefferson further argues for “disregarding the distinction between biography and autobiography,” arguing instead that the contemporary concept of “life writing” is more appropriate to her undertaking.

2Jefferson devotes considerable attention to biography as a “marginal perspective” within what might more properly be called autobiography, literary history, criticism and the essay and then traces the emergence of biography as a central concern of literature to the nearly simultaneous appearance of Victor Hugo’s 1856 Contemplations and Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 Les Fleurs du mal where the poet is the central figure in a “staged biography.” This, she claims, can be seen as an attempt at reinventing poetry. Acknowledging Philippe Lejeune’s assertion that Hugo succeeded precisely because he allowed his work to speak for him, Jefferson describes Hugo’s practice as central to the Romantic aesthetic. While one can admit, as Jefferson claims, a “presumed autobiographical basis […] inherited from Romanticism,” her comparison of Hugo with Byron “whose life and work were entirely consubstantial” seems forced. More accurate is her later suggestion that Hugo’s “poetic life” was one of “contemplation rather than passion.” Jefferson’s distanced and analytical approach to these two seminal works leads her to insist upon Baudelaire’s reversal of his already ground-breaking literary portraits, in order to “turn the very idea of poetry into a radical question about its nature and origins.”

3In the chapter devoted to Pierre Michon, Jefferson takes this idea of radical questioning and revision even further and so continues her investigation of the nature and origins of literature. Her reading of Michon’s “lives” be they of saints, artists, artists models, neighbors or family explores the ways in which Michon authorized himself to write and the ways in which he attempted to answer the question he himself formulated in Rimbaud le fils: “‘What is it that endlessly relaunches literature? What is that makes men write?’” The answer to that question lies in his work. Rather than being finished products or exemplary tales, Michon’s lives are forever unfinished and unrealized. This is because they are intended to remain a source of inspiration, even incomprehension. As Jefferson argues they are models “to be meditated and emulated in pursuit of a belief that is necessary for the production of the literature that portrays them.” The circularity is deliberate and is yet another illustration of Jefferson’s thesis, namely that literature, at its best, is forever open to invention and revision.

4Jefferson herself notes that women, except for Madame de Staël and several references to Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute and Annie Ernaux, are absent from her study. This, she claims, is to be explained by the “relative invisibility of women writers in the history of French literature” and by the fact that their challenges to literature, such as “George Sand’s use of the idealist novel, or Marguerite Duras’s blurring of generic boundaries between fiction and autobiography,” were conducted in marginal forms. Given the tenor of the entire study, one can only regret that choice. This being said, Biography and the Question of Literature in France is an admirable study, part theory, part history and satisfying on both grounds.

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Electronic reference

Joanny MOULIN, Ann Jefferson. Biography and the Question of Literature in FranceE-rea [Online], 5.2 | 2007, document 2, Online since 15 October 2007, connection on 11 May 2021. URL:; DOI:

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