Mark Bell
Aphorism in the Francophone Novel of the Twentieth Century
Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Pp. 154. $55.00
Reviewed by Doris Y. Kadish

The title of Mark Bell’s Aphorism in the Francophone Novel of the Twentieth Century is informative and misleading at the same time. It informs readers that it is a book about the aphorism, a specialized subject that will, I suspect, be of interest to a fairly limited audience of narratological or linguistic-minded literary scholars. The title may mislead readers, however, by using “francophone” in its broadest but perhaps least useful sense to denote all parts of the French-speaking world, as opposed to its narrower but more common sense, which refers only to those parts that lie outside of metropolitan France. Consequently, readers may be surprised to find that the book treats such diverse twentieth-century writers as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gabrielle Roy, Jacques Roumain, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Claude Simon, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and Hubert Acquin. The element common to the seven novels analyzed is their use of aphorisms, a list of which is given in a twenty-five-page appendix. Notwithstanding the many common uses of the aphorism, this combination of French, Caribbean, Swiss, and Canadian authors ultimately seems so disparate that readers are left with a lingering sense of reading separate essays on seven authors whose differences far outweigh their similarities. Moreover, those essays are surprisingly brief-sometimes as little as seven pages.

The book seeks to define and illustrate the aphorism in all of its complexities in the twentieth-century. In the second chapter, entitled “Aphorism in Twentieth-Century Narrative Prose in French: Theoretical Considerations,” Bell provides a thorough, theoretically grounded, current, and clear exposition of his subject, reaching conclusions that are central to the later chapters, notably, that it is not only the truth expressed in the aphorism, but where and how it occurs in the text, that produces meaning: “The main thrust here is not to ‘monumentalize’ but to analyze the behavior of aphorism within narrative” (35). Although it is somewhat odd that a book devoted to French-language writers relies so often in this chapter on German theorists and examples, the consideration of the subject provided here is enlightening. Its relevance to the rest of the book, however, is questionable. It is true that later chapters draw on some of the linguistic theories articulated in the theoretical chapter: for example, those of William Labov and Paul Hopper. However, inasmuch as the second chapter consists of some thirty pages (more than one quarter of the entire book, not counting the appendix), the theoretical elaboration that it supplies seems out of proportion with the literary analyses the rest of the book provides.

Chapters 3 to 9 follow a format consisting of a division into five parts: “Extratextual Considerations,” “The Narratological Consequence of Aphorism,” “Insights Gained from a Separate Listing of the Novel’s Aphorisms,” “The World of the Text,” and “Conclusion.” In the first part of each chapter, on one of his authors Bell sets the stage for his analysis of the novel by looking at other works by that author or by relevant critics or philosophers. In the second part, he focuses on how aphorisms fit into the narrative syntagma and what literary effects are thereby produced. The third part assesses the author’s use of aphorisms: how they are constructed and how they compare with the use of aphorisms by other authors such as French moralists or German philosophers. The fourth and fifth parts provide general statements about the worldview or meaning expressed in the novel. Hence, in the case of Saint-Exupéry’s Terre des hommes, aphorisms point to that author’s elitist humanism; or, in the case of Roy’s Alexandre Chenevert, to her related humanistic message from a feminist perspective.

A close look at chapter 7, which is devoted to Claude Simon’s La Route des Flandres, points up some of the particular problems that result from Bell’s approach and that characterize all of his analyses. Earlier, at the end of chapter 2, he justified the type of analysis provided in the subsequent chapters by saying that it might serve as a pre-reading exercise to allow the uninitiated reader to scan texts like Simon’s (which he calls “indecipherable”) for “topics chains” and “the essential substance of a text’s ‘world’” (36). To point out that such an approach emphasizes meaning in a way that goes against the very purpose of the new novel, with its insistence on language and the “jouissance du texte,” is to state the obvious. Indee, Bell acknowledges at the beginning of chapter 7 that his goal of “establishing meaning from this novel’s narrative sequences” (79) goes against the critical mainstream of Simon scholarship. It is hard to reverse that mainstream, however, in thirteen pages. Closer to the truth of what Bell is trying to do here is his statement that, although definitive meaning can’t be established, “there are certain ‘points’ to the story” (81). One can’t help but suspect, then, that the four pages of passages provided in the appendix represent an attempt to reduce the 314 pages of the novel to the main points.

In short, the nuanced linguistic, narratological, and literary considerations in the second chapter do not bear fruit in the analyses this book provides. Scholars concerned specifically with the workings of the aphorism will find much useful information in Bell’s book; but students and scholars interested more generally in the writers he studies will not gain new insights, either into the works or how to read twentieth-century novels.