Self-Reflexive Long Fiction Analysis

Misguided self-consciousness

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The malice-devoured narrator of Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Letters from the Underworld, 1913; better known as Notes from the Underground), by Fyodor Dostoevski, set a pattern for misguided self-consciousness in twentieth century fiction: A narrator analyzes his or her own text, indeed is often a would-be artist, but lacks sufficient insight. Irony thus divides author and narrator. For example, Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Lolita (1955), by Vladimir Nabokov, wishes to immortalize statutory rape as serious literature; however, his account is classified in the preface as a psychological case, and the novel is ultimately darkly comic, ridiculing Humbert Humbert.

Comparably, The Great American Novel (1938), by Clyde Brion Davis, purports to be the diaries of a journalist who spends his whole obtuse life planning a never-written novel. The first-person voice in Grendel (1971), by John Gardner, becomes fascinated with a narrative poet but ultimately rejects art, morality, and any other order. In fictions primarily about misguided self-consciousness, the monstrous or moronic narrator is an artist manqué.

The Künstlerroman

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Near the start of Metamorphoses (second century c.e.; The Golden Ass, 1566), the author, Lucius Apuleius, predicts that its protagonist will have adventures worthy of being in a book. Although Apuleius writes the book, he declares his belief that the adventures themselves take precedence over the authorship of the story. Only with the nineteenth century did writers reach such a status that a genre arose to extol them—the Künstlerroman. Some of these works includeJohann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824) and Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802; Henry of Ofterdingen, 1842).

Like many imitations of this type, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Of Time and the River (1935), The Web and the Rock (1939), and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940) are disguised autobiography, depicting an artist’s disaffection from contemporary society. More original are books that try to refresh the formula, such as Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929). At first it seems to be a novel of misguided self-consciousness, the ravings of a mad diarist, but Hesse portrays outpourings of the unconscious as an artist’s proper education. Another variant of the formula is to counterpoise the perspectives of many writer characters, as inAldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928), André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925; The Counterfeiters, 1927), or Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (1962).

In the United States, authors frequently labor to keep self-reflection from turning into preciosity. Consequently, a popular variant of the formula is to disguise it as masculine adventure, as in Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels. The first, Ender’s Game (1985), seems to be about a prepubescent military leader, although his siblings become famous writers. In the second volume, Speaker for the Dead (1986), his education is shown to have prepared him to write the scriptures for a new religion. By the later volumes in the series, including Shadow of the Giant (2005), his powers as author have reached a magical dimension such that he can make characters literally live merely by imagining them. In the Künstlerroman, being a writer is deemed the ultimate expression of a person’s potential, whereas the following level, the self-begetting novel, celebrates the author’s godlike creation of a whole world.

The self-begetting novel

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In an attempt to define all self-reflexive long fiction, Steven G. Kellman devised the term “self-begetting novel,” by which he means a work that appears to have been written by a character within that work. Although he admits that this is actually not the focus of all self-reflexive works, his phrase does suit those fictions that suggest self-enclosure by, for example, ending with references to their beginning.

Kellman sees self-begetting fiction as predominantly French, stemming from Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). Henry Miller, in Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), models his writer-protagonist’s resistance to devouring time on Proust’s work. Comparably, Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949) concludes with its main character, Antoine Roquentin, wishing to write a novel so that people might one day revere him the way he does a singer on a repeatedly heard record. As Kellman observes, the waitress who plays the record is named Madeleine, an allusion to Proust’s madeleine cake, whose taste triggered the protagonist’s paranormal, vivid recollection of his past. Significantly, Michel Butor, famous for his La Modification (1957; Second Thoughts, 1958; better known as A Change of Heart), and Samuel Beckett, author of Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958), have written not only self-begetting fictions but also major essays on Proust.

The aforementioned Proust-like narratives are increasingly constricted and dissatisfied with life. Miller’s world is designedly more tawdry and sordid than that of Proust. Sartre ventures further still into squalor, inspiring the “nausea” of Roquentin. Two decades later, rather than being by class a...

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Extended Midrash

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Because of its use by such critics as Harold Bloom, the term “Midrash” has come to denote literary interpretation in narrative form. Before there was a critical term for it, extended Midrash became fashionable through James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), based on a massive analogy between itself and Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), though it links itself to a vast number of other works as well. For example, its character Stephen Dedalus (protagonist of Joyce’s serialized Künstlerroman of 1914-1915 [1916 book], A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) spends a long chapter discussing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a manner applicable to Ulysses itself.

In the same year that Joyce published the even more metafictional Finnegans Wake (1939), Flann O’Brien issued the almost equally experimental At Swim-Two-Birds, a parody of Irish literary tradition. The appearance of these works did not mark the opening of floodgates, since Ulysses—like extended Midrash—requires readers who are able to comprehend a vertiginous play of allusions. Consequently, works of this sort are hardly plentiful. Even the most erudite readers do not always esteem them. In Remembrance of Things Past, for example, Proust’s narrator condemned theorizing about art within a novel, likening it to leaving a price tag on a purchase.

Midrash first developed as an ancient form of Jewish biblical criticism. Some modern fictions continue applying Midrash to scriptures. For example, biblical hermeneutics are repeatedly foregrounded in Thomas Mann’s multivolume Die Geschichten Jaakobs (1933; Joseph and His Brothers, 1934; also known as The Tales of Jacob), thereby underlining the fact that his retelling of Genesis is a speculation or even a fantasy. Its protagonist is himself both storyteller and dream interpreter, analogous to Mann himself. Comparably, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) contains a Midrash-like dream about a character named Salman who finds that the Koran is imperfect, destroying Salman’s...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Currie, Mark, ed. Metafiction. New York: Longman, 1995. Articles on experimental themes and techniques in literature, with essays contributed by writers of metafiction and by literary scholars. Essays include “What Is Metafiction, and Why Are They Saying Such Awful Things About It?” and “The Art of Metafiction.”

Doody, Margaret Anne. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Comprehensive work in which the author traces self-consciousness in modern fiction to its use in the literature of the ancient world, which was connected to the mystery religions of the time.

Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. New ed. New York: Methuen, 1984. Study of the “forms and implications of metafiction.” Hutcheon distinguishes the overt narcissism of metafiction from the covert narcissism of mystery novels, fantasy, eroticism, game structures, and puns. For advanced readers.

Kawin, Bruce. The Mind of the Novel: Reflexive Fiction and the Ineffable. 1982. New ed. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006. Explores the essence of self-reflexive, or self-conscious, fiction and compares its structure to human consciousness. Kawin writes, “the self is the mystery at the heart of the reflexive novel.” For advanced readers.

Kellman, Steven G. The Self-Begetting Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. Although it tries to do more, this study does especially well in tracing the self-begetting strand of metafiction. Chapters on Proust, Sartre, Beckett, and the English and American self-begetting novels.

Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Excellent resource on metafiction as a means of storytelling. Dated but relevant study.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2003. Examines “the political, social, and economic factors” that affect judgments of fiction, including the self-reflexive novel. First published in 1984.