Mendilow on Metafiction
One of the final sections of A. A. Mendilow's Time and the Novel (1952), "Planes of reality", p. 224-28—on novels which problematize the conventions of reality and its representation, and tend to problematically embed worlds within fictional worlds. Mendilow does not use the term "metafiction", but it's his subject. Plus "A note on Orlando" (228-31), one of his major examples along with other novels by Woolf and with Tristram Shandy:
Planes of Reality
Gide was led to this problem of the author-character relationship to an approach reminiscent of 'the infinite observer' in Dunne's philosophy of 'Serialism'. Gide projected a series of extensions of himself into his novel The Counterfeiters, each a novelist with a different interpretation of reality and a different technique for stylising it into art, each critical of the other's distortions and methods.
I am beginning to catch sight of what I might call the 'deep-lying subject' of my book. It is—it will be—no doubt, the rivalry between the real world and the representation of it which we make to ourselves. The manner in which the world of appearances imposes itself upon us, and the manner in which we try to impose on the outside world our own interpretation—this is the drama of our lives. (59)
One is at times reminded of a passage in a poem of Patmore's:
He thought I thought he thought I slept. (60)
This play of consciousness within consciousness is in a sense the psychological equivalent of the structural technique of enveloping plots. The tale within a tale is familiar from the Thousand and One Nights, theDecameron, the Canterbury Tales, or to take more recent examples, Godwin's Caleb Williams and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.
The picaresque plot is in a way an extension of the primitive type of enveloping plot, for each incident or proto-tale in the career of the hero forms in effect an independent unit, linked only by a common character and by the idea of temporal succession. The enveloping plot here often disappears or remains in a rudimentary form, though it may, as in Don Quixote, provide a coordinating principle that gives all their significance and point to the component incidents.
A change in the centre of gravity of the novel is provided by the familiar device of inserting short stories, as Wandering Willie's Tale in Redgauntlet, or Le Fever's Tale in Tristram Shandy. Here, the enveloping plot is no longer a merely a convenient framework for individually separate tales, but seizes the place of importance. The enclosed tale exemplifies or illustrates the main issues, or it provides relief from the stress of the fictive present or the novel by a divagation into the past, or it creates suspense by interrupting at some crucial moment the continuity or the main-stream of the narrative. Parallel with this is the play within the play ofte nused by Shakespeare, while Sheridan's Critic and Buckingham's Rehearsal resemble the simpler form of enveloping plot, where the enclosed unit is the more important, and the outer plot serves as a framework for it.
Conrad went a step further. He exploited the opportunities offered by the 'nest of tables' technique to shift his points of reference and as a result his temporal perspectives. This provided him with a method of interposing a number of refracting minds between the narrator and the matter narrated. As with Gide, the effect is one of mutually corrective balances and checks, and it suggests that he also was acutely aware how defective is a direct interpretation of reality presented by the author as the true picture. This same diffidence that demands the limiting of the author's omniscience lies behind Henry James's use of the restricted point of view and his impersonal analysis of the detached observer who is, like the people he observes, himself fumbling and stumbling towards the truth of a situation; it likewise explains perhaps Virginia Woolf's use, as in Jacob's Room, of the multiple point of view.
Henry James was particularly interested in Conrad's technique of interposed refractors, and his discussion of its use and purpose in Chance is illuminating. (61). He himself was to try a more daring experiment with transposed planes of reality in a remarkable unfinished novel, The Sense of the Past. The time-scheme of this is so complex as to be almost bewildering. Ralph is so overwhelmed by the need
to recover the lost moment, to feel the stopped pulse . . . as experience. (62)
He is fascinated by the picture of an ancestor who was ridden by the compulsion to project himself into the future. As he explains to his friend:
I am the Future . . . for him; which means the Present for you. (63)
The two are given their desire. Ralph loses his original present and becomes his past which is his ancestor, contemporaneous with his ancestor's circle of acquaintances. He is however cursed with a double consciousness: that of his new present which was his past, and of his old present which is now his future. The coexistence within him of two time-series deters him from yielding to his love for Nan, and he thereby breaks the identity of himself and his ancestor, now his posterity. He
has wronged the personality of the other fellow in him, in himself, Ralph, by depriving him of the indicated, the consonant union with the fine handsome desirable girl whom the 1820 man would perfectly and successfully have been in love with. (64)
Gide's treatment of the planes of reality was developed further in a witty Pirandello-like fantasia—At Swim-Two-Birds (65). This book is a first person novel. The I is shown in the pangs of writing a novel, the chief character of which is a novelist. As the characters which the I and his novelist create come to life in their respective pages, they begin to do so literally and little by little acquire a degree of reality little less than their creators. In time they get out of hand and, falling out with their writers, turn the tables and write them back. And so the personages of the novelist more and more determine the behaviour of their unwilling author, while he in turn constantly interferes with the intentions of the I whose views he cannot accept; and over the whole contrapuntal performance presides the real author leading or led by all his creations.
Experiments such as these with their ever-changing points of reference and times-series bristle with temporal complications that ramify into the most complex patterns. They are counterpointed novels.
What I should like to do is something like the art of fugue-writing (66)
exclaims Gide's novelist-protagonist, a desire echoed exactly by Huxley's novelist and which is responsible for the title Point Counter Point.
A Note on Orlando
The writer who is most commonly acclaimed as the founder of the psychological novel is Samuel Richardson. Like Saul the son of Kish whose concern for some asses led him to a kingdom, Richardson set out to compile a collection of uplifting letters for the use of the semi-literate and proceeded to start the modern novel on its career. But like Saul he failed to establish a dynasty, though his achievements were important and his fame exceeing great in his day. It is to Sterne rather than to Richardson that the modern psychological novel traces its ancestry, and Tristram Shandy may with justice be regarded as the first modernist novel.
In the mock-serious preface to Orlando, Virginia Woolf, referring to the writers who had most influenced her mentioned as one of 'the first that came to mind' Laurence Sterne, and in that brilliant biography with a difference the family likeness comes out very clearly. Like sterne, the author is at pains to emphasize the psychological as constrasted with the chronological values of duration, and to bring out the difference between the two by the adroit use of one as a yardstick to measure the other. The inadequacy of calendar time is piquantly demonstrated by Orlando's varying sense of its passing:
Orlando gave his orders and did the business of his vast estates in a flash; but directly he was alone on the mound under the oak tree, the secods began to round and fill until it seemed as if they would never fall. (67)
This refusal to accept calendar time as a standard is the explanation of the unconventional treatment of centuries in the biography. It also explains the rejection of temporal sequence and continuity. The biographer switches from one discriminated occasion into the heart of another without warning; seconds expand into years, as when she falls in love and marries in the course of three and a half seconds; years under the oak tree pass like seconds; separate durations telescope and proceed simultaneously.
Some weeks added a century to his age, others no more than three seconds at most . . . Life seemed to him of prodigious length. Yet even so, it went like a flash . . . he would try to think fro half an hour—or was it two years and a half? (67)
Yet even the digressions and intercalated episodes serve to focus the attention on time as a dramatic now; the only tense is the fictional present as given by the prrocess of consciousness which is always nine-tenths past. And for these divagations from the customary progressions, there are close parallels in Tristram Shandy.
Virginia Woolf has even gone so far as to borrow some of Sterne's highly idiosyncratic quirks, such as leaving a blank space which the reader's imagination is invited to fill (68), or setting off the fictional date of the character's position in time against the real date of the author's writing. (69). She is as concerned as was Sterne to show the progress of the writing of the book pari passu with the progress of the subject of it. In so doing, she too constantly recalls the reader from his fictive to his real present. She indulges in critical disquisitions, she discusses with him the problems besetting the biographer, the technique of her book, the relation of fiction to reality, of author to character; she informs him what she is doing and how and why she is doing it; and always, like Sterne, she misses no opportunity of cocking a very decorous snook at all the conventions and all the theories established by all the respected critics. These discussions are not mere digressions. They are used almost invariably to suggest longueursin the fictional time, as notably in the pause in the action that marks the waiting for the birth of Orlando's son.
Actually, Orlando is as much, or as little, a biography as Tristram Shandy is an autobiography. It is a study in heredity and tradition. It is at once an account of the composition of a poem and of the progress of literature in the light of the cahnging critical views, tastes and fashions of the last few centuries; it is a biography of a real person, Victoria Sackville-West, in terms of the history of her family; and it is an analysis of the androgynous elements in the human personality, presented not spatially, that is, as coexisting side by side, but temporally as well, that is, as extended in time. This unusual method allows the portrayal of each sexual quality as it becomes dominant in different stages in the development of a person—a fact which we recognise in our use of the world 'tomboy', for example. It also enables us to gauge the changing standards of society and convention as to what constitutes true masculinity and femininity. Furthermore, it reveals those dominant characteristics in our forebears which determine the quality and proportion of the masculine and feminine elements in us.
Above all, Orlando exemplifies the principle that unites all Virginia Woolf's work: the immanence of the past in the present, the Bergsonian conception of the moment as the microcosm of life. As in her later novel Between the Acts,in which a very similar technique is used, the time-units which express this principle are extended. Instead of the personal past pervading the very moment of perception, the wider past of the centuries of tradition indwelling in every work of art, and of the generations of inherited traits latent in a contemporary personality give added depth and significance in the understanding of that work of art and that personality. Regular biography and formal literary criticism can analyse the process objectively, but only imaginative fiction can show it in operation from within. In this piece of riotous fantasy, we see something akin to what, in the mechanism of dreams, Freudians call 'displacement'. Various aspects of a single subject (as here, the poem) are dissociated and projected into separate entities, and then by the process of interpretation, they are related once more and synthesized. In Orlando, we see several such themes evolving separately in time, but each must be seen in its connections with every other as that evolves. This close counterpointing is a marked feature of the book.
The whole point of Orlando is that it presents the growth of literary taste, the creation of a poem, the changes in the 'climate of opinion', the history of a family, the development of a personality, in two time planes at once. The character of Orlando is shown between the dates 1586 and 1928, growing in age from sixteen to thirty-six. We have what biologists would call a description of ontogenetic and phylogenetic development, as a foetus progresses in the course of nine months through millions of years of evolution, passing through and beyond the stages reached at different times by successive series of ancestors. The phylogenetic time is incorporated into the ontogenetic time as one's ancestors are parts of ourselves.
Both Tristram Shandy and Orlando are fantasias on a time-theme, with Bergson replacing Locke as the philosophic inspirer. Both achieve their most novel effects by proceeding simultaneously in several dimensions of time. Neither may be taken too seriously. If the main motif of Tristram Shandy is the hobby-horse, Orlando concludes with the return of the wild-goose he and/or she has been chasing for three and a half centuries.
(59) p. 225.
(60) The Angel in the House.
(61) in Notes on Novelists, p. 274 passim.
(62) p. 47.
(63) p. 102.
(64) This is from the notes on the unfinished novel, pp. 315-16.
(65) Flann O'Brien, 1939.
(66) p. 210.
(67) Chapter II. pp. 58, 59.
(68) Chapter V. p. 146.
(69) e.g. Chapter II, p. 46 where it is given as November 1wt, 1927 or chapter VI, p. 171 where it is October 11th, 1928.
Time and the Novel (Conclusion)