Stephen Bann

  • Narrative Discourse by Gérard Genette, translated by Jane Lewin
    Blackwell, 285 pp, £9.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 631 10981 1

To judge by our literary periodicals, something is in the air this summer. The forbidding term ‘Deconstruction’, formerly whispered behind closed doors, has been flung to and fro in the public arena. British readers who had mildly hoped that the ‘challenge of Structuralism’ would simply vanish of its own accord have awoken to find a more formidably astringent dogma hotly disputed in Paris and in Yale. As Roger Poole pointed out in a recent number of this journal, they are as yet barely equipped to take part in the ‘debate being carried on … with such verve and panache’.

Signs of panic are perhaps already visible. A moderate but by now long overdue request that we should separate the good from the bad in the contemporary French mêlée is published simultaneously with a vitriolic and wholly uninformative attack on the Tel Quel group. How are we to keep our balance, let alone ‘join in’ the debate?

This publication of the first substantial English translation from the critical work of Gérard Genette is at least a move in the right direction, though Narrative Discourse is not by any means a text in the idiom of Deconstruction. Originally published as the major part of Genette’s third collection of critical essays, Figures III, in 1972, it is one of the culminating achievements of what might be termed High Structuralism, sharing that distinction with Tzvetan Todorov’s Poétique de la Prose from the previous year. With his customarily fine sense of strategy and timing, Roland Barthes had published S/Z in 1970, thus announcing both the culmination of the logic of structural analysis but also, in a sense, its impending crisis. From 1970 onwards, the gulf between what Hayden White has called the ‘Absurdist’ and the ‘Normal’ tendencies in French criticism was to grow ever more considerable, with Barthes himself as the only token of what they had once held in common. Genette, co-editor with Todorov of the excellent magazine Poétique from 1970 onwards, was to be a powerful sponsor of the ‘Normal’ tendency. Poétique – in contradistinction to Tel Quel – was intended specifically as an academic review, a means for the spreading in France and elsewhere of a positive, uncontentious science of literary analysis: in a word, a Poetics.

Thus far, Genette might appear, quite justifiably, as presenting the best possible face of contemporary French criticism: as an ideal starting-point for any exercise in re-education. Highly congenial to the British temperament, I would suggest, is the gentle irony with which he constructs his wrily apologetic ‘Afterword’ to Narrative Discourse, forecasting the speedy obsolescence of his ‘technology’ of critical terms, which must surely be ‘barbaric to lovers of belles lettres’, and even invoking that cherished British instrument of hygiene, Occam’s razor, against the proliferation of unnecessary ‘theoretical objects’. Yet it would be a great mistake to view Genette, for all his discretion, humour and pragmatism, as an ingratiating mirror image of our own sensibility. On the contrary, Genette’s distinctive achievement has been to enshrine, perhaps more than any other of his fellow countrymen, the contemporary image of the French Classical tradition. Todorov represents, for obvious reasons, the productive grafting of Russian Formalism onto the Western stem. Genette clearly benefited from his intermediacy: in 1966, the same year that Todorov published his well-known anthology of Formalist criticism in France, he acknowledged its catalytic effect in an important essay entitled ‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’ (later to appear in English, in 1969, in the magazine Form). But in the same, brilliantly synthetic article, Genette showed himself to be more profoundly indebted to the tradition of classicist criticism ‘from Aristotle to La Harpe’. His critical approach could be seen, against this perspective, as the raising of precisely those questions which the classicists, imprisoned within the ideology of mimesis, were incapable of framing: questions which had nevertheless become inevitable in a period when thinkers like Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty and Lévi-Strauss had made their own diverse and challenging contributions to a possible science of literature.

However, it was not as an overtly ‘scientific’ critic, as a builder of systems, that Genette presented himself in the first two collections of Figures (1966 and 1969). His vocation was, and has indeed remained, that of an essayist. And by ‘essayist’ I mean very much more than a mere writer of academic articles, who contents himself with such small-scale productions while preparing the major undertaking of his next book. Genette puts us in mind of the traditional seriousness of the essay form, which, as Walter Benjamin recalls in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was a major vehicle of philosophical investigation before the system-builders of the 19th century repudiated it. Yet it is not Benjamin who springs to mind as the obvious parallel for Genette the essayist. It is the Proust of Contre SainteBeuve and Pastiches et Mélanges. An early essay such as ‘Silences de Flaubert’, which is devoted to such instances as the ‘unprepared change of speed’ noted by Proust in the penultimate chapter of The Sentimental Education, seems almost to constitute an apocrypha of the master’s work. Genette has never left Proust for long, as model or as material Figures III contains, besides the whole of Narrative Discourse, an extraordinarily revealing essay on ‘Métonymie chez Proust’. And Proust the critic intervenes in Narrative Discourse to justify, with a philosophical dictum, the whole programme of detailed analysis: ‘it has not yet been shown how “over-formal” interpretation impoverishes and devitalises. Or rather, Proust himself proved the contrary by pointing out, for example about Flaubert, how a particular use “of the past definite, the past indefinite, the present participle, and of certain pronouns and prepositions, has renewed our vision of things almost to the same extent as Kant, with his Categories, renewed our theories of knowledge, and of the reality of the external world”. To put it another way, and to parody Proust’s own formula, vision can also be a matter of style and of technique.’

Having led the issue round, not unnaturally, to Proust, we must let the cat out of the bag by revealing that Narrative Discourse is in effect a book about Proust (the customary metonymy for A la Recherche du Temps perdu). Or rather, to give due attention to Genette’s subtle equivocation, it is a study which chooses Proust’s novel as a vehicle for the systematic analysis of narrative, thus establishing a relation between ‘ “theoretical” dryness and critical meticulousness’ which is ‘one of refreshing rotation and mutual entertainment’. The reviewer, conscious, ‘like the insomniac turning over and over in search of a better position’, of the different attitudes which he might adopt, is in the end drawn to ask two separate questions: what does Genette tell us about narrative, and what does Genette tell us about Proust? In answer to the first question, Jonathan Culler has written a brief and cogent foreword, in which he develops the substantial claim that Genette has given us the first ‘systematic theory of narrative’. Equally appropriate, and perhaps more congenial to this particular insomniac, is the posing of the other question. What can the ‘systematic theory of narrative’ tell us about A la Recherche du Temps perdu?

Up to a point, of course, it tells us what we knew before: that it is the exception that proves the rule, and that Proust’s novel is, by any standards, an exception. But I doubt if even the most attentive reader has grasped a small proportion of the instances where, in terms of Genette’s analysis, it turns out to be exceptional. Genette’s ‘Essay in Method’ (a subtitle which, so as not to frighten the faint-hearted, has been expunged from all locations but the dust-jacket in the present translation) proposes five overall categories for the classification of narrative devices: order, duration, frequency, mood and voice. Considered in relation to each of these categories, A la Recherche turns out to have a subtly or violently transgressive position vis-à-vis the narrative norm. In the section devoted to ‘Order’, for example, Genette investigates the difference between ‘story time’ and ‘narrative time’, between the implied chronology of the story and the time of its telling. He finds that Proust not only draws continually upon the ‘analepsis’, or recollected episode, but also upon the much rarer device of the ‘prolepsis’, or anticipated episode, in the architecture of the novel. Moreover, he moves in the direction of ‘achrony’ – the temporal displacement which cannot be related to any chronological co-ordinates – as in ‘a retrospective refutation of a mistaken anticipation’. This tendency to move from legitimate but rarely used devices, to the deliberate exploitation of forms which cannot be naturalised, is also noted in the section on ‘Frequency’. Proust takes over from Flaubert the frequent use of the ‘iterative’ form: most characteristically, the employment of the imperfect tense to denote an action which happened not once but repeatedly.

Yet Proust expands this usage so considerably, Genette suggests, that we cannot dispel its anomalies with the figurative explanation that we would use for classical narrative: ‘The narrative affirms literally “this happened every day”, to be understood figuratively as “every day something of this kind happened, of which this is one realisation among others” ’ Instead, we must make a clear choice between convicting Proust of imperfect craftsmanship, and crediting him with a wholly modern attitude to the conventions of language: ‘it seems to me sounder to read these slips as so many signs that the writer himself sometimes “lives” such scenes with an intensity that makes him forget the distinctions of aspects – and that excludes on his part the purposeful attitude of the classical novelist using in full awareness a purely conventional figure. These confusions, it seems to me, instead reflect in Proust a sort of intoxication with the iterative.’

In the light of this recommendation, we can easily see how Proust is represented more than once in Narrative Discourse as a pioneer of the nouveau roman, who does not restrict but indeed multiplies the possibilities of ‘confusion’ in the field of classical narrative But Proust is not only shown as multiplying devices and defying the strategies of closure. He also simply eliminates part of the classical narrator’s stock-in-trade. The second section of the study deals with the concept of ‘Duration’, which Genette distributes into the four different functions of ‘summary’, ‘pause’, ‘ellipsis’ and ‘scene’. ‘Summary’ the ‘narration in a few paragraphs or a few pages of several days, months, or years of existence, without details of action or speech’ – is of course a constant resource of the traditional novel. Yet in Proust it occurs hardly at all. The narrative of A la Recherche is almost exclusively dependent upon the alternation of ‘pause’ (as in a passage of description) and ‘scene’ (the characteristic matinées and soirées which take up such a large part of the book), rather than upon the traditional opposition of ‘scene’ and ‘summary’. Genette is surely right in identifying this radical change in narrative strategy with Proust’s achievement of ‘a perfectly unprecedented rhythm’.

There are many other aspects of Genette’s study which enable us to glimpse the technical reasons for the uniqueness of A la Recherche, as well as renewing our vision of such indispensable but overworked concepts as ‘point of view’. Jonathan Culler cannot be faulted for his claim that ‘every reader of Genette will find that he becomes a more acute and perceptive analyst of fiction than before.’ If we wish to consider Narrative Discourse primarily as a critique of Proust, then there is an interesting comparison to be made with another major study of the same period which has already been translated into English, Gilles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs. Delcuze’s work sets up the hypothesis of a Proustian machine (the Proustian machine?) continually involved in the production of the signs of love, the signs of society and the signs of art: his analysis is like the harvesting and baling, in three separate heaps, of these three constituents of the artist’s initiation. Genette, on the other hand, draws through the shoals of A la Recherche a net of carefully adjusted mesh, leaving the mythic structure almost untouched in his search for adequate examples. Yet both Deleuze and Genette concur in rejecting the sentimental platitudes of Proustian criticism, in its traditional concern with the ‘phenomenon of involuntary memory’. Deleuze describes the Proustian machine as an ‘anti-logos’, which is perpetually materialising on the level of discourse the ‘spiritual’ values which it extrapolates on the thematic level. Genette quotes Proust himself in order to make a more modest plea for the shifting of critical attention. ‘Involuntary memory, ecstasy of the intemporal, contemplation of eternity? Perhaps. But also, when we concentrate on the “purely compositional aspect of the matter”, significant link and method of transition.’

It would be possible to conclude my review at this point, with Genette’s sober recall to the duties of Poetics. Yet is this enough, eight years after the original publication of Narrative Discourse, when the ‘debate’ is not about High Structuralism but about Post-Structuralism, or, as it has come to be known, Deconstruction? What role can Genette’s study play in the critical strategies of the present? It would be tempting to conclude that a ‘systematic theory of narrative’ has an obvious, indeed unimpeachable relevance to the study of literature, in Britain as elsewhere. But this is surely not the case. Perhaps we are disposed to make either too small or too large an investment in the study of literature. On the one hand, a painstaking method like that of Genette is regarded as being unduly laborious and technical. (An exception must however be made for students of film, literature’s stripling cousin. In British film studies, Genette’s essay on verisimilitude is already required reading, whilst his narrative analysis has been recognised for its close connections with the film semiology of Christian Metz.) On the other hand, as Roger Poole made clear, we tend to displace onto literature expectations of a philosophical, humanistic and indeed religious nature, which are incapable of fulfilment elsewhere. Deconstruction is a particularly insidious threat to us, because it is both the application of a laborious technique, deriving from Structuralism, and the programmatic liquidation of any such transcendental investment. For this reason, we can scarcely afford to view the transatlantic debate between Paris and Yale as if we were uninvolved spectators. Like the villain at the tennis match in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, we should keep our eyes firmly fixed upon the server.

This implies, I would suggest, a more considered look at the ‘Absurdist’ tendency, as well as the endeavour to catch up with the ‘Normal’ achievements of Genette. Hayden White concluded his survey of ‘the Absurdist moment in contemporary literary theory’ with the statement: ‘The Absurdist critics (Barthes, Foucault, Derrida) ask these questions, and in asking them, put the Normal critics in the position of having to provide answers which they themselves cannot imagine.’ Yet, four years after those words were written, the questions which the Absurdists posed are, in a sense, beginning to be answered by the Absurdists themselves. A book like Roland Barthes’s La Chambre Claire, published a few days before his death in March of this year, not only reframes the problem of the long-lost ‘authorial subject’, but discovers in the photographic image that ‘certificate of presence’ which the school of Deconstruction had withdrawn from language. An even more recent publication, Julia Kristeva’s Pouvoirs de I’ Horreur, abandons the ‘chosiste or sexological technocratism of certain new novelists’ in favour of the ‘overspilling subjectivity’ of Céline, who becomes the goal of an intricate but absorbing theoretical quest through Leviticus and the Gospels, Mary Douglas, Freud and Winnicott. It may be optimistic to expect a corresponding virtuosity from the British reader. But can we join in the debate at any other price?