Quarrels in the Literary World: Publication and Reception (1948–1949)

The turn of the screw given to narrative writing seems to have sat uneasily with the regular production of articles. These years of intense literary activity (1948, 1949) saw Blanchot, who was so disenchanted with critical writing as to feel it to be worthless, abandon commentary little by little.

He was most often in Èze, only returning to Neuilly for a few months at a time, as in summer 1948 or spring 1949. In May 1949, he again left Paris at the same time as Bataille, who had got a job as librarian at the Carpentras library. In July, however, he was back. He gave up his apartment in Neuilly, which for some time he had felt to be unnecessary, and agreed with his brother René and his sister-in-law Anna that he was to stay with them when in Paris, at 18 Rue Violet, close to La Motte-Picquet metro station. In September, he was in Èze once again.

His relationship with Gallimard was tense. Having been submitted in May 1947, and with printing finished on May 12, 1948, The Most High would not appear before the summer, at the same time as Death Sentence. Blanchot wrote the two prières d’insérer in June. He was furious at the delay and considered moving to the Minuit publishing house, where Bataille had a new series named “The Use of Riches.” His idea was to publish his forthcoming récits in this series, beginning symbolically with the second version of Thomas the Obscure. But Gallimard retained all of its rights over Blanchot’s books and was extremely condescending when it did allow Minuit to publish Lautréamont and Sade the following year. Bataille had already announced the work in April and May with a double article in Critique named “Happiness, Eroticism and Literature,” which also commented on what Blanchot had already published on Sade. Gallimard invoked the June publication of The Work of Fire and asked Minuit to delay until September that of Lautréamont and Sade (which would sell only around eight hundred copies in its first year). Blanchot had to accept the situation as it was: Gallimard had the upper hand over Minuit, the latter having decided on a strategy of calmness and tolerance.1

In any case, the promises of summer 1948 (when Blanchot was in Neuilly) would not be kept. Gaston Gallimard published The Most High at the beginning of August, and promised Blanchot that The Work of Fire and Thomas the Obscure would appear before the end of the year. In actual fact, these books would have to wait longer than that: the first appeared in June 1949 and the second . . . in spring 1950.

Three works of fiction and two critical books in less than two years: At the turn of the decade, such an intense rhythm of publication, which like his journal pieces included both cohesive and diverse elements, definitively placed Blanchot center stage. The main journals commented on his works. The reign of mediocrity also began, with many stupid judgments about a body of work that was said to be “haughtily hermetic” or so much “intelligent trickery.”2 The critics thought they were being sarcastic, witty, disdainful.3 While Blanchot’s talents were recognized for the most part, they were immediately said to have been wasted. This view applied most of all to the works of fiction. But in fact opinions were divided to the extreme, and some glowing endorsements shone through. For instance, Luc Decaunes in the Cahiers du Sud situated Death Sentence “at an equal distance from Edgar Poe and André Breton.”4 Above all, the first major readings emerged: in Critique by Bataille, of course, but also in Combat by Nadeau, in Les Temps Modernes by Klossowski. By February 1949 the pattern of the future reception of Blanchot’s narratives was established: Some readers resisted and would continue to resist their paradoxical and demanding readability, whereas others did not resist, and would continue not to resist, the strong attraction they felt for work which left them naked, dispossessed, which comprehended them without ever having the last word.

The récit is richer, but it is also more obscure. Through it we come into contact with mystery independently of our comprehension, because we belong to this mystery, and what in us belongs to it thus remains as ungraspable to our reason as the incommunicability of lived and related fact does. Maurice Blanchot’s art thus consists in putting a part of ourselves into relation with what he says. As soon as we read what he says to us, we do not understand it, we understand all the less because we are already included in his sentence. And this is not because we do not understand that we are being led to push further, but because we are constantly in search of this part of ourselves alienated by the récit that we want to recuperate at any price. As readers we also try to grasp what the transcribed experience of facts—to which we adhere—abolishes; we try to grasp a real presence even beyond this abolition.5

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