Vanity Fea

Notes from Robert Alter's 'Partial Magic'

Notes from Robert Alter's 'Partial Magic'

2 de junio de 2015

Notes from Robert Alter's book Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley: U of California P, 1975).  Notes taken c. 1990.

Levin: All novels are self-conscious.


ix. There is an expectation that fiction be serious and realistic, dealing with "moral situations in their social contexts"; "and, with few exceptions, there has been a lamentable lack of critical appreciation for the kind of novel that expresses its seriousness through playfulness, that is acutely aware of itself as a mere structure of words even as it tries to discover ways of going beyond words to the experiences words seek to indicate." Leavis dismisses Fielding, Sterne and Joyce.

x. In the Marxist view, the novel is an epic of bourgeois life. Realism is considered as the dominant aesthetic. Realism is OK, but "in many important novelists from Renaissance Spain to contemporary France and America the realistic enterprise has been enormously complicated and qualified by the writer's awareness that fictions are never real things, that literary realism is a tantalizing contradiction in terms." Ontological exploration in fiction takes place through the manipulation of form, not through exposition—though the novel drawing attention to its construction, vs. transparency. "A self-conscious novel, briefly, is a novel that systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice and by so doing probes into the problematic relationship between real-seeming artifice and reality."

xi. Fits of self-consciousness vs. fully self-conscious novels, informed by a consistent effort. Many cases of self-consciousness in literature. Cf. the mirroring in the Odyssey, and in Euripides' parody of tragic conventions. In Renaissance drama: the introduction to the Taming of the Shrew and Bartholomew Fair. Diderot's drama. Reflexive poetry: Mallarmé, Valérty, Wallace Stevens, Mandelstam.  But the novel is uniquely congenial to self-consciousness.

xii. Peculiar forms are determined by genre, a distinctive trend. In the novel, the main concern with consecutive individual character and particular experience.

xiii. The self-conscious novel is no the teame as the elaborately artful novel (conrad, ford). Their elaboration is a technique of verisimilitude. Self-consciousness may be a mannerism or "be integrated into a large critical vision of the dialectic interplay between fiction and reality"—then it becomes illuminating.

xiv. "The four major self-conscious novelists of the first great age of the novel . . . are Cervantes, Fielding, Sterne and Diderot.

xv. "novels have been doing rather more than prevalent critical assumptions would allow for."

1. The Mirror of Knighthood and the World of Mirrors

1- Vs. massively produced trash in modern culture. The novel model is caught in this story.

2- It is tied up with printing. Social and economic upheavals have determined its nature.

3-  "The novel begins out of our erosion of belief in the authority of the written word and it begins with Cervantes"—seeing in the fictionality of fictions the key to a culture and using this awareness centrally in creating new fictions. This is a lesser but brilliant tradition (the realist tradition dominates). Cervantes initiates both traditions:

3-4- "his juxtaposition of high-flown literary fantasies with grubby actuality pointing the way to the realists, his zestfully ostentatious manipulation of the artifice he constructs setting a precedent for all the self-conscious novelists to come."

5- The hero of a library shows a fictional language, vs. the oral culture of Sancho, "a world of role-playing, where the dividing lines between role and identity are often blurred". Literature gives roles to that chaos in Don Quixote— the printing press is a precondition.

6-7- Self-conscious scenes in Cervantes, etc.

8- E.g. the scene of the found manuscript with illustrations, a mirror. Don Quixote equates being real and being recorded in literature and wants to become a book,

9- but when he attains his ambition he mistrusts the author; he only attains a fabric of contradictions; his raises doubts on the status of his story, and reveals the work as a trompe-l'œil. It is a real-seeming but avowedly arbitrary novelistic reality; this double nature is communicated (e.g. through names).

10- An ontological doubleness of language. "For Cervantes, the word simultaneously resonates with its old magical quality, and turns back on itself, exposing its own emptiness as an arbitrary or conventional construct."

11- A new narrative structure: "the fictional world is repeatedly conveyed into multiple regress of imitations that call attention in various ways to their own status as imitations."

12- Literary criticism keeps on calling attention to fictions: "literary criticism . . . is intrinsic to the fictional world of the Quixote and of all the self-conscious novels that follow it".

13- Literary criticism as an essential moment in the self-conscious novel.

14- Don Quixote shows extremely opposed attitudes to fiction in the Maeste Pedro episode. Don Quixote can be seen an acting out of this tension of attitudes.

15- A new sense of the autonomy of the artist is affirmed:

16- Cervantes enters his own story in the Captive's tale. Alter vs. Ortega's hermetical reading of the world of the novel—although Ortega himself elsewhere recognizes the duality of the genre.

17- The author confirms his absolute proprietorship over the fictional world: there is no compulsion to be true (or fictional): a teasing relationship of the writer to the reader.

18- "The intuition of life that, beginning with Cervantes, crystallized in the novel is profoundly paradoxical: the novelist lucidly recognizes the ways man may be painfully frustrated and victimized in a world with no fixed values or ideals, without even a secure sense of what is real and what is not, yet through the exercise of an autonomous art the writer boldly asserts the freedom of consciousness itself. The imagination, then, is alternately, or even simultaneously, the supreme insturment of human realization and the eternal source of delusion of a creature doomed to futility."

19- Games with the truthfulness or not of Cide Hamete: he 'makes believe' swearing as a Christian. Confusion fiction/fact at macroscopic and microscopic (metaphorical) levels. ¿An unreliable narrator, or is unreliability inevitable in language? we are made to wonder.

20- Transition between planes of reality [what Genette calls 'metalepsis']: Cide Hamete as a way of establishing distance between the author and the work, and also as a parody of the author's relationship to the work.

21- Attention is drawn away from the characters into the writing. Don Quixote is another surrogate for the author. Doubles are frequent in self-conscious novels: cf. the deceptiveness of similitudes.

22- The novel as a set of unstable dialectic oppositions: no sythesis is possible and each antithesis produces further antiheroes. In the Nouveau Roman, all is unstable, all is a hypothesis.

23- Pairings of characters as antitheses: the double is also a parody, a parody of reality , a critique of fiction, an experiment in imitation. Don Quixote's parodic descent to the underworld is in turn parodied by Sancho's 'flight'—

24- and by his fall; Altisidora episode is also parodic,

25- Parody as a literary mode which fuses creation and critique.

26- Dulcinea as an explicit fiction made of literary clichés.

28- Cf. Milton's use of tradition, which indicates faith in language and revelation. Cervantes in contrast is a fundamentally secular skeptic, and Don Quixote a profoundly modern novel.

2. Sterne and the Nostalgia for Reality

30- "One of the characteristic reflexes of the self-conscious novel is to flaunt 'naive' narrative devices, rescuing their usability by exploring their contrivance, working them into a highly patterned narration which reminds us that all representations of reality are, necessarily, stylizations" –e.g., the "ostentatious narrator."

31- Sterne is a great explorer of telling stories within stories, the most extreme of all; the very notion  of interpolation breaks down. Zigzag narrative as the rendering of the mind's resistence to pattern.

33- Reductionist parodies: Sterne as literary critic— "a central insight of his novel is that any literary convention means a schematization—and thus a misrepresentation—of reality."

34- Toying with conventions is not new: cf. the manuscripts in medieval romances, the plays within plays... al literature in the West, according to Barthes, gives the sign an ambiguous relationship with the real.

36- Tristram Shandy seen as most typical in this sense. A constant tension between the mental and the material spheres.

37- Cf. Descartes, etc.: Locke is treated by Sterne as a teacher to be taunted because of his undervaluing of the imagination.  He draws an opposition between the external man of mechanical causation and the internal man of feeling (Martin Price). Tristram Shandy is the first novel about the crisis of the novel,

40- TS discusses the innovativeness of his work even as he uses it. All times dissolve into the present of writing: the capture of experience becomes the plot. The fusion with critique makes Tristram poignantly alive as well. A slippery play with wit—sex appears as the Sancho Panza inside each character.

41 - A radical transformation of the self-conscious narrator he picked from Fielding. An original use of death, usually a narrative convenience: in Sterne it is associated to the opaqueness of language:

42-  (the black page is at once a joke and a way of taking us beyond language); mortality drives Tristram/Sterne in his wild scramble to write more.

43- Picaresque characters are seen in Smollett from the point of view of a normal observer; in Sterne there is no 'normality', all are eccentrics.

44- Does Sterne's sentimentality come from Richardson? OK, but "what arrested his imagination more in Richardson was the attempt at an exhaustive presentation of reality with the concomitant slowing down of narrative tempo." The blowing-up of scenes into a fantastic expansion results in an "alienating realism";

45- —these distortions produce a fantastic realism of the everyday. E.g. Trim's tale, showing the problem of narrative communication: the audience interpose their preconceptions.

46- Treatment of sex: bringing back etherealizing fancy and abstractracting reason down to their origin in the physical realm.

47- There is in Sterne a conscious awareness of repression and of its implications; double entendre involves both characters and readers.

48- An eloquent use of typographical silences in this respect.  Sterne approaches subtle moments of consciousness in the characters.

49- A paradoxical self-making realism: in parodying representation, Sterne's parodies become representative of new areas.

50- All are signs in Sterne: a nostalgia for reality (Mayoux); following intuition is best for that.

51- Intuition is proposed as an approach to reality, but we also find in Sterne an awareness of the dynamic of the mind with itself, crippling itself with stereotypes. Fantasy is coaxed into consciousness in Tristram Shandy; an invitation to unexpected moves of the mind.

52- Sterne vs. the Fieldingesque 'rational' disquisitions—disquisitions in Sterne are driven by desire and imagination.

54- "One of the general aims of Sterne's method, I would suggest, is to make us repeatedly aware of the infinite horizon of the imagination"; infinity needs the disruption and the interruption of narrative form.

55- "this elaborately rendered world of trivialities and frustrations nevertheless imparts to the reader a sense of comic liberation". Sterne takes us far from novelistic narration without ever really abandoning the enterprise of the novelist. Mimesis appears as a Sysiphean task. Sterne plays games, but he makes us aware of some of the vital processes by which we must live in reality;

56- "literary self-consciousness paradoxically proves to be a technique of realism as well."

3. Diderot's Jacques: This Is and Is Not a Story

57- Diderot: telling stories as a way of seeing life; "the story of life comes to an end unnoticed". Play with plagiarism: turning Sternee's materials to other ends.

63- Sterne mimicks the flow of consciousness, but Diderot concentrates on narration as something objective—always a lucid orderer of the materials.  

64- The acceleration of narrative (from Candide) as an emphatic structuration of evens through viewpoint.  "The informing insight of Jacques the Fatalist, I would contend, is that language can never give us experience itself but must always transmute experience into récit, that is, narration, or, if you will, fiction."

65- Narrative as the main way of making experience, or of making nonverbal experiences, distinctly human. Diderot followed Richardson early, but he came out of him on the other side of Sterne; he abandoned detailed realism,

66- and draws attention to symmetries and conventions. The time of the story fades before the time of narration in his novels. Diderot is mimetic in his aesthetic writings, traditional;

67- but he is much more skeptical in Jacques, emphasizing the relativity of truth and reacting against novel-writing and its contrivances.

68- Jacques appears as the narrator's surrogate and his master as the reader (similar to Sancho); "the journey is only an occasion for telling stories along the way." The novel is for Diderot a quest for understanding, not for authenticity like Cervantes. The adventures are adventures in storytelling, conventions to eschew, which is the end to reach.

69- Diderot lays bare the devices at the beginning (like Beckett). The flaunting of the author's power

70- does not detract from fidelity to reality in the protagonists. Against teleological narrative: reality is random. There is a randomness of reality;

71- the multiple outcomes of the plot are called attention to. Also the unpredictable nature of communication—all this results in digression and in multiple tales.

72- 'Spoken' tales in Jacques, vs. written Tristram Shandy; no typographical games... Sterne's narrative of isolation and memory is more modern than Diderot's 'oral' communication, where community is affirmed. In Sterne, eroticism is used to explore the gap imagination / reality;

73- in Diderot it is a way to allure the reader to read on and a way of analysing behavior (not experiential reality). Tristram Shandy leads to Ulysses, and Jacques le Fataliste to Proust; experiments in moral behavior.

74- The theme of appearance and deception, etc.

76- The paradox that art is a mode of deception which helps us reach the truth behind appearances.

77- Reality as flux for Diderot (versus fatalism); it is an artful decision to impose order.

78- The novel as an experiment in provisional freedom;

79- "his novel is formally an interplay between randomness and controlled pattern."

80- A control of human foibles and limitation by choosing what to tell, etc.;

81- "in the self-conscious novel, the act of fiction always implies an act of literary criticism, but, broadly speaking, it may move [outwards or inwards]." Jacques le Fataliste moves outwards, Tristram Shandy inwards. Cf. the greater isolationism and provincialism of English literature.

82- Paradoxically, Jacques le Fataliste was left posthumous, while Tristram Shandy was acclaimed and its author was lionized. Apart from some scattered romantics, Jacques le Fataliste was only appreciated in the 20th century. The 19th century was out of phase with Diderot.

4. The Self-Conscious Novel in Eclipse

85- 1. Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.

Political materials must be accomodated to the structure of a self-conscious novel, become aesthetically relevant.

86- The novel of the nineteenth century is rooted in social and historical reality; it has a will to depict society. Realism?

87- "What changed, I would suggest, was not the degree of realism but its characteristic objects", now overriding the novelistic plot; "the disparity between the structures of the imagination and things as they are , novelistic plot plot consisting in the multifarious effects of that disparity on the protagonist and the personages involved with him or (often) her." In the 19th c., the center shifted from imagination on literary materials, to social reality.

88- History is missing as a dynamic determinant in the 18th c., even in works of detail. A desire to register social change driveves novelists away from the exploration of fiction as artifice.

89- "The imaginative involvement with history, in any case, is the main cause for an almost complete eclipse of the self-conscious novel during the nineteenth century." The novel vanguard shifts to France after 1830. (Alter vs. a strict connection between the novel and a "bourgeois era").

90- Radical social change as a motor for the novel.

91- Paris as the center of social theory and of revolution.

92- The novelists' concerns are similar to those of Michelet: organic pattern and vivid detail.

93- The novel as a vigorous competitor to reality, and a way of containing chaos. It is thus driven away from self-questioning and from its own problematics.

95- The urban hell as a central theme, beyond "documentary" description, beyond mimesis:

96- it is an occasion for the writer's virtuosity and his manipulative power; a celebration of imagination.

97- 19th-c. novelists are disinclined to explore fictiveness, "not only because they are realists but equally because they are such intent imaginists." A love of artifice, yes, but not questioning its premises as it is employed. We find no continuous ontological scrutiny of fiction.

98- "The self-conscious novelists are always simultaneously aware of the supreme power of the literary imagination within its own sphere of creation and its painful or tragicomic powerlessness ouside that sphere. The great nineteenth-century imaginists, on the other hand, are impelled by a deeper inner need to explore the two realms." Novelists begin to talk about a hallucinated sense of the reality of characters.

99- Balzac's use of returning characters not so much as a formal need of the novel, but as a psychological need of the novelist. Domination through imagination: then novelistic figure of Napoleon haunts the 19th-c. novel.

101- This suggests that hstorical change can come about though will. The novelist of the 19th century confuses mimesis and poiesis, imagination and making.

102- "For the nineteenth-century novelists, fictional invention often seems actually a mode of action and as such cannot afford the luxury of self-criticism."

103- Fielding discovers convention and artifice in the urban scene, with no spatial expansion of the plot.

104- Only vestiges of self-consciousness remain the the nineteenth-century passion for mimesis. Let's see 3 of these 'vestiges'.

2. LOST ILLUSIONS and the Assumption of Realism. 

105- Balzac's novel Lost Illusions is concerned with writers and discussions of literature, but it is not self-conscious.

106- The narrative is only "information": the medium is supposed to be transparent. The solidity of the realistic world is not questioned. Therefore he can aspire to a comprehensive portrayal of society.

110- No dialectical tension is felt by Balzac between himself and his creation. There are author-surrogates in the characters, but they are not set in couples, not a dialectical relationship. They are only herarchized.

111- At the top we find Vautrin, approaching authorial omniscience.

112- He is a Napoleonic man, instrumentalizing people and economizing them; a manipulatory character, like the author, who uses them as surrogates.

113- Tristram Shandy works with impotence, Balzac with omnipotence [Cf. Beckett vs. Joyce—JAGL]. In the Balzacian novel, surrogates are indulged or punished, instead of entering into a dialectical self-confrontation. Balzac "reconstitutes society in his fiction in order to act out his real hostility towards it, his fantasies of dominating it."

114- —Balzac is animated by ressentiment and self-gratification. The loss of illusions in Illusions perdues is a continuation of Don Quixote, but here the fiction becomes real, as against Don Quixote.

3. Wavering perspectives in Vanity Fair:

Thackeray writes in the Fielding tradition of displaying his manipulation, with commentary on the characters, the reader, and the plot construction.

116- But no impression of self-conscious novel is produced; the effects are intermittent and taken in by a very different conception of fictional events and of the narrator's relation to them.

117- E.g. the double perspective on Amelia: is she a cliché, an insipid woman, or is she tender and desirable?

117-18- "The inconsistencies in this Victorian adaptation of self-conscious devices are clearest in Thackeray's treatment of his narrating persona." The metaphor of the puppet-show is not sustained; he becomes a chronicler, a "true historian" without ironic duplicity. That side of him does not interact with the puppet-master.

119- In the last analysis, the puppet-show is a moral metaphor suggested by Thackeray's sense of life unmediated in his book. —an excessive insistence on "the truth".

120-  The narrator crosses th border between fiction and reality inadvertently; there is a much greater ironic distance in Fielding, through his construction of a coherent persona and his use of the literary tradition for parodic purposes. Thackeray is more hemmed in by his moral assumptions, and by his purposes in novel-writing. Cf. his persecution of Becky, which reveals a secret identification with her;

123- "what is especially curious about the handling of Becky is that she is not just a fantasy projection of some secret self in the author but his unrecognized surrogate in regard to her mode of operation in the novel." Becky as a puppeteer! Manipulating people; she writes satire too, and impersonates others. It is remarkable that nothing is made of this: Beecky is too real for Thackeray exploring the artifice.

124- "Thackeray's self-consciousness is finally not as a novelist but as a moralist"—he gestures towards allegory. Thackeray and Balzac nevertheless share "the delusion of grandeur characteristic of the nineteeenth-century novelist: to ignore wilfully the limits of fiction, to play the role of omniscient knower, absolute judge, omnipotent arbiter of taste and morality, for a world supposedly shared by the novelist and his readers."

126- The irony is always aimed at the character, not at the fictional process.

127- The showman metaphor reveals some diffidence on the part of the writer towards his role as entertainer, but the title from Bunyan ("Vanity Fair") shows self-confidence: he tries to write a summa of his age.

4. Fictional Confidence and 'The Confidence Man'

Melville anticipates the écriture blanche, or literature of silence, in the age of realism. He moves towards the abandoning of fiction.

128- The Confidence Man as a relative failure: realism + Fieldinguesque digressions on fiction. "Melville does not have an adequate fictional technique for continuously integrating the imaginary personages and actions with the reflections on the nature of fiction." He is closest to the self-conscious novel, more than any other works of its age.

129- A mobile world of false appearances and pretense is elevated here into the essence of the human condition: there is a deep sense of the paradoxical relationship between fiction and reality; the confidence man creates fictions on himslef.

130- A paradox tha the reader should escape from reality in order to be presented a sharper reality (Melville says).

131- The novelist as confidence man: he leaves us with airy spectres.

132- Bizarre similes are the way to flaunt artifice and convey the object at once.

133- Images of fleeting images are used to describe his fiction—but this is not sustained throughout the novel, which is more conventionally realistic elsewhere:

134- "It would seem that Melville was too involved in the characteristic practices of the novel in his won age to break with them as decisively as his theoretical chapters implicitly require." He is too generalizing: Society, Mankind, etc.—there is no concern for individual psychology, no sustained plot, and character is too distant for the reader. The novel as a New Scripture.

137- We discern a sense of the possibilities of the novel in dealing with vexations of the spirit: Kafka, Conrad, and Beckett will follow. The crisis of confidence in fiction we see in Melville will become more general in the 20th century.

5. The Modernist Revival of Self-Conscious Fiction

Gide conceives of the novel as a work of art, not a mirror. Mann, pro parody and intellectual distance.

1. New Novels for New Men and Women. 

Woolf's change of nature:

139- "One of several underlying patterns in this new constellation of creative forces is an artistically manifested self-consciousness about the processes of fiction-making the like of which had not been seen in the novel since the end of the eighteenth century."

140- Though not due to a repression, fiction was often deeply concerned with a historical moment or with the future of Western civilization.

141- In modernist fiction space is represented otherwise. Instead of filling in a spatial mold, it breaks, and the consciousness of the protagonist jumps to other times and places. Now in Joyce et al. it is different from Sterne: an "ultimate sense of being as a precarious structure erected on a ground of nothingness"—reality threatens to crumble, and "the play of consciousness becomes a sustained act of desperate courage—a 'violin in the void', in Nabokov's memorable phrase—creating form and substance where perhaps there would be nothing."

143- Entropy and decay as a central concept. Broch: the unity of events and the integrity of the world is sustained by symbols. [Cf. Shelley's notions in "The Defence of Poetry"—JAGL]. Artifice has a central role.

144- There is a paradoxical tension between mimeticism and artifice in Joyce: stream of consciousness, plus parody and formalization: "he has a modern recognition not only that reality is always mediated by consciousness but that consciousness itself is an artificer in constantly making something of the formless flux of experience, inventing images and chains of connection to give it shape and substance." There is an excessive elaboration of artifice in Joyce, which is significant: it is the only reality.

145- A tension between ordered structures and the flow of experience. [Cf. the situation in games, in law...] 

147- The threat of the void in Joyce and in Biely. The relationship to history changes:

148-  the self-conscious novel is related to a feeling of apocalypse. The imagination of history, progressively unfolding in society can no longer hold. Writers of Revelation: although it is not a general equation, but only a tendency.

149- Self-consciousness as a way of affirming the integrity of the work, against a background of chaos. A sense of mortality and fading permeates scenic description in Virginia Woolf, through her protagonists' consciousness.

151- But consciousness is artifice for Joyce, and art for Woolf: there is no attempt to render its texture more poetic; it is formalized, and calls attention to its states as poetry.

153- Virginia Woolf as a transitional figure, balancing the claims of history and self-consciousness, drawing attention to her own art as self-justified, and to reality.

154- Cervantes, Sterne or Diderot are more aware that fictions are the only reality. Unamuno's Niebla is less impressive as fiction, but the ontological paradox (a character facing his author) is interesting. It is strictly self-conscious, not a mixed mode like Joyce's or Woolf's works. A paradoxical ambivalence between the reality / fictionality / autonomy of the character.

155- Life appears here as a dream: the author is also under the illusion of autonomous existence.

156- The world as chaos or order: only man puts logic in it. "Unamuno suggests here that what art must do is embody randomness as an essential principle in its own operations."

157- A relation in the 20th c. novel (Ford, Durrell) to alternative endings. Naboko, Fowler: randomness is introduced into the plot, which was the traditional area of necessity.

158- In Mist, again,  reflections on fiction are an essential moment, and the creation of paradoxes is pushed to the limit. All verbalization is (for Unamuno) falsification: parody is the only solution.

2. Gide and the Confidence Game of Fiction.

160- Gide's The Caves of the Vatican is more original than The Counterfeiters, which is "a not altogether happy mingling of narrative modes or aesthetic premises. It is self-defeating: Édouard's Journal is conventional [¿¿¿¿!!! —but its placing in the novel is not—JAGL.]. There is no split of self into the dialectic of literary creation; there is "too much direct playing out of fantasy versions of the self." Self-gratifying homosexual fantasies are not subjected to the rigours of artistic criticism.

161- the problem of the autonomy of the character is not solved. The Counterfeiters is interesting but flawwed; character's don't go anywhere. Caves of the Vatican includes successful composite parodies; a genine doubling of characters, with antithetical pairs acting dialectically.

162- The subject is the difference between the real world and our representations (a subject announced but not realized in The Counterfeiters). Julien vs. Lafcadio, a conventional novelist vs. quirky anti-literature. But Lafcadio finds himself trapped in conventional novelistic behaviour, in a crime novel.

163- Cervantesque doublings, change of roles, etc.

165- An inversion of the Quixotic model: Lafcadio tries to impose a self-validating code above models and conventions—but conforms unwittingly to them.

166- Game is a key concept here. Lafcadio is a gamer, but is caught in the novelist's game of coincidences in the plot. The playful attitude of Gide's sotie favours aesthetic success.

168- Characters are made come to life through distance and ironic obliquity. Distance is taken from confessional literature.

169- Games with characters' names evince them as verbal constructs.

170- A vertigo of masks; reality appears as dubious. There is in Les Caves du Vatican a modern sense of the instability of character and reality. Fictional conventional devices are tried on, adopted at last, as no less true than Lafcadio's dream of absolute freedom.

175- A problematic relationship between cliché and reality.

177- Iconoclasm of Modernism: e.g. the use of parody not only as reaction but also as a form of enlivening high art with the emotional power of popular fiction. The novel is a continuous tradition of parody. A daring probing of the resources of imagination is also necessary in the self-conscious novel. Gide is too parodic, does not show enough commitment. Nabokov offers a more coherent program for the self-consciousn novel, and shows the way for the novel the second half of the 20th century.

6. Nabokov's Game of Worlds

180- "Nabokov is the preeminent practitioner of partial magic in the novel, from Cervantes' days down to our own"—though not the greatest, he is the most self-conscious about self-consciousness.

181- He shows a whole spectrum of self-consciousness and also some inherent limitations of this mode of fiction.

182- Characters in Nabokov are often flattened by the design. Best works: The Gift, Invitation to a Beheading, Lolita and Pale Fire. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, like Unamuno's Mist, is more intersting for its theory than for its realized fiction.

"If the self-conscious novel tends on one side to excessive cerebrality, to an ascetic avoidance of the pungent juices of ordinary fictional life, it tends on the other side to an unchecked playfulness that may become self-indulgent". There is a tendency in Nabokov to play games with himself.

184- Where best, his self-consciousness and games collaborate with the living personality of characters.

186- The sin of Nabokov criticism: to assume that intricacy of pattern is enough of a sign of a masterful imaginative achievement. Pale Fire is an experiment into magical and probing functions of language.

187- Due to their awareness of themselves, self-conscious novels tend to reproduce themselves en abyme, "illuminating their devious narrative ways with small replicas of the innovative structure of the whole." There are ubiquitous reflections in Nabokov's novels (emblems, infinite regressions, etc. referring to the novel) —all tightly tied up with the inner life of the protagonists.

192- "The pale fire of art, in the usual view, reflects the sum of reality, but we also see it here become its own sun."

194- Ambiguous status of the difference between truth and fiction; we do not know what is supposed to be true within the framework of the novel—Alter warns that we should be careful when doing such divisions; vs. simplistic conclusions.

195- Alphabetically determined patterns—which here make thematic sense.

202- An antithesis between the two kinds of poets  in Pale Fire (Popean / Shakespearean); references, etc.

209 - The authorial consciousness never falters (unlike Durrell's Alexandria Quartet) , etc.;

214- it is used to show "how a fiction based on the dynamic of fiction-making can address itself not merely to the paradoxes of the writer's craft but to the ambiguities of the human condition."

215- Kimbote's and his own creation became real, more than puppets: the fictional world of Pale Fire is not discarded the way it was in Invitation.

217- "We do not surrender the imagination, but on our way to this ultimate point [the end of Pale Fire] we have come to see the drastic costs and limits of living by it alone."

7. The Inexhaustible Genre

218- The baring of the artifice has become more common over the past two decades [1955-75] —it is not a school, however. (Alter gives some authors' names).

219- There is self-conscious cinema, too: Fellini, Antonioni, Resnais, Godard.

220- Our culture is turned upon itself, examining its own roots and patterns, "a kind of Faust at the mirror of Narcissus". Self-awareness, which is growing, is both a paralyzing and a liberating force. It lends itself to analytical criticism;

221- and it has a deceptive appearance in making novels sound more profound and significant.

222- Some of them lack in sense of human experience (e.g. Queneau's Exercises de Style) —criticism need not make excessive claims for playful writing. It is a temptation for the self-conscious novelist to content himself with textual experiment (Robbe-Grillet, Coover...)—virtuous and arid. A complementary fault: "to give free rein to every impulse of invention or fictional contrivance without distinguishing what may serve some artistic function in the novel and what is merely silly or self-indulgent" (e.g. in Flann O'Brien).

223- According to O'Brien's the self-conscious novel is, according to himself, "a self-evident sham to wheich the reader can regulate at will the degree of his credulity"—too simple a theory.

224- The self-conscious novel is not a sham, but an artifice which is not self-evident, but cunningly and ambiguously revealed.The reader does not regulate it, the writer tries to regulate the reader's credulity, challenging him to participation, forcing re-examination.  O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds is tedious, there is no tension in the fiction. 

225- Alter defends attention to reality, vs. voguish self-consciousness, vs. arid exercises and indiscriminate invention. But the flaunting of the artifice is a valued and powerful device in many novels: Alter values Nabokov and Beckett, Barth and Coover.  

226- This helps focus the issue of the 'death of the novel'. Alter rejects Barth's  notion of a  'literature of exhaustion'  extracting new energy from its own exhaustion; this is an elitist and minimalist conception.

227- Borges is not a novelist, but a fabulist. The novel requires lived experience.

228-  But Alter favours his theory of meaning and reading: books are a mode of interaction and relationship; books grow in meaning with tradition. (See e.g. in Borges "Kafka y sus precursores").

229- Artistic possibilities are inexhaustible; each work grows up more. 

230- Vs. Coover on the contemporary exhaustion of reality, and on novelists turning into fabulists; on the the end of the humanistic world view, etc...  No, Alter says. Beckett and Nabokov are comic rather than cosmic writers; both are novelists rather than fabulists.

231- There is no move away from history now, as claimed by Coover, "unless the novel is really dead, the one thing it ultimately cannot dispense with is history".

232- "Perhpas the most reliable index to whether a piece of self-conscious fiction is closed off from life is whether it tends to diminish the actuality of personal and historical time" (as happens with Robbe-Grillet, Queneau...)

233-  Although Jealousy  is OK because it is psychologically motivated.

[!!!! —Alter's theory of self-conscious writing is far behind that of his French contemporaries, e.g. Ricardou.]

234- Queneau's Le Chiendent is also OK—a  [self-begetting fiction is the term Alter needs], a meditation on the paradoxes of being and nonbeing in life and in fiction.  Language is the art medium most steeped in memory, both public and private.

235- "Language through its layeer upon layer of associations opens up complex vistas of time, and these tend to reveal—ultimately for cultures, imminently for individuals—loss, decline, and extinction. The continuous acrobatic display of artifice in a self-conscious novel is an enlivening demonstration of human order against a background of chaos and darkness, and it is the tension between artifice and that which annihilates artifice that gives the finest self-conscious novels their urgency in the midst of play." Death impelling writers into the supreme affirmation of art. 

236- Art vs. the void: Sartre's Nausea is programmatic, but even works free from existentialism use this tension (e.g. Fielding); or the desire for the suppression of war: wishful thinking of imagination into history?

237- "The age-old impulse of the storyteller bespeaks a basic human need to imagine out of history a fictional order of fulfillment, but when the narrative is a novel and not a fairy tale, one is also made aware of the terrible persistence of history as a murderous realm of chaos constantly challenging or violating the wholeness that art can imagine." Vs. the notion of "exhaustion"; there is often a continuity with the past masters of self-conscious fiction; it is not more difficult now to write a great novel than at other moments.

238- The self-consciousness of our culture is more pronounced—self-consciousness of craft and of the relationship fiction/life.

239- Mauriac's La Marquise: a "sense of the writer's predicament as a perennial, not peculiarly modern, difficulty"—facing fiction, always an invented world; "alittérature" as an intrinsic problematic for Mauriac (the coiner of the term).

240- Literature as a constant drive to escape being "just" literature. Good self-conscious fiction does not merely shrug away its fiction, but affirms artifice too as a means, perhaps the only way to get at a whole range of real human experience. 

241- The baring of the artifice in La Marquise: a play with artifice but with a consciousness "two concentric abysses beneath the artifice of the novel"; 

242- —a consciousness of language as soaked with time, and and of the brevity of human life, etc.

243- Words as the only permanence, a dubious one; the self-conscious novel is paradoxically concerned with a long meditation on death, a subject sidestepped by myth, folk tale, fable and romance. The realist novel also sidesteps death insofar as it is a dream of omnipotence. The novel is born when literature begins to mediate on death. [??]

244-  "I suspect death in the novel might be a more serious focus for serious discussion of the genre than the death of the novel." 

245- The self-conscious novel as a "mirror held to the mirror of art held to nature"; a necessary operation for a skeptical culture nevertheless addicted to fabulation. The novel is not exhausted as novelistic self-consciosness develops: "On the contrary, in the hands of gifted writers it comes to seem precisely our most precisely fashioned instrument for joining imagined acts and figures with real things."



Notes on Metafiction

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