Sunday, October 19, 2003

The Nun by Denis Diderot (Translated by Leonard Tancock): A Review

What else can be said about the man who is credited with compiling the first encyclopedia except that he may be best suited to non-fiction?

The Nun (1796), Denis Diderot's foray into fiction, tells the story of Marie-Suzanne Simonin--a young French woman who is forced into the convent by a mother who believes she can atone for her own sins through the piety of her daughter. Narrated by Suzanne herself, the novel chronicles the innumerable horrors of convent life--horrors not just innumerable, but absurdly so.

Amplifying the incredibility of the plot is the first-person narration. Though Suzanne's voice is wholly engaging (and alone makes the novel worth reading), it eliminates the possibility of other perspectives so that--more often than not--the plot's momentum is bogged down by "Woe is me" whining and self-absorption. Also problematic is that despite Suzanne's constant assertions of her own intellect, she comes off as extremely naive and, well, just a little stupid. This is one narrator that I dare not trust. And--given that Diderot is attempting to critique Catholicism--I'd say that this is one sin that cannot be absolved.

Most damning of all this Nun's faults, though, is that the narrative voice is not distinctly female. Voice appropriation is always tricky, but it is especially so when appropriating the voice of the opposite gender. Still, the voice is not particularly male, either. Yet to say that the voice is androgynous because of Suzanne's "saintly" personality is ludicrous. While, at her age, Suzanne's sexuality would not be fully developed/defined, there should be more of a sense of self-awareness than the last eighty pages describes.

Having read all this, the reader of this review must think I found The Nun unbearable. Not so. I did enjoy it, but in the way one enjoys pulp fiction, as opposed to the high literature The Nun masquerades as. All in all, Denis Diderot's The Nun is far from the perfect novel, but still it miraculously manages to entertain.

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