Le Clézio’s first novel, published in 1963, The Interrogation received the Renaudot Prize, which propelled the 23-year old author onto the literary scene with the help of the media and his young and attractive face. The success story of a manuscript sent by mail to the prestigious publisher Gallimard could almost overshadow the analysis of the story, but rightly places The Interrogation as a book marked by excess, which, while defying a pompous style, does not skimp on the overkill. The character Adam Pollo is by its very onomastic linked as much to the first man and the original myth as to the Greek god Apollo, god of the sun accompanied by a rat, an animal that occupies a chapter of the novel. The density of this novel is compensated by blanks, ellipses, and erasures. The writer thus controls excess as much as aporia in a fragile balance, conducive to disorienting the active reader confronted with a first enigma offered by the preface-letter: is Adam a deserter or an escapee from the asylum? Whatever the answer, the alternative immediately places him as an outcast.


Images of Excess, Smoke Screens?


The frequency of parodies (mise en abyme detective story, dialogue worthy of a theater of the absurd) and explicit (Bible, Gospel, Sartre, Parmenides, Defoe, Manilius, Éluard) or implicit references (Camus, Kafka, Lautréamont, Nietzsche, Beckett) saturate the text. The demonstration of styles becomes accumulative, even borrowing from the 1960s fashion of collage by inserting a false press clipping, inserting a false literary readymade, or quoting pages from the notebook kept by Adam. The non-novel is in tune with the literary area of suspicion, and any excess, like a symptom, masks the slightest plot, the apprehension of a traditional character in favor of a chameleon-like man, hypersensitive and absorbing the sun. In this scorching August on the Mediterranean coast, between Nice and Carros, the all in all unrepresentable Adam is either a “disproportionate boy” (incipit), or “everywhere at once” (185), or “an agglomerate of cells” (230-231), or an addition of the three ages of childhood, young man and old man! Adam’s own behavior accentuates this effect of overflow, even though nothing but the most banal things happen – following a dog, going to the beach, the zoo, or the café – at first sight. This accentuation is presented in at least two ways: the first is linked to his imaginative faculty: “he was practicing imagining” (20); the second to his prophetic verve when he harangues the crowd before becoming aphasic. The first one favors the most surrealistic images, sometimes reviving childish terrors. The second seals Adam’s fate, arrested for disturbing the peace (is it the famous crime that the title could be announcing?) and sent to a psychiatric hospital.


A certain violence comes from this excess, despite the apparent non-event, or rather the uncertainty about the event, especially when it is recounted after the fact. Did he, for example, rape Michèle, or is it a fantasy? Other events do exist, but the narrative is not built in tension towards them. The focus is on the resulting effect: a drowned person, polluted water, waste. Even if the first sentence, “there was a little time”, is more than a simple pastiche, and it introduces from the outset a minor mode, there is indeed a progression in the passage to the act and the intensity of the aggressions: a supposed rape, a fight with an American, the murder of a rat. Everything seems to be under the rays of violence: excess of solicitations and advertising signs, of cathode tubes, of hypocrisy, of abstraction. The narrative generates abstraction by hyperreality or artificial derealization of the landscape thus described: “All had the conscientious aspect of a fabric in houndstooth, of an immense garden built according to the standards of the pleasure among beetles or snails.” (75) Oxymoron and change of scale all the more incongruous since the two preceding sentences speak of “the earth” and “the surface of the sea,” so infinite.


The “Novel” of Disappearance


Adam erases himself in a trashy way, “[...] exciting his mythological sense to a paroxysm, he surrounded himself with stones, with rubble; he would have liked to have all the detritus and garbage in the world to bury himself in [...]” (75). The ways to disappear are multiplied: the mystical way, the social disappearance in the stripping (to get rid of one’s belongings and to pass oneself off as dead), the regression to the mother’s womb or the reduction to the smallest entity, to be a grain of sand or in an oyster (314). Adam explores other possible disappearances: “he centered himself in the midst of matter, ashes, pebbles, and little by little became statuesque” (75). This image is followed by another, to live “like a block of ice from the North Pole” (94), then another still... A technique of centering is set up to live intensely in a material ecstasy, a confusion in the matter which neutralizes the intellectual mode to sharpen a state of “nervous knowledge of the matter.” (31) An entire mystical tradition can be mobilized here, as it is in the hippie context of the 1960s. But this dense vitality alternates with a morbid tendency. To empty oneself, then to fill oneself again with a reality that permeates him. Then to empty oneself again. Before speaking of an Icarian path, in its fatal linearity, it is necessary to admit that the patterns repeat themselves. And this cycle is marked by an “aggressive nihilism” (Onimus, 30).


The novel thus cultivates paradoxes; from overload to discharge and trash, and then to disappearance. Discharge could be understood as a search for decompensation, for it is also a question of an experience of madness in which a detail becomes paroxysmal: “Sometimes cars would pass in single file, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the black metal would burst like a bomb, a spiral flash would shoot out of the hood and cause the whole hill to blaze and bend” (21). Human trash and detritus are sprinkled throughout the novel: various corpses, poem on dust and ashes, list of garbage (190), (one notes that Le Clézio knows the school of Nice, the New Realists, Arman, Ben, Spoerri), liquid secretions, urine, blood...


The excess is signaled as such by the necessity to include crossed out text, which nevertheless leaves what has been crossed out legible, like a palimpsest. The doubling of the narrative instance between a non-omniscient and omnipresent narrator (Salles, 1996) favors a variety of types of texts (mother’s letter, diary, dialogue, speech) where, in spite of everything, Adam’s gaze and imaginative power dominate. This delirious imagination is sometimes suddenly defused by Adam’s behaviorist-style disaffection when he describes objects or his own motion (walking as if in slow motion, the placement of two chairs). Everything converges little by little towards a shrinking of Adam’s own true life space to “contain” his hallucinations, so much the banal becomes animated in an unusual or fantastic way. Should we assume Adam’s madness when we read: “[...] by dint of seeing the world, the world had gone out of his eyes” (91)? Again, the overflow calls for the hollowing out, the “Ob-scenity of what, [is] placed, before me, ends up turning against me” (Fougère, 2017). He can also call upon his passion for geometry to “square the chaos” (Tritsmans, 1990).

The narrative “structure” can be compared to the journey of Icarus (Waelti-Walters, 1981), from sunburned Adam going down the hill to becoming “a lake bird, feathers plastered to his skin” (311). Being done with expanding or fleeing, Adam will be put in solitary confinement, in the shade, far from the burning sun. And the aporias, the breaks and the holes, will emerge even more. From the title, the language is faulty. Its most elementary tool, the alphabet, is also lacking. Each chapter begins with a letter A, B, C but stops at P, forgets the Q, starts again at R and then stops again. The language itself is broken since Adam becomes aphasic in the last pages of the book. In any case, the common language is impotent, indigent to give an account of reality. Only the poet can extricate himself from reality to find the strength of the common language. The hole in the alphabet, the ceiling of his cell that was pierced by dripping blood, but above all the amnesia un procès-verbal that Adam manifests are the clues that, in this puzzle-novel, there is a piece missing. And this piece slips away, so much a derision is at play, a way of not taking itself seriously. Moreover, the initial title was “Procès-verbal d’une catastrophe chez les fourmis,” (Minutes of an Ant Disaster), which is also the title that Adam notes on a page torn from his notebook.


Solipsism and Relationships with Otherness


Adam writes in a notebook to Michèle and the rest of the time he walks on the beach and in the city or squats in a house on the hill; micro-events, without causing a break, entertain from his idleness. His de-individualization is not so much due to a lack of thickness as to metamorphoses that prevent any grasp and make him sometimes floating, “soft” (311), sometimes “a prehistoric creature” (311), in any case in a state of regression. Although he is a strong communicator, Adam is also caught in a lack of relationship because of his disturbances, from monologue to silence: mythomaniac with Michèle, logorrheic with the crowd, or without answer for his mother. The preface-letter warned us against the rancid psychology. To interpret the letter from Adam’s mother, which present the clichés of an authoritarian and angry father, as a case of Oedipus complex would be misleading. Critical readings have not failed to question Adam’s behaviors (schizophrenic? paranoid?), taking over from the psychiatric experts (paranoid!) There is a Freudian reading (Poulet, 2008) analyzing “the cleavage of the ego, that is to say the coexistence within the ego of two contradictory and well separated attitudes towards external reality: one that recognizes it, the other that denies its existence in favor of the drive demands.” One can also look at a reading from Didier Anzieu’s concept of skin-self (Le Moi-Peau, Dunod, 1993 ; Roussel-Gillet, 2004) to understand Adam’s porous self, exploring the desire to understand the animality (Fougère, 2017) or even the becoming-animal of Adam (dog, lioness, rat). The graphic version of the novel by Edmond Baudoin accounts for this confusion of the human not only in the animal kingdom but also in the mineral and plant kingdoms. Analyses inspired by Bachelard, Durand, or Jung characterize then these reveries of intimacy, notably those of the burial, of the “desire to dig dens” (25). The hyper-coenesthetic develops a phenomenological relationship to the flesh of the world, which can be assimilated to an alchemical work, to “l’œuvre au noir” (trial by earth) to find a lost unity (Bachand, 2009).


Wounded Generation


The first name Adam directs us towards myth, away from historical readings. Yet, despite strategies to evacuate any blind spot, (“He had become a memory, and the angles of blindness, where the facets touch, were so rare that his consciousness was, as it were, spherical. It was the place, adjacent to total vision, where it happens that one can no longer live [...].” (91)), the blind spot of French society in those years was indeed the Algerian War that traumatized French youth (Roussel-Gillet, 2016). Le Clézio saw his friends leave and not return. He sows clues to this trauma when Adam speaks of a war that Michèle assures him does not exist in school textbooks. Amnesiac, Adam evokes for all that bombs, cannons, “that makes beautiful holes three hundred meters farther, holes not too dirty, which make puddles, after, when it rains.” (65) On the surface, it can be inferred from the reading of the book that to escape this war, young Frenchmen tried to pass themselves off as crazy.


The whole strategy consists in bringing to extremes the explosive and the withdrawal, the burning and the ice, which activates contradictory tensions: “Everything was so white under the light that it could have been black [...]” (238). Anything taken to its extreme can lead to its opposite. Reality thus seems unstable when reality remains a force of life. And to experience reality, a new writing must be presented in its raw state. This is what Le Clézio explained during his interviews: his first book, a revolt against writing and literature, answered a need for derision and sarcasm. He belonged to a generational state of mind marked by a “mixture of aggressiveness and derision” (Amette, 2006) in view of what one called then “the events”. In this context, literature cannot console but put the reader on alert.

As soon as the writer reflects on literature and language, he aims at destroying a form of literature, and at exhibiting new codes. The apparent affinities with the New Novel (the importance of objects, the simultaneity of emotions recorded by this seismograph, the real movement of thought, the absence of a linear or realistic narrative) function as decoys. If the New Novel is devoid of clues of engagement or interpellation of the reader, then the letter-preface departs from it. Just as the narrative warns us against “that bastard culture” (305) with which this first text is nevertheless saturated. Adam’s final incarceration may testify to the coercive system described by Foucault or incriminate hypocritical French society. The clues and lures maintain throughout the novel a sense of uncertainty. We see uncertainties of a wild but vulnerable youth caught between a society that it finds repugnant – absurd, at war, greedy for consumption – and a vitalism of matter, which makes it possible to live poetically within the world. The youth of the 60s revolted against systems, dreaming of a world of “peace and love.” This book prefigures the dynamite of 1968; it remains, however, of a crucial topicality, against the established systems, for an ecology of the living, which “never capitulates in front of the real” (EM, 140) and puts us in the unison with more archaic, more necessary vibrations.


Isabelle Roussel-Gillet

Translated by Thierry Léger






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