Haunting histories of transgenerational trauma in Lydie Salvayre’s La Compagnie des spectres (1997): A taking stock of ‘Madness’ and ‘Transmission’

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Motherhood and madness are recurring concerns in women’s writing in French. In Lydie Salvayre’s La Compagnie des spectres (1997) the depiction of the mother as ‘madwoman’ takes centre stage in her linguistically bold text. Whilst disturbed predecessors have appeared in writings by Simone de Beauvoir, Marie Cardinal, Jacqueline Harpman, Marie Darrieussecq, and Marguerite Duras, amongst others, the text also belongs, in its treatment of the Holocaust and its traumatic legacies, to a corpus that includes writings by Georges Perec, Sylvie Germain, Nancy Huston, and Philippe Grimbert, to name a few. A deranged mother and her disturbed daughter are central to the story, and have much to tell us, it would seem – about history and trauma, about contemporary society, and about the vicissitudes and complexities of intimate relationships in less than favourable circumstances. This article examines theories of transgenerational transmission of trauma in La Compagnie des spectres, a fictional work in which history, legacy and trauma intersect. In the novel two seemingly unreliable, unstable narrators highlight through their stories the challenges in articulating and understanding legacies of heritage and loss. Their portraits raise questions about the positioning, function, and reception of the ‘madwoman’ in the text, and, indeed, beyond the text, where such a figure, as noted by Foucault and others, is often destined to carry projected, unbearable ‘madness’ of and on behalf of others. Selected theoretical frameworks from psychology, psychoanalysis, and trauma studies underpin this analysis, which problematises readings of transgenerational hauntings to account for moments where apparent insanity could be understood as a legitimate response to an apparently ‘insane’ world.
Key words: history, haunting, knowledge, madness, mothers, daughters, language, Occupation, transgenerational trauma, stories, inventory
Original languageEnglish
JournalModern Languages Open
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2017


  • transgenerational trauma
  • hisuma
  • haunting
  • knowledge
  • madness
  • mothers
  • daughters
  • language
  • occupation
  • inventory
  • stories
  • tory


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