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Review of  L'Ironie: formes et enjeux d'une écriture contemporaine

Reviewer: Sabina Tabacaru
Book Title: L'Ironie: formes et enjeux d'une écriture contemporaine
Book Author: Didier Alexandre
Publisher: Classiques Garnier Numérique
Linguistic Field(s): Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 25.2424

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This volume is a collection of articles on irony in contemporary French literature, discussing the forms and functions irony plays by analyzing it in relation to modern writers and modern society.

The volume begins with Didier Alexandre and Pierre Schoentjes' analysis (“Le point sur l'ironie contemporaine”), surveying major points about irony in French contemporary literature (1980-2010). They present an overview of the use of irony in the literature written after the Nouveau Roman, a phenomenon which is not strictly French (as shown by articles here which often refer to foreign novels). Regarding the role irony plays in contemporary literature, they emphasize how starting with writers such as Philippe Hamon, irony has been used to serve different aims. Moreover, it replaces the serious tone of previous literary works. Finally, they come up with four categories of irony found in the works of authors discussed in this collection: playful, postmodern (with American elements), philosophical, and black.

René Audet's analysis titled “Une poétique illusionniste” treats irony in the novels of Chevillard and Langelier. On the one hand, the author focuses on Chevillard's strong verbal irony, the way the situations and the characters in his novels are clearly ironic, as well as his use of multiple intertextual references. On the other hand, he compares Chevillard's work to Langelier's, whose irony is not verbal, but whose ironic style creates gaps in the discourse in order to mock the psych-pop culture. The author thus notes the rich implications and the dynamic of texts that adopt this ironic reflection.

Olivier Bansard-Banquy writes an overview of current French literature in “Écrits vains. De la futilité des lettres aujourd'hui”, commenting that “nothing is to be taken seriously anymore” (p. 33, my translation). He compares contemporary literature to earlier work, and sees this new trend as a kind of entertainment, that has not preserved anything from the values and style of classical writers. In his view, this type of literature follows the same template, combining irony and self-deprecatory humor. In modern society, literature is only a product, and the purpose is to sell.

On a similar note, Bruno Blanckeman's article “L'ironie dans l'œuvre romanesque de Michel Houellebecq” refers to the literary work of Houellebecq, whose irony is mixed with satire. This satire is inspired by the classical view, but it depicts modern society as well as modern characters and should not be taken at face value. The purpose of irony in these novels is to highlight ridicule of contemporary society. Blanckeman shows how Houellebecq uses the influence of 19th century French literature in order to deride everything that is happening to his characters.

Vicky Colin discusses femininist issues in the work of Darrieussecq (“L'ironie dans les romans de Marie Darrieussecq”). Particularly, she analyzes three novels written by Darrieussecq (“Truismes”, “La Naissance des fantômes” and “Tom est mort”), which present lost and lonely women. Irony is dramatic because it brings into focus the pain that these women endure. They isolate themselves and this allows ironic distancing, because these women try to understand what is happening to them. Colin concludes that “irony does not underline anxiety ... It does not calm, but feeds the crisis” these women encounter (p. 76, my translation).

Tara Collington examines types of irony in the work of Nothomb (“La «scène» de l'ironie chez Amélie Nothomb”). According to her the author uses four types of irony (verbal, situational, intertextual, and auto-referential), for which she gives lengthy descriptions. Generally, this classification highlights the incongruity that irony creates, for instance, between what is said and what is meant. Irony is seen as a play because society itself is nothing but a “theater” (cf. Hamon 1996).

Irina de Herdt chooses Quignard's novels (“Vœu de silence”, “Petits traités “and “Dernier royaume”) to talk about humor and, particularly, verbal irony in “Une gêne rhétorique à l'égard de l'ironie”. Similar to Collington's analysis, she also mentions an incongruity between two incompatible meanings. But generally, it is the idea of discomfort and awkwardness that best describes Quignard's work. She follows Quignard's development as a writer through these novels in order to show how irony openly allows an idea of rhetorical discomfort.

In “Mauvaise foi narratologique dans deux romans de Jean-Philippe Toussaint”, Laurent Demoulin evaluates two novels by Toussaint (“La Télévision” and “La Vérité sur Marie”), focusing on the narrator's bad faith and the author's irony that comes from watching the former lie to himself. Again, as noted above, irony comes from a certain incongruity between different situations. Demoulin also points out the differences between narrator and author, looking at clear examples drawn from the two novels.

In “Les ironies post-exotiques : essai de topographie d'espaces instables”, Joëlle Gleize addresses disaster humor with the work of different novelists (Bassmann, Draeger and Volodine). The main question is how to explain the “strange” side of post-exotic irony. This style refers to disasters and resistance, where humor has the role of creating a distance between the stories that are told and the narrator.

In “«Ça va v'nir pis ça va v'nir». Autorité narrative et prophéties postmodernes dans Tarmac de Nicolas Dickner et La Logeuse d'Éric Dupont” Stéphane Larrivée and Andrée Mercier analyze French Canadian literature, focusing on two novelists: Dickner (“Tarmac”) and Dupont (“La logeuse”). These two writers build their contribution around the idea of apocalypse and predictions, where irony is used in order to put things into perspective. Moreover, Larrivée and Mercier examine the different voices and roles of narrators in the two novels.

Katrien Liévois reviews irony in African literature in the works of Tansi, Kourouma, and Mabanckou (“D'une ironie francophone à une ironie-monde ? Formes et enjeux de l'ironie chez Labou Tansi, Kourouma et Mabanckou”). Although these three authors opt for different types of irony (dark in Tansi's work, philosophical in Kourouma's, and, finally, postmodern in Mabanckou's novels), they all bring into line parts of African history, by mixing different verbal styles, intertextual references and satire.

In “Ironie pour endurer la saison froide”, Anne Roche considers irony in Senges' “Fragments de Lichtenberg”. Generally, the novel comprises numerous satirical and distorted elements as well as rich meta-textual references. Even if irony is a way of putting things into perspective and creating a gap before historical catastrophes, Roche also provides a precise analysis of the rich implications in this novel.

Toussaint's work is again analyzed by Gianfranco Rubino who points out his situational and verbal irony in “Parcours de l'ironie chez Jean-Philippe Toussaint”. These techniques are humorous and comical, but also mirror a touching side to Toussaint's novels. Notably, Rubino follows Toussaint's development as a writer throughout his novels, and discusses the change in his literary strategy.

In “L'ironie contemporaine de la fugue à la fantaisie. Chevillard au risque de l'ironie” Pierre Schoentjes discusses the work of Chevillard (“Le Vaillant petit tailleur”) by comparing it to Tournier's. It is shown that irony in these novels is based on allusions and references that readers have to recognize and that build an affinity between the author and the readers. Moreover, he considers some of these references, concluding that they are accessible enough for readers to be able to 'play the game'.

Jia Zhao analyzes the work of Echenoz in “L'ironie du sort dans Le Méridien de Greenwich d'Échenoz”, by discussing the theme of irony of fate. Through a comparison to Greek tragedy, Zhao manages to nicely show how modern individuals have replaced Greek heroes. Hence, in Echenoz's work, the modern society that he so openly mocks (with its absurd situations and its bureaucracy) has replaced classical tragedy.

Finally, in her article “L'ironie tragique des vies ordinaires. Dans la foule de Laurent Mauvignier”, Sarah Sindaco focuses on Mauvignier's novel “Dans la foule”. She discusses situational, but also verbal irony, as well as mockery of national stereotypes. It is the incongruity between surprising situations that is at work, and Sindaco quotes Muecke (1969: 102) in order to define this as irony of events: “the ironic incongruity ... between the expectation and the event”. What is more, she examines the diverse ironic techniques used by the different narrators in the novel.

The book also contains an author index, as well as abstracts of the articles in this volume and presentations of the authors.

This volume raises important issues concerning contemporary irony. Notably, as pointed out by Alexandre and Schoentjes from the beginning (p. 13), the purpose of this volume is not to define irony, but to go beyond a simple definition of the term. Addressing irony allows pointing out its rich meanings and purposes. These articles do not only show an overview of irony in different novels, but also see the profound links and connections this writing technique implies.

Furthermore, given the growing interest in this topic (in linguistics, psychology, and so on), this volume provides a much-needed study of irony in modern French literature. It presents an in-depth analysis, addressing the issue of forms and aims, and using rich references to contemporary literature worldwide. Besides, it often goes back and forth with references to classical novels that help compare the development of the writing technique. By focusing on novels written in French (i.e., not just from France, but Africa and Canada as well), it shows the link between all these recent literary works, irony. The lengthy analyses of irony throughout the volume allow seeing the phenomenon more explicitly and acknowledge its importance nowadays.

All in all, this volume is highly recommended to anyone interested in irony and literature. As Schoentjes (p. 223) remarks, it is inconceivable today to discuss contemporary literature without also finding a place for irony. Several chapters focus on the same authors from different perspectives, which adds to the book's substance. The book is accessible, with examples from the contemporary works under discussion, as well as clear outlines of the main characters and the plot. The analyses of the ironic situations are well presented and provide invaluable insight into the phenomenon.

Hamon, P. 1996. L'Ironie littéraire. Essais sur les formes de l'écriture oblique. Paris: Hachette.

Muecke, D.C. 1969. The Compass of Irony. London: Methuen.
Sabina Tabacaru is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Lille 3 (France) and K.U. Leuven (Belgium). She is currently preparing a dissertation on a cognitive and multi-modal approach to humor and sarcasm. Apart from humor theories and Cognitive Linguistics, her research interests include discourse analysis, pragmatics, semantics, and psycholinguistics.