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Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Literature.

Warren Motte. Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Literature. Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press. 1999. 213 pages. $45. isbn 0-8032-3202-0.

Warren Motte's title, Small Worlds, encapsulates a primary paradox of minimalism, the use of reduced means to convey vast territories. Laying out a well-documented framework directed at evaluating the term for its usefulness to criticism, he launches his definition from a common feature in approaches to small things - namely, "the notion of reduction in relation to some more or less explicit norm. Art that insists upon that reduction and mobilizes it as a constructive principle can be termed minimalist" (italics his).

The pursuit of this "constructive principle" enlivens both Motte's study and the texts in question, for clearly brevity alone is not sufficient. Narrowing the field to useful bounds, he cites principles and effects: a special approach to small things: a deliberate, focused simplicity of subject and approach which risks the charge of vacuity in the interest of unmediated experience and profound new experience for the reader; a positive approach to distillation and concentration, which in turn generate "a sort of crystallized abundance"; a denuding of rhetoric in order to reinvest the quotidian with interest. The form engages in persistent self-reference. And, as the author attests, it resists criticism.

Denying an extremist view that severely reduced minimalist works transgress the borders of art, Motte considers them, however tenuously, personal statements that tend to jar notions of art's boundaries. Accusation of that transgression is more often leveled at extreme minimalists of the plastic arts, as the difference in material makes for clearer boundaries: where the stone of a sculpture is no more than stone, the intrinsically representational nature of language is more difficult to evade in the search for new modes of expression.

Of the refreshingly diverse texts included for Motte's interpretations, Marie Redonnet, who frequently places her fiction in bleak landscapes, shows the influence of literary antecedents Nathalie Sarraute, Roland Barthes, and particularly the omnipresent Samuel Beckett. Her early play Tir & Lir portrays a simple old couple in their beds, exchanging letters with their offstage children and becoming as helpless as they. The single dramatic gesture, their actual movement into the children's beds, rounds out a full cycle of life experience suggested on a stark stage through the words and formal structure of the denuded text.

In another example, a series of exchanges punctuate award-winning novelist Jean Echenoz's Occupation des sols (Site Use). In the fifteen- page book, the author, an artist of enigma and hidden text, depicts a father and son moving into smaller quarters after the mother dies in an apartment fire. They watch closely as their only remaining trace of her, a poorly painted portrait in an open-air ad, is slowly bricked in. Larger space is exchanged for smaller, image for reality or memory, and vision for a blank wall - or a closed book, as this self-referential genre would have it. "Flat" language renders a superficially mundane event, leaving the reader to see its shattering import to the protagonists.

Warren Motte makes an attractive and useful case for the subspecies of modernism, minimalism, whose practitioners seem to mobilize an individualistic assault on norms, and on unwitting readers too. We can be grateful for this guidance through the maze toward the lively rewards that exist beyond.

Lee Fahnestock

New York
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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