Les Chercheurs D’histoire: The Historical Investigator In The Contemporary French Novel

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Romance Languages
21st Century French Literature
Contemporary French Literature
First-person Narrator
Historical Novel
investigative Literature
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This dissertation studies what I call the investigative historical novel, texts that, although about a historical subject, are told from the perspective of modern-day investigators who narrate their process as they piece together fragments of the past. Taking a transnational approach, I analyze novels that represent a variety of major historical events that occurred across the globe. The chapters are organized thematically according to the most prominent kind of historical trace being studied by the investigators as they carefully observe these physical manifestations of a historical real. The first chapter considers how the writer-historians in Dora Bruder, HHhH, and Le météorologue engage with archival documents, using the written fragments as the beginning of a dialogue with the historical subjects across time and space. In the second chapter, I argue that the investigators in Mémoires d’outre-mer and the Sic transit trilogy can be considered historians in the oldest sense; like Herodotus, they write what they see and hear. In these novels, the concrete material is the physical space itself, observed as the writer-investigators travel the same routes as their historical subjects. Using studies of the everyday, the third chapter analyzes how shameful family secrets directly affect the day-to-day lives of the investigators in Un roman russe, L’Origine de la violence, and Le village de l’Allemand ou le journal des frères Schiller. The final chapter studies the incorporation of oral history practices in Pas pleurer and La Seine était rouge; the investigators listen and piece together auditory traces of the past. With this dissertation, I examine one of the developments in contemporary French literature – the turning away from the realm of fabling or invention to focus more explicitly on the process of writing. Through the running meta-commentary offered by a historian-writer, the novels foreground the question of how to write about a true story when the historical details are limited. I argue that the texts find their literary dimension not in the invention of plot, but rather in the creative combination of historical fragments and the mise en scène of the writing process.

Gerald Prince
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