Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In the unsettling of narratives

It is appropriate that I should first write about Samuel Frederick’s new book, Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter, on this blog, which itself is nothing but a collection of many digressive acts. In fact, I'll start with one: The Oxford English Dictionary credits Chaucer with being the first to use the term in English, in the sense of ‘[d]eparture or deviation from the subject in discourse or writing’: ‘It were a long disgression Fro my matere’, Troilus & Criseyde i. 87 (143). Almost from the very beginning of vernacular English fiction, then, the digressive possibility is noted and taken up in the very same breath: ah, the delight of breaking the fine crystal of one narrative illusion just as you are spinning the glass of another; the joy of fashioning a story from nothing more than a narrative voice. Of course digression is not exclusive to English and, as Frederick points out, neither it is confined to any particular literary period. In his Introduction, in an evocation of a small shuffling (digressive) dance, he describes the way his study has been organised to cover the work of three writers in their three distinct but not sequentially arranged moments in Germanic language literary history.

Although this is Samuel Frederick’s first book-length publication, Narratives Unsettled draws on his earlier research into the narrative strategies of Robert Walser, and read together, develops a carefully argued engagement with assumptions about the equivalence of plot and narrative inherent to much of narratology but particularly to Peter Brooks’ influential work, Reading for the Plot: Design and intention in narrative. These are the very assumptions that seem to dog every do-it-yourself novel writing discussion, from kitsch online advice pages to university workshops. Perhaps the most questionable aspect of Brooks’ approach is his placing at the defining centre of narrative a model of narrative plotting that is predicated on an expression of masculine desire which expects nothing more, despite Brooks' own excellent analyses of the ‘perversions’ of Flaubert and the ‘unreadable report’ of Conrad, than tumescence and release. In this model, digression becomes a way of extending Barthes’ dilatory centre – as if only through some leather clad sex toy whose purpose is to increase the longing and capacity for ejaculation. In his notes to an earlier paper, ‘Re-reading Digression: Towards a Theory of Plotless Narrative’, published in Textual Wanderings: The Theory and Practice of Narrative Digression (2011) Frederick writes that his own critical approach draws on Susan Winnett’s critique of this male sexualised model ('Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and the Principles of Pleasure', 1990). Frederick’s important contribution to this discussion is to explore what he considers to be the inability of this way of figuring narrative desire to account adequately for the unique narrative properties of digression. In both that earlier paper, and now more extensively in this book, he proposes a theory of digression that allows for its independence from plot: one that is based, not on serving a teleological figuring of narrative desire, but a more playful desire or impulse to tell beyond the significance of the things to be told in themselves. Narrative, he argues, is not identical to plot, and he demonstrates this claim by analysing the narrative strategies of Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard and Adalbert Stifter: three writers in the German language whose writings span more than a hundred years, from the mid nineteenth to the second half of the twentieth century. He is concerned to emphasise the essential narrativity of these writers’ highly digressive fictional works, arguing that their digressive modes of proliferation, rupture and dispersal are fuelled by narrative energy. To describe such works as ‘antinarratives’ or even just ‘experimental prose’, he writes, would be to capitulate to the very assumptions about the equivalence of narrative and plot that he is seeking to critique and hence to elide the aleatory and seemingly trivial aspects of everyday lived experience which plot, with its goal-oriented desire, is constituted to ignore.

Frederick dedicates two chapters – almost an entire half of the book – to Robert Walser. This in itself is a delight. Here we read about how plots might proliferate to the point where there is no clear plotted line to follow, no tense pursuit of release, and how Walser saw his pieces all working together to comprise ‘one long plotless, realistic story’ where, by ‘realistic’, he is referring to the only entirely realistic aspect of any writing: that when we write, what we write is simply the product of our writing.

After Walser, Frederick writes about what he calls the ‘infinite continuum’ in Thomas Bernhard’s Verstörung (Gargoyles). As the conventional plot of the first part of the novel breaks down, the Prince’s monologue, taking over, enacts a passionate indifference, where the inchoate experience of the overwhelming, the mad, is wrest free from the limiting distortions of the plotted or what Frederick calls the 'narrative whole'.

In chapter four, we read about how Adalbert Stifter’s highly digressive, and as Frederick writes, ‘diffuse’ novel Indian Summer, so disturbed its readers that successive editions of the work radically reduced its three volumes of over 1,300 pages – one 1940 edition butchering it to less than 60 pages – as they were concerned to remove everything that did not pertain to the supposedly real story which, as Frederick demonstrates, is an insignificant aspect of the work: the entire novel having been focussed on the time after this story and its very texture dependent on the feel of the resulting narrative dispersal.

In his final chapter, the Coda, Frederick asks: ‘what are we left with in a narrative bereft of plot?’ To this he replies: ‘On the formal level, we are left with the raw impulse to tell that unsettles the plotted whole of conventional narrative. But from a hermeneutic perspective (especially one with an evaluative edge), we might say that we are left with something else, namely: the pointless and insignificant minutiae of everyday life.’ And yet, we well might ask now, aren’t so many current undigressive literary novels taken with these very kinds of unimportant-seeming details? Haven't we often read about protagonists touching their lips to stone or wondering at the lengthening of a shadow or the refuse blowing along a deserted road? The difference, I would argue, is in the way that the language of such books endows these details with a certain solemn significance so that the resulting moments are held and so become essential nodes in the narrative whole. Frederick’s analysis of the various editorial attacks on Stifter’s novel is instructive here. In one such edition – Weitbrecht’s apparent improvement on Heckenast’s 1870 version of the book – Frederick demonstrates how, in the section that includes Heinrich’s approach to the Rose House, the description of the blossomed covering of the house is retained, perhaps surprisingly given the editors' enthusiasm for the knife, while the sequence of actions and thoughts leading up to Heinrich’s discovery of the house – actions and thoughts that are essential to an understanding of the way Stifter arranges his work in a careful exploration of place rather than time – are excised. Therefore description of insignificant details per se is not considered anathema to a cherished view of the narrative whole. I would suggest that a piece of fiction might dilate all it likes on the significance of apparently insignificant details so long as these details can be approached with hushed and reverent literary words that might seem to respect this narrative whole. Even a seemingly disgusting or shocking object might be written about in this (w)holy way since it will then serve a greater narrative tumescence; but if a writer wants to convey the actual feel of the trivial, the foul, the meaningless, the overlooked, the digressive voice has a far better chance. Perhaps this is the very reason it is often excised. After all, who wants to be reminded? As Frederick concludes:

Digression is that distinctive and therefore indispensable mode of telling that undoes the plotted structures in which the pointless has no place, opening up a new narrative landscape where instead – as a reminder of our shared fate – it is allowed to be, without being neglected or overlooked. In this way digression rescues the insignificant, which is our fate, from being forgotten.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A complex symbolic rendering of emotional life

While, in my memory of Susanne Langer's work on symbolic form, she seemed too quick to assign certain aspects of experience to one art form or another, her ideas on 'livingness' in a work of art -- as opposed to the quality of the 'dead' in an unsuccessful piece -- still explains so much about what is worth having and keeping in writing. In Philosophical Sketches, she writes that works of art are 'forms expressive of human feeling' and, for her, form includes 'a permanent form, like a building or a vase or a picture, or a transient, dynamic form like a melody or a dance, or even a form given to imagination, like the passage of purely imaginary, apparent events that constitutes a literary work.' I would only add that some literary works -- for example, those by Borges, Bernhard, Sebald, Murnane -- somehow spill beyond her event-focussed definition of a literary work.

Kenneth Wright, in Mirroring and Attunement, describes her approach:

For Langer, then, the work of art is a complex symbolic rendering of emotional life in a form that enables apprehension of its being rather than comprehension of its meaning. Its non-verbal symbols articulate the shapes and textures of living experience rather than its cognitive definition, and because they present this semblance in analogical form, she called them presentational symbols. Art does not, in the manner of language, describe experience but offers it directly to our senses through iconic forms. It is not an alternative means of expressing emotion but a means of revealing its forms in a concrete, yet quasi-abstracted way.

I have to admit my fondness for this definition, if only because it resonates with my very first thought on this blog.