14 December 2014

Paule Constant: Confidence pour confidence (1998)

This is the novel which took many people by surprise and won the Prix Goncourt of 1998, easily defeating the book in my post below – Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires. It's also a novel which appears not to be among the most popular of the Goncourt winners.

The book depicts a huis clos in the imaginary town of Middleway, Kansas, in the black American academic Gloria Patter's house: briefly staying with her (on the occasion of a feminist symposium) are three other women in their late forties.

These are the Jewish Algerian professor Babette Cohen, who is also a settled in the United States; the French writer Aurore Amer, who has spent much time researching in Africa; and Lola Dohl, a washed-out Norwegian actress whose face betrays years of alcohol abuse.

There's a beginning and an end here but it's very digressive and the main interests are in the personal political dynamics of the situation and the details of the protagonists' past. There's also some amusement to be found here and I particularly enjoyed: Gloria's description of the way people avoid direct speaking today – well, at the time of writing at least – by making quotation marks with their fingers; Aurore saving Lola embarrassment by sending her back into the bathroom to undo her catastrophic face make-up; and Aurore's occasional friendship with the prostitute Leila and her mongrel dog.

It was interesting to learn that Paule Constant was in a huis clos experience herself some years previously, and that she was determined to introduce a take on the killing of a rat that happened at the time: not very pleasant, but after squeezing the sick rat to death Gloria lies and says that she's writing a novel called La mort-aux-rats. In fact the book she's (sort of) writing is to called African Woman, and for me this is the most amusing part of  Confidence pour confidence.

The writer Pierre Assouline claimed to have discovered that the novelist Calixthe Beyala had plagiarised passages of Constant's novel White Spirit (1989) in Assèze l'Africaine (1994). Defenders of Beyala speak of 'intertextuality', although Constant was aware of Beyala's book. In Confidence pour confidence, she has Gloria plagiarize the white Aurore's new and as yet unpublished novel by translating it into English as her own book.

Confidence pour confidence certainly has its moments. As Gloria says to Babette (and I translate): 'Who is plagiarizing whom? The Whites who are copying my Africa? It's not enough for them to have colonised our countries, now they're doing it to our books!'. (As a point of interest, Paule Constant spent some years in Africa, and her father was an Algerian pied-noir.)

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