Voices of the Old Regime

Malina Stefanovska, professor of French studies at UCLA, discussed the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz and Giacomo Casanova and the invaluable component of voice in autobiographical writing.

Stefanovska 1PROVO, Utah (Feb. 18, 2015)—UCLA French professor Malina Stefanovska had moment of illumination while grading her students’ autobiographical papers: While her students lived relatively similar lives and shared similar moral values in the small country of Switzerland, each student had something personal to share – a unique voice that she couldn’t help but notice channeling from the page to her as the reader

Stefanovska examined the importance of voice in the autobiographical genre and how the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz and Giacomo Casanova form bonds with the reader through their unique autobiographical expression.

“This hard-to-pinpoint value of personal style – voice – is something that I value in autobiography and that makes me read each of my memoir authors with an equal attention – a friendly, close relationship forming between them and me, “ said Stefanovska.

Stefanovska added that over the years she has become sensitive to voice, a quality that she believes participates in style but gestures to something more. “It is authentic, idiosyncratic and personal,” Stefanovska said.  “It is the closest trace of the author’s physical body and his or her unique mind.”

Voice is a speech act through which a life narrative is developed as constant rememoration and reformulation – a retelling of life’s episodes to one’s self or to others, said Stefanovska.

She emphasized the importance of two particular elements of voice in the autobiographical writings of de Retz and Casanova: interlocution and the oral performance of storytelling.

Stefanovska explained that Cardinal de Retz addressed his memoirs to an unnamed woman who stood in as an interlocutor in his writing, in part to make the confessions in his text less revealing of his intimate self and more amusing to the reader.

“The internal distance helps tighten the bond with the unnamed female listener, and through her with the reader,” said Stefanovska. “Thus, when he recounts his youthful affair with his cousin, whom he planned to abduct for her beautiful, swooning eyes and her wealth, the memoirist seems to share with his confidant an inward laughter, but his amusement at his own expense never veers to self-mockery.”

Stefanovska added that a life story is a mixture of tragic outcomes, comic episodes, sincere regrets and banal details. In the case of Cardinal de Retz’s writing, he often imbues his memoirs with interjections and allocutions that give his narrative voice what Stefanovska described as buoyancy, a detail she believes points to the oral origins of his life story.

Casanova“We can safely assume that before this literary genre became widely practiced in the 20th century, it was mostly practiced orally, from confession to the oral reminiscences practiced by elders for the benefit of their children,” Stefanovska said.

She added that aspiring practitioners of autobiography should recount their memories to themselves. Memories, she said, will escape you if you don’t tell them. Retaining memories for autobiographical writing is dependent upon the act of oral storytelling and constant reminiscing.

“It is only through repetition and variation that one’s life becomes examined, constructed as a series of connected acts, thoughts, and consequences,” said Stefanovska. “In other terms, that it becomes a life story.”

In addition to Retz’s writing, Stefanovska also examined the autobiographical voice of the notorious Giocomo Casanova, a seducer in not only life, but writing as well.

“Even though his work carries an undeniable documentary interest, the pleasure its readers derive from it stems mainly from the author’s distinct voice and his will to amuse and seduce the readers,” Stefanovska said.

She explained that Casanova’s written narratives are drawn from the practice of oral storytelling. Casanova often narrated his adventures to others, even narrating a story about his escape from prison so many times that he eventually refused to keep telling it.

Stefanovska said that one unique aspect of Casanova’s voice is dialogue, which she argued is his way of projecting himself onto other interlocutors in the text.

“In opposition to the novel, memoirs generally favor the narrative form and the dialogue is rare,” said Stefanovska. “The dialogical form serves to stage the autobiographer’s internal dialogue and comedy developed for his reader’s sake.”

She continued, “Even though the narrator’s comments show a more knowing perspective than the protagonist, the bond between Casanova and his reader is predicated upon his failure to mature. In that respect his memoirs are the very opposite of a Bildungsroman, or of a search for lost time.”

To conclude, Stefanovska noted that in the case of both memoirists, each chose to end the memoir in the middle of his life, remarking that Casanova believed it pointless to write when it was no longer pleasurable to recount the story of an aging adventure.

“Wisdom,” she concluded, “lies in knowing to hold one’s voice at the right moment.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)