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.
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
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...
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