Since inaugurating his career with Vies minuscules in 1984, Pierre Michon has built a reputation for minute scrutiny of phenomena that play themselves out within a dramatically limited arena. His latest novel confirms that reputation abundantly, for it is devoted to a close analysis of François-Elie Corentin’s painting of the Comité de salut public during the French Revolution. Entitled simply Les Onze, it is perhaps the most immediately recognizable work in the Louvre, indelibly inscribed as it is on both the collective and the individual imagination. You know the painting I mean, don’t you? If not, you will undoubtedly feel a bit benighted in the early pages of this novel (as did I, I must confess), fretting about such a massive lacuna in your cultural literacy. Until the nickel drops, that is, and you realize that Michon has invented both Corentin and Les Onze out of whole cloth. Yet even then, the hyperrealism that characterizes his narration is enough to shake one’s faith in easy distinctions between fact and fiction.
Michon’s conceit, which recalls that of Georges Perec in Un cabinet d’amateur: Histoire d’un tableau (1979), is that under certain conditions, figments can be made to seem more real to us than objects in the material world. That imagined reality fuels, in turn, a text where a baldly constative tone coaxes the reader into a labyrinth of doubt. Ut pictura poesis indeed. Michon is a very canny and subtle writer; it is thus reasonable to assume that the multiple ironies which circulate in this novel are not merely otiose, but are intended to signify in some manner. Quite apart from his reading of Corentin’s masterpiece (which is in itself welcome, of course), Michon is trying to get at another kind of reading here, I think. Vigorously rubbing history against fiction, hoping thus to make sparks fly, he asks us to reflect upon narrative and its uses. More particularly still, Les Onze invites us to savor a story so well told that it deserves to be true, in a world where nothing of real consequence can be taken for granted.