Fellow 1998-99

Armine Kotin Mortimer


Professor of french, criticism, and interpretive

A faculty member at UIUC since 1974, Professor Mortimer has conducted research on the French narrative literature of several periods. Her Center project, Writing Realism: French Representations of Reality in Literature, stems from a long-established thread in her research that connects the majority of her articles and her four previous books, all of which sought to promote a better understanding of literature in general. Since her 1991 Plotting to Kill, she has focused on the mimetic illusion—the belief that events we read about can actually happen, that characters behave like real people, and so on. Her objective is to show how writing creates the mimetic illusion—the representation of reality—in French narrative. The topic goes to the heart of the matter: what literature does, how and why it produces its “magic,” and how it affects the reader. She has chosen novels and a collection of tales in which writing has a central role. Because these works foreground writing and treat it as a theme or subject matter, they offer singular insights into the writing of the novels themselves. Characters write letters to each other in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses and in Balzac’s Mémoires de Deux Jeunes Mariées and Modeste Mignon. In Diderot’s La Religieuse, a nun cloistered against her will addresses the text of her memoirs to a nobleman who may be able to save her. The protagonist of Philippe Sollers’ Femmes is writing a novel also called Femmes, the realism of which is anchored in Soller’s life. In Le Livre Brisé, Serge Doubrovsky models his protagonist strictly on his own life, gives him his own name and life story, and portrays him writing an autobiographical novel. Writing realism is figurative in Balzac’s Ursule Mirouët and in the twenty-fourth tale of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron. These texts demonstrate, each in their different, interesting ways, how mimesis functions. Words stand for things and take on a truth greater than reality. So, at least, novelists would have us believe, and behind that question of belief lie many questions of an ethical nature. The practice is deceptive; we believe in something that is demonstrably fictive. Yet, if we do not take offense and instead willingly submit to the deceit, it is because writing, the cultural transmission of knowledge by the use of signs, is always real. It is at the root of culture. In publishing this book, Mortimer hopes to be the first to link in a systematic fashion the writing events in novels to these novels’ representations of reality.