Excerpt: Not a Clue

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Not a Clue (Nebraska, 2018) by Dawn M. Cornelio, the translator. Chloé Delaume is the author. 

After first reading Certainement pas, I wrote an article that started something like this: “How can you juggle an omniscient narrator, a murder victim boiling over with accusations, at least six possible murderers—each with their own entourages and psychiatrists at Paris’s Hôpital Sainte-Anne—a blog that speaks in the first person, and an author whose intervention is limited to refusing to intervene?” Today, as reader and translator, I would rephrase the question and ask, “How do you translate a novel with all of these elements and also do justice to a unique literary voice and style that uses language both as a tool and as a weapon and is actually teeming with cultural references that range from the classics of French literature and cinema to pop music from throughout the twentieth century?” The answer to the revised and expanded version of the question is found in a word I learned back when I read the novel for the first time. That word is clinamen.

What is a “clinamen”? Just in case it’s new to you too, according to Lucretius, expounding on Epicurus’s atomistic doctrine, a clinamen—derived from the Latin clinare, “to incline”—occurs when there is an unpredictable swerve of atoms. While in current, common usage a clinamen is defined as a bias or inclination, in philosophy and literature the term continues to convey the notion of an unexpected deviation that is responsible for a change in the order of things. Indeed, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Harold Bloom, Gilles Deleuze, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, Michel Serres, and perhaps James Joyce, among others, have all reflected on, developed, applied, or even refused the viability of the concept. The influence of the clinamen comes to Chloé Delaume through her profound and long- lasting interest in the writings of Alfred Jarry, the College of ’Pataphysics, and the Oulipo writers, such as Georges Perec and Boris Vian. In Delaume’s writing in general, and in Not a Clue in particular, clinamen should be taken as a watchword, for there is no level of the text that is not marked by the phenomena of unexpected swerves. Juxtapositions of “high” and “low” culture are abundant, punctuation often used selectively and idiosyncratically, syntax and grammar are so stretched to the absolute limits of their flexibility that reading becomes a roller coaster ride, as the sudden swerving of the text takes the reader in unforeseen directions, time and time again. Bringing Certainement pas into English here means embedding within it a certain number of new clinamens as unexpected cultural and linguistic twists become part of the novel and extend its spiraling out into unanticipated territory.

Certainement pas, published in France in 2004, is Chloé Delaume’s seventh novel, one of over twenty titles she has written since 2000. All of these have the stated purpose of expanding the reader’s idea of what literature is, of making reading a participatory activity, of refusing to be cultural entertainment, of disrupting literature, and of trying to overthrow the “Banana Republic of Letters” the author feels most contemporary, commercialized literature contributes to, with its pleasant and easily consumable and digestible stories. Moreover, the majority of Delaume’s writing falls into the sometimes controversial category of autofiction, a wide-ranging style of writing in contemporary France, among other places. The neologism was first coined by the writer and critic Serge Doubrovsky, who described his 1977 novel Fils as having “confié le langage d’une aventure à l’aventure d’un langage en liberté” (confided the language of an adventure to the adventure of a language in liberty), thereby emphasizing the importance of language and means of expression in this new combination of lived experience and fiction.

Underpinning Delaume’s own extensive auto-fiction is the death by murder-suicide of her parents: in 1983, in the family apartment and in the presence of the then nine-year-old girl, her father, Sylvain Dalain, shot and killed her mother, Soazick, before killing himself. Nonetheless, it would be an inaccurate reading of her literature to consider it as any kind of therapy, a plea for sympathy, navel-gazing, or anything other than a Doubrovskian adventure in literature, living, and self-creation. In fact, Delaume’s efforts to be her own creation, rather than being the result of her parents’ death, go beyond her writing to her life, her name itself an example of this. Born in 1973, Delaume’s birth name was Nathalie Abdallah, but after moving to France, the family decided to try to minimize its Lebanese origins and legally changed its surname to Dalain. However, the writer refuses the first and last names given by her parents and has lived and worked under the name Chloé Delaume almost exclusively. Except for a small number of early career articles and short texts published under the name Nathalie Dalain, all of the writer’s work is signed with her self-chosen name: Chloé, from the lead female protagonist of Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream (L’Écume des jours, 1947); and Delaume, from Antonin Artaud’s L’Arve et l’aume (1947), his “translation” of a chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. For many years the author described Chloé Delaume as a fictional character who was the writer, narrator, and main protagonist of her texts; more recently, however, the statements “Je m’appelle Chloé Delaume. Je suis un personnage de fiction” (My name is Chloé Delaume. I am a fictional character) have diminished in appearance, and Chloé Delaume is not present within the pages of in the author’s most recent novel, the feminist and political Les Sorcières de la République (2016).


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