Where Do Stories Begin and End? The Example Of Marc Petit

David J. Bond, University of Saskatchewan

Among the comments that critics make about Marc Petit's fiction, there are many flattering comparisons to other writers, including Kafka, Rimbaud, Trakl, Borges, Sue, Verne, Arnim, and the brothers Grimm.[1] This shows the high regard in which his work is held, but it also underlines the fact that much of Petit's work calls to mind other writers, literary movements, and specific texts. There is an important element of parody in nearly all that Petit has written.

La Compagnie des indes (The Indies Company) tells the adventures of a naive young Scotsman who sails to India, takes part in the wars there between the French and the English, then travels to France and becomes involved in the Revolution.[2] It is strongly reminiscent of the picaresque novel, for its hero is unsure of his true parents, learns through harsh experience to come to terms with a cruel world, and is obliged to live off his wits. The hero, whose name is Flodoard, points directly to the picaresque when he claims that his adventures are "more wonderful than those of Gil Blas de Santillane" (Compagnie 315). To some extent this novel is a parody of a parody, for it constantly reminds the reader of Candide as the hero leaves the protected life of a castle, wanders around India observing pointless but bloody battles between the French and the English, discovers a land of apparent peace and enlightenment in the mountains, and finds that this is only an appearance. La Compagnie des indes is also a conte philosophique with much to say about the human condition, and a parody of the extraordinary adventures and coincidences of the seventeenth-century adventure novel.

Ouroboros (Ouroboros), an enormous novel of some five hundred pages, is also reminiscent of a picaresque novel. Its characters wander the world, experiencing adventures and seeking answers to their questions. The fact that much of it is set in seventeenth-century Germany amidst the cruelty and fanaticism of religious wars makes the reader think at once of Grimmelshausen's Simplicius Simplicissimus. One of the characters, Andréas, is, like Voltaire's hero Candide, an innocent young man who leaves home and has to come to grips with an inexplicable world of cruelty and chaos. The characters' optimism and belief in an order behind this chaos is constantly contradicted by events. The burning of heretics recalls scenes in Simplicissimus and the auto-da-fé in Candide.

Le Nain géant (The Giant Dwarf), set in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, is the tale of an inventor of mechanical toys and automata who bequeaths to his son something that he calls a nain géant. The son, Benjamin, has to outwit his brother and various villains to find this object and discover what exactly it is. The atmosphere of mystery, the twists of plot, and the melodrama remind one of a nineteenth-century feuilleton. Chases through the streets at night and through the sewers recall Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo, and the police inspector named Juvert is an obvious allusion to Javert in Les Misérables. The detective novel is explicitly evoked when Benjamin, in his search for clues to the hiding place of the nain géant, compares himself to "a character in a real detective story, like the ones that are coming into fashion on the other side of the Channel and in America" (Nain 119).

There is also something of the detective novel in Le Troisième Faust (The Third Faust), in which an American journalist named Lucian Blackwell worms his way into Goethe's house in search of a third part of Faust. Even more clearly modeled on detective fiction is La Morenada (The Morenada), the story of a man called Lutzel who arrives in La Paz in search of a Nazi war criminal by the name of Schwarz. Continually thwarted by other characters whose identity he is unsure of, misled by false clues and unsure if Schwarz even exists, Lutzel makes a rather poor detective. At times, this novel is more reminiscent of Kafka, as Lutzel hunts for answers in a city whose geography he never really fathoms and in which he has to find his way without even the aid of a map. More clearly inspired by Kafka, however, is "Le Chemin du vieux château" ("The Road to the Old Castle"), a short story in Histoires à n'en plus finir (Endless Stories), in which a man searches for the remains of a castle while people living nearby merely give enigmatic or hostile responses to his questions.

L'Utopie du docteur Kakerlak (Doctor Kakerlak's Utopia) is set in a psychiatric hospital in a police state. The chief psychiatrist and his assistant (the narrator) take a young couple who are autistic and try to create the beginning of a new race of people devoid of language. When this experiment is clearly about to fail, they decide instead to cure the two patients and achieve medical fame. There are elements of science fiction and of political satire in this novel. It also contains something of the detective novel in its surprise ending. Satisfied that the patients are cured, the hospital releases them, and, at this point, we discover that the patients were merely pretending to be autistic to escape political persecution. The young man is the narrator's nephew, and the narrator has manipulated the whole experiment in order to achieve the release of the two "patients."

Architecte des glaces (Ice Architect) is the story of Lévinsky, a builder of ice palaces at the Imperial Russian Court, who flees to Zurich to escape persecution, returns to Russia at the time of the Revolution, and is executed by the Bolsheviks. This nouvelle stands out in Petit's production because it contains very little parody, the only element of this being Lévinsky's nihilistic attitude to art, which reflects that of the Dada movement, with which he was associated for some time.

In addition to parody of this kind, Petit's fiction frequently contains direct references or thinly veiled allusions to other writers or works. This is most obvious in Le Troisième Faust, in which Goethe is a character and Faust is often mentioned. There is also a kind of reflection of the plot of Faust in that Lucian Blackwell (whose name recalls Lucifer) is employed by a Mr. Jove (a man with almost divine power) to tempt Goethe to reveal the whereabouts of his manuscript. In La Morenada, Lutzel's situation is compared by another character to that of Camus's Sisyphus. "Conversation sur la banquise" ("Conversation on the Ice Flow," Histoires) contains allusions to Karen Blixen. L'Utopie du docteur Kakerlak refers to Fenimore Cooper, Romeo and Juliet, and Sleeping Beauty. Often, the allusions are to folklore or myth. In L'Utopie du docteur Kakerlak, the attempt to create a new race from an "innocent" couple recalls the Garden of Eden story, and the apparent infatuation of the narrator for the young woman whom he creates anew, as it were, resembles that of Pygmalion for his creation. The Garden of Eden myth reappears in Ouroboros when Coronna takes an uneducated peasant, puts him in a beautiful garden and observes his development. The expulsion of Andréas and Coronna from home in this novel, and of Flodoard in Compagnie des indes, recalls the expulsion from Paradise. In Architecte des glaces, there are further biblical overtones when Lévinsky creates a Tower of Babel out of ice. The rivalry of the two brothers in Le Nain géant, especially for the affections of the same girl, is also an old story that appears in countless forms.

Despite these constant references and parodies, it would be wrong to dismiss Petit as nothing more than a clever parodist who likes to amuse the literate reader in search of allusions to other works. Petit has given much thought to literary creation, and has produced two books of a theoretical nature: Manies et Germanies (Manias and Germanias) and Éloge de la fiction (Praise of Fiction). He believes that writing fiction is a "serious" business, and he has said: "What is the point of taking up the pen if it is not in the hope of eventually learning a little more about life and the meaning of things than when we started?" (Éloge 110). So the question that arises is: why does Petit fill his fiction with these allusions and parodies?

One answer is that Petit's work shows a typically modern desire to point out that he is writing fiction. It is a self-conscious designation of his texts as literary texts. He has written that he wants to create a "new fiction" that makes no pretensions to anything but "a product of the imagination," and which "unlike ordinary fiction, at no time disguises its fictional nature" (Éloge 108). Parody, then, would be one way of indicating that his texts are literary artifacts that belong to, and borrow from, a particular tradition. But there is more to Petit's texts than this metafictional impulse. They are actually part of a continuing inquiry into the nature of fiction, and especially into its origins and where it ends.

In Manies et germanies and Éloge de la fiction, Petit traces the development of fiction back from its current forms, through bourgeois realism, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths. He also examines the theories of Herder, Goethe, Arnim, and Jacob Grimm on the origins of fiction. He is forced to conclude after this search that he is still unable to locate exactly where stories begin, for "as we draw nearer to the origin, it escapes from us, broken into countless pieces" (Manies 108). What is clear is that the origins of fiction are situated in the very distant past, and this poses a serious problem for the storyteller, who often feels that he or she is so much a part of an age-old tradition that it is impossible to put an individual stamp on it. "Although we may believe that we are creating," Petit writes, "we do no more than participate in a tradition, often simply because we write in a certain language that existed before us and will outlast us" (Manies 215). As one of Petit's poems puts it: "He who wants to go on speaking / finds only the endless repetition of the survivor" (Le Temps des traces [The Time of Traces] 123).

Several of Petit's own pieces of fiction point to the fact that all tales have their origin in something that preceded them. The story told in "Conversation sur la banquise" (Histoires), as one of the characters points out, has its origins in one by Karen Blixen. The narrator of "Histoire du nègre blanc" (Story of the White Negro, Histoires) learns that the mysterious story of the nègre blanc that he hears from his grandfather has been told with variations for generation after generation. In "Rue de la Mort" (Street of Death, Histoires), the English novelist Kipling claims that all stories have already been told, and he compares himself to Scheherazade, who had to pretend that every story she told was a new one, but who was really telling old ones on which she merely embroidered. "Whether the story is sad or happy, it has, in effect, already been written," Kipling concludes (Histoires 249). An example from Petit's own experience seems to confirm what his characters discover about the beginnings of stories. At the end of Troisième Faust, the author intervenes to explain that, having written this novel, he discovered a story by Wilhelm Hauff, written in 1825, in which a representative of the devil calls on Goethe. An illustration in this work shows the devil accompanied by an American.

Sometimes Petit and his characters are led to wonder if there is one original story behind all others. The narrator of "Histoire du nègre blanc" belongs to a people who believes that its traditional tales "went back to the age of the first texts, to the one and only Book that has nourished all the nations of the earth" (Histoires 166). In "Schéhérazade" (Scheherazade, Histoires), the young Gypsy girl is obliged to tell a story every night to the Gestapo officer who has promised that he will kill her once she runs out of stories. Despite the many tales that she produces, she too concludes that "there is only one story" (Histoires 271). The old Jewish prisoner in the Nazi camp described in "Le revizor de Lubomir" (The Inspector from Lubomir, Histoires) tells the narrator a story, and, when the latter asks for more, he explains: "I only know this story … but the ten thousand others are contained within it" (Histoires 116). One critic says of the characters of Petit's short stories that they are searching for "an endless story behind the eternal illusion of words."[3]

Petit compares the original stories that lie behind all others to a recipe. Subsequent individuals make variations in the recipe and change the ingredients, but it remains recognizably the same. However, there is a limited number of these "recipes" and "[t]he cuisine has remained palaeolithic. Nothing has changed much since Homer, Imkotep and Lascaux" (Éloge 42). Ysalguier, one of the characters gathered in a medieval chateau in "La Nuit du sorcier" (The Night of the Sorcerer, Histoires), compares stories to pottery vessels. He goes on: "No two vessels are the same, but no two vessels are different" (328). Even the many versions of Schwarz's disappearance that Lutzel hears or the stories told to Benjamin about the nain géant are variations on a given theme. Yozar, the Indonesian storyteller, points out that stories belong to no specific individual. They are passed from person to person, changing all the time, but are still the same: "It's not a single cry, the opinion of one man. A story isn't the property of one individual, it isn't the property of the one who tells it. Who does tell it? Not the one who is telling it." (Histoires 311). Stories never end, an idea conveyed by the very title of Histoires à n'en plus finir, which means "endless stories."

Because they are continually repeated, albeit with variations, stories are essentially circular in nature, for they come back to the same basic elements and the same starting points. This circularity is hinted at by the title of Ouroboros, which is a reference to the mythical snake that bites its own tail. Andréas makes this point when he says of art: "And the game resumes: words lead to words; the circle is completed; art is like the snake that bites its tail" (Ouroboros 401). Within this novel are other circular elements: Quirinus steals from Andréas, his spiritual father, just as Andréas stole from his real father; Andréas adopts a way of life that is identical to that of his spiritual father, Barvus; each of the main characters repeats the error of believing he or she can find a solution to the ills that they encounter. La Compagnie des indes contains similar patterns, for Flodoard keeps telling the story of his life, beginning each time with the same words (which are also the opening words of the novel). The dance in which Lutzel is caught up during a carnival progresses in endless circles, and it is compared to "[a] long snake [that] seems to chase its own tail" (Morenada 225). Lévinsky begins his career as a builder of ice palaces when, as a child, he constructs a Tower of Babel to rival a neighbor's snowman, and his last great construction is a Tower of Babel built in ice for a film magnate.

The idea that there is nothing new in fiction, and that all tales repeat previous ones, is reinforced by the many secondary stories embedded within the main one. In Ouroboros, Andréas falls in with a group of traveling entertainers who tell stories; Ludo, the main storyteller of the group, recounts his adventures when he later meets Andréas again; the significantly named Ésope also spins tales. The very structure of La Compagnie des indes is based on that of the picaresque novel, in which characters meet new and old acquaintances, who then tell the stories of their lives. The novel actually begins with the adventures of Flodoard's uncle, John Law; Flodoard recounts his own life several times; and among the others who tell their own story are the Breton sailor, the two young women with whom Flodoard falls in love, and the mysterious Martin. In Le Nain géant Benjamin reads the diaries describing his mother's meeting with his father, reads the lives of several famous inventors of automata, hears from a museum keeper the life of another inventor, is told the Jewish legend of the golem, and learns about his father's youthful travels. The two "autistic" characters in L'Utopie du docteur Kakerlak virtually invent a fiction about themselves to deceive the head of the psychiatric hospital. One may see an image of these stories-within-stories in the strange jewel box given to Flodoard, which contains inside it a whole series of smaller boxes.

These techniques illustrate the fact that there is no apparent beginning or end to tales. "But we can see quite clearly," writes Petit, "that one story leads to another, and the other to a third one, and so on" (Manies 215). Stories are closely linked to time, for they are read or told chronologically, have a beginning and an end, yet continually start again. Like time, they are endlessly flowing, and Petit says of fiction: "What is this phenomenon that develops like time, from beginning to end, and which nevertheless, like time, escapes from itself because it is both beginning and end, momentary and endless?" (Manies 216).

Given this view of fiction, it is evident that the element of parody in Petit's work is not just parody of particular writers, styles, or literary movements. It is one device, among several others, to point out that all stories have already been told, that "new" tales are really variations of old ones, that they are all circular in that they are repeated in subsequent versions. This being the case, why hide that one is writing the same old story? The writer may as well, through parody, openly admit that this has been said or done before.

This may seem a rather restricted and restricting view of fiction that greatly limits the scope and the freedom of the individual storyteller. This is not the case, however, for Petit argues that, within limits, there is considerable room for the individual to create various versions of a given tale. The variations on a theme, although they may resemble one another, are limitless. Stories go on forever, are repeated and changed throughout time, and Petit writes that "fiction is nothing more than this: a never-ending interpretation" (Éloge 57). "La Confession d'un géant du siècle" (Confession of a Giant of the Century, Histoires) is a retelling of King Kong, but, as the narrator says, "one book leads to another, and this one to another, and so on" (485). Flodoard, like Scheherazade, puts off his death by telling stories to Fouquier Tinville's wife, working variations on the story of his own life, knowing that he can never exhaust his subject. "And the story goes on its way," he says, "infinite and continuing to the end of time" (Compagnie 320). The various versions of the same facts given by the characters who mislead Lutzel, by those who help or deceive Flodoard, and by the fake police inspector in Le Nain géant, all demonstrate how the individual may embroider and interpret the same basic "plot." As the inspector puts it: "One is free to give several accounts of any one event, just as one may produce several commentaries of any one text" (Nain 338). Even the most contradictory versions are possible, or, to quote Flodoard's uncle: "There is not a tale, however plausible it may be, that cannot be contradicted by another tale" (Compagnie 148).

The reader and listener too have a role to play in this process. Petit argues in "Si l'on pouvait raconter une histoire" (If One Could Tell a Story) that, starting from the text that is read, the reader is free to give an almost limitless number of interpretations, and "there are as many new stories based on an author's text as there are readers of it" (332). Once the writer has finished, the story passes to the reader, and "at that moment, it is the reader who takes it up" ("Si l'on pouvait" 338). Above all others, that particular kind of reader known as the literary critic also interprets and invents from the text that he or she reads. "In my opinion," Petit writes, "criticism must be a form of fiction" ("Si l'on pouvait" 350). The critic is "an author himself, always obliged to improvise" (Manies 7).

Petit argues that reader and writer, teller and listener, creator and critic are all bound up in the same text, exchanging roles and becoming one. This is why boundaries between life and art, fact and fiction frequently blur in Petit's work. Many of his characters who invent tales find themselves in other characters' stories. The two "autistic" patients invent a "story" about themselves, then become "characters" in the psychiatrist's plan for them, but the latter, in his turn, is manipulated and becomes part of the patients' "plot." Lutzel, Benjamin, and Flodoard are manipulated by characters who turn them, as it were, into characters in a tale of their own invention. Petit himself becomes a character in some of his fiction, in which he appears under the transparent pseudonym of Mardochée Klein. This Klein writes a footnote to Manies et Germanies (222), appears as a librarian in Le Nain géant, is the narrator of La Morenada, and is entrusted with Lévinsky's manuscript in Architecte des glaces (to which he writes a conclusion, and of which he may be the "real" author). The writer, Petit says, sees in his or her own texts "that inverted image of himself: a literary character" (Manies 176).

Petit's characters often wonder where reality ends and the story begins. Andréas asks: "Who is dreaming of existing, who is part of a dream?" (Ouroboros 211). Perhaps the most fundamental question of all is asked by Corona, who says: "Who knows in whose work I am a character?" (Ouroboros 500). If stories have no end, if they begin with time itself, if the borders between the tale and what lies beyond it are indistinct, perhaps life itself is a story. If this is so, then are we not all characters in a story?


1. See Lionel Richard, "La Chasse à l'hermine. Marc Petit," Le Magazine Littéraire 196 (June 1983): 48; Paul-Jean Franceschine, "Les Farfadets du cosmos," L'Express 2168 (Jan. 1993): 62-63; Bernard Fauconnier, "Herr Klein," Le Magazine Littéraire 308 (March 1993): 64.
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2. I have used the following texts by Marc Petit, all of which are published in Paris: Le Temps des traces (Éditions Pierre Oswald, 1976); La Morenada (Seuil, 1979); Ouroboros (Fayard, 1989); "Si l'on pouvait raconter une histoire," La Nouvelle Fiction, ed. Jean-Luc Moreau (Criterion, 1992); Le Troisième Faust (Stock, 1994); Architecte des glaces (Folio, 1995); Manies et Germanies (Stock, 1996); Le Nain géant (Stock, 1996); La Compagnie des indes (Stock, 1998); Histoires à n'en plus finir (Stock, 1998); Éloge de la fiction (Fayard, 1999); L'Utopie du docteur Kakerlak (Fayard, 2000). All translations from these works, including their titles, are mine; references to these works are to these editions and are cited in the text in parentheses.
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3. Richard 48.
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