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Searching for the “Oedipal ogre” (HF 15), the Tantalising Figure of the Writer in Patricia Duncker’s Fiction Writing, From Hallucinating Foucault to Sophie and the Sybil

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Searching for the “Oedipal ogre” (HF 15), the Tantalising Figure of the Writer in Patricia Duncker’s Fiction Writing, From Hallucinating Foucault to Sophie and the Sybil

Cette communication a été filmée dans le cadre du colloque international  "Writers in Neo-Victorian Fiction" organisé par l'équipe anglophone ERIBIA le 11 octobre 2019 à la Maison de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines de l'Université Caen Normandie, sous la responsablilité d'Armelle Parey (ERIBIA, Caen) et Charlotte Wadoux (19-21, Paris 3).

Georges Letissier is professor of English Literature at Nantes University, France. His main fields of interest are Victorian literature (Charles Dickens mostly), Modernism (Ford Madox Ford, Ronald Firbank) and contemporary British literature (notably the neo-Victorian novel). His last publications include “The Possibility of a Somatic Reading of Dickens’s Fiction”, in Reading Dickens Differently, Leon Litvak & Nathalie Vanfasse (eds), Indianapolis: Wiley-Blackwell, (Forthcoming 2020 to coincide with the Dickens sesquicentenary),  “Uncanny Repetitions. The Generative Power of the ‘Reader I Married Him Mantra’ in Tracy Chevalier’s Anthology of Short Stories”, in Prequels, Coquels and Sequels in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction, Armelle Parey (ed.), New York & London: Routledge, 2018, “The Eclipse of Heroism and the Outing of Plural Masculinities in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child”, in The Wounded Hero in Contemporary Fiction. A Paradoxical Quest, Susana Onega & Jean-Michel Ganteau (eds), New York & London: Routledge, 2018, 42-59, “Between the ‘English nuvvle’ and the ‘Novel of Aloofness, Charles Dickens’s Proto-(High) Modernism”, in Beyond the Victorian/Modernist Divide, Anne Florence Gillard-Estrada & Anne Besnault Levita (eds), New York & London: Routledge, 2018. He is currently finishing a book on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, titled Middlemarch: The Higher Inward Life, coll. Intercalaires, Presses Universitaires Paris Nanterre.


Before her name became associated with the neo-Victorian novel, with James Miranda Barry (1999) and Sophie and the Sibyl (2015), Patricia Duncker embarked on her writing character with a fiction inventing a fictitious writer, Paul Michel. Hallucinating Foucault (1996) is a mind-boggling, vertigo-inducing narrative in which an unnamed Phd student becomes amorously obsessed with the writer he studies, Paul Michel. Michel’s creative impulse is triggered by the image of French philosopher Michel Foucault : “the unseen reader to be courted”(35). So in this first novel Duncker was obviously primarily concerned with the experience of writing as driven by the desire to please, to court and to seduce a fantasised reader. She also established the reversibility of the bond between Paul Michel and Michel Foucault: “He [Michel Foucault] fretted that he was not handsome. That the boys would not flock to him, court him. I lived that life for him, the life he envied and desired.” (HF 149). In this first work, Duncker already displayed an unparalleled sense of place and an equally stunning capacity to render the Zeitgeist, calling up Paris in the early eighties, the spread of the AIDS epidemics and the first gay emancipation movements. In this respect, the haunting picture of Hervé Guibert on the page cover is iconic.  Writing is seen as an obsession, a compulsive habit, like homosexuality: “the potentially perfect pleasure” (HF 27). All the fundamentals of Duncker’s creation were therefore present in this first work, notably the intrinsinc link between desire, writing consubstantial with reading and the politics inherent in the creative process. Given her concern with reading, it is hardly surprising that Duncker should have turned to the neo-Victorian, a literary subgenre known among other things for its metatextual dimension.

Duncker has repeatedly alluded to her fascination for George Eliot. Indeed like Michel Foucault and his fictionalised alter ego, Paul Michel, the Victorian writer too was a most unconventional figure. Yet, for Duncker, an admired writer should by no means be merely adulated; the hagiographic mode is totally alien to her mindset. Precisely, this paper argues that the “Sibyl” is depicted as a contentious figure, setting a challenge to a contemporary woman novelist. So, by placing the famous Victorian woman novelist at the centre of her neo-Victorian fiction Duncker pursues, albeit in a more jocular mood, one of her chief concerns, i.e. the postmodernist, self-reflexive investigation of the reading/writing experience within the limits of a highly entertaining and extremely erudite narrative.



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