Monday, November 30, 2009

Existing within the story world

Spent the week of Thanksgiving commuting between New York and Philadelphia, visiting friends and family. Two of the major cultural highlights of the trip, an Arshile Gorky exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a Coen brothers' movie, A Serious Man. Also watched The Men Who Stared at Goats, very funny in the right mood.

On the airplanes, read Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs." I am not familiar with her previous work and bought the book on impulse, after reading the first two pages. I think I was immediately mesmerized by the quality of visual details (the birds in the first paragraph) and the precision of documented emotional responses. ("I liked children -- I did! -- or rather, I liked them OK.") This novel is, at heart, a Bildungsroman, a "fictional autobiography," a novel of development of the central character who narrates her own story, Tassie Keltjin (the name comes, I suppose, from "Celts" and "jins"as in "jinns"?). Right after 9/11, Tassie is a 20-year old college student, a daughter of a Midwestern farmer. She finds a job babysitting an adopted child of a chef, Sarah, and a scientist, Edward. The plot develops from there.

If I were speaking in a customary shorthand, I would characterise Tassie as a first-person narrator. But simply providing this label does not go very far in describing Tassie's characteristics as a narrator. As Suzanne Keen points out, "The use of the pronoun alone does not make a first-person narration. Instead, first-person narration, or self-narration, indicates those narratives in which the narrator is also a character, where the narrator and characters coexist in the story world, and the narrator refers to himself or herself as 'I.' (36)" The terms "first-person" and "third-person" are so misleading in terms of their function in narrative theory that every theorist seems to use his or her own language to deal with narrators. (I want to get to Genette's terminology as soon as possible -- but not now).

First of all, what is very important to note is that Tassie, the narrator, exists and acts within the world of Moore's novel. She organizes and controls the discourse or the sujet -- while at the same time, she cannot control the fabula: the fabula is her biography, the story of her life. This is something that can only be attributed to the conceit of the implied author. But Tassie does choose which events she tells and in what order; her storytelling choices reveal her to us as someone different from Tassie-the actant, the character within the story.

For most of the novel, Tassie acts as a very overt narrator: she uses pronoun "I" to give her opinions and points of view about the story she is narrating. Interestingly enough, several of the most poignant parts of the novel come when Tassie ceases to act as an overt narrator existing within the world of the story but assumes a position of a covert narrator telling a story she was not a part of (traditionally termed a "third-person" perspective). Four sections are narrated as an overheard dialogue (and Tassie plays the role of somebody who merely reports it), and two sections have to do with the summary of her employers' past -- narrated by her boss Sarah and only re-narrated (summarized) for us by Tassie. Tassie retells the story she is told -- and we, as readers, are with her, experiencing this inside story as a major revelation.

A very important feature of her narration is that it is dissonant to the events in the story, Tassie starts the telling long (but not too long) after all the events have already occured. This kind of a dissonant narration allows her to highlight the way she is maturing, the way she is growing through these experiences. By looking back on her own younger self, she has the opportunity to sometimes overtly step in as a narrator and draw our attention to the way time changes our perspectives on our actions. In fact, the novel concludes with a very overt narrative statement: "That much I learned in college."

In my next post, I will try to address a certain quality of this novel that I experienced as a problem; specifically, what I experienced as a credibility problem of using Tassie as a narrator, a problem that I identified as a too overt an imposition of an ideology by an implied author. I don't know if I have introduced enough terms in my theory discussion to achieve this, but I will try.

A footnote: All of these terms (overt vs. covert, dissonant vs. consonant, existing within or outside of the story world) were developed by structuralist theorists who presented them usually in terms of binary oppositions. However, lately, most of these, I think, have been reimagined in terms of scales and degrees. There are more or less overt narrators. And almost every act of narration is dissonant (separated in time) from the narrated events -- it's a matter of exactly how much time. (Although I have not read Don DeLillo's White Noise rumored to be be narrated in complete consonance with the events as they occur).

Friday, November 20, 2009

The implied beings

Back in Professor Peel's class, I experienced narrative theory as a series of revelations. My books are heavily marked with stars and exclamation points. One of the biggest OMG's is on page 33 of Suzanne Keen's book, where she quotes Seymour Chatman's paradigm for narrative structure (From Story and Discourse, pg 151):

real author --> || implied author --> (narrator) --> (narratee) --> implied reader || real reader

Compare this diagram to the one that Mansfred Jahn outlines on his website:

Jahn explains this "Chinese boxes' model" as being "standard structure of fictional narrative communication." He highlights something very crucial about this, that the communication between the real author and the real reader happens in the world of non-fiction, where I go to the library and select a book "The Blood Oranges" by John Hawkes that was recommended to me by my friend. What interests me about the author is not so much the story of the novel, but how this novel (or comic lyric poem in prose, as it has been described by critics) fits in with the world of American letters. I'm reading this fictional novel in search of non-fictional information, in search of the Hawkes' ideological and subjective position, his relationship with the academy.

However, where Jahn's diagram is crucially different from Chatman's -- and where the major revelation lies for me -- is that within Jahn's second box with "the level of fictional and metaphictional discourse" there needs to be another pair of figures: Chatman's "implied author" and "implied reader." The author and the reader that are the properties of the text, and do not exit in the world of bookstores, libraries, and university campuses.

Keen writes: "The author is the actual historical person who wrote the text." John Hawkes the novelist, as Wikipedia's disambiguation page helpfully suggests, was born in 1925 and died in 1998, and was a "postmodern American novelist," and was also many other things: for example, an influential teacher. On the other hand, Keen continues, "The implied author is the version of the author projected by the text itself and sometimes also conditioned by our knowledge about the actual author's life and career." John Hawkes, the author of The Blood Oranges, seems to be a middle-aged man, with some experience of life abroad (or at least in Italy), likely without much (or deep) knowledge of contemporary foreign languages (foreign language is represented in the novel by two words "croak peonie") but some knowledge of Greek and Latin, with a keen interest in human sexuality, ancient mythology, and flower symbology.

This implied author directs his discourse to the implied reader, who according to Keen is also "a projection of the text, and differs in every instance from actual readers, many of whom will not exactly match the profile suggested by the text. (35)" I, the real reader, who got Hawkes' book from the library am very different from the reader to whom I feel this text is speaking. I do read English, the language of the implied (and real) author. I am not, however, a man, and I am not particularly well-versed in ancient mythology -- and so far the combination of the two provides the biggest difficulty for me in the reading process, as I feel that the implied author is directing this text to a male reader with basic knowledge of the myths of Eros? some sort of headless white bull -- whose origins in myth I have to trace. I am not concerned about my virility or the ways of seduction. On the other hand, I am interested in ways of examining the relationship between sexuality and death -- and here's where I feel that I do coincide with the implied reader. I also feel that the implied author is offering the implied reader a quasi-philosophical puzzle, and this aspect of the text I am also interested in.

To highlight the distinction between the real and the implied, Keen notes that the historical, real author -- Charles Dickens in her example "lived, suffered the indignity of the blacking factory, wrote, made loads of money, left his wife, went on readering tours, and died exhausted, whereas the implied author, 'the Dickents of Bleak House (1852-53),' perpetually experiments with a mixture of first and third person, continues to employ characters to do his bidding and permanently abides in the realm of the present tense. (34)"

The real, historical author exists in time, usually the past. The implied author always exists in the present.

Interestingly enough, the parallel statement is not true for the real and implied reader. I suppose, the real, historical reader always exists in the present moment of the reading. The implied reader, as a property of the text, can live any time and any place -- depending on the attitude of the implied author about it. The implied reader of The Blood Oranges seems to be an immortal being who lives forever -- but also at the same time, a 1970s male scholar of literature and philosophy who reads in English (this list of characteristics is not meant to be exhaustive and depends on who is doing the analysis and for what purpose).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fabula (and sujet)

My friend Evelyn shared with me another great article, Jim Shepard remembering his teacher John Hawkes. Jim is, as always, hilarious. I am, at the moment, reading (on Evelyn's recommendation) John Hawkes' novel, "The Blood Oranges." I am also reading Clarice Lispector's "Family Ties" at the same time. I'm not sure which of the two is more work :). But lots of fun, of course, and makes me want to read more theory.

John Hawkes has been described as a "fabulist" writer alongside Italo Calvino, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and maybe "new wave fabulist writers" like Kelly Link and Cory Doctorow. "Fabulist" in this case is related to the word "fable," originally, a didactic tale where antropomorphised animals and inanimate objects deliver a moral lesson (a la Aesop), and lately, a myth-based story with supernatural happenings.

However, insofar as frequently "fabulist" writing comes with its own aesthetic of language use (University of Louisville, for example, even has an annual prize given "for a work of fabulist fiction written in the vein of Italo Calvino"), it has a very interesting relationship with one of the basic terms of narrative theory, fabula.

The term "fabula" is best explained together with a paired term, "sujet": or "story" and "discourse" in the terminology used by other theorists. Basically, "story" or "fabula" is what a text is about, and "discourse" or "sujet" is the way the reader enounters the text on the page, the words within which the "fabula" is contained. In the words of a structuralist theorist Gerald Prince, "fabula" is the "what" of the text (what you imagine what really happned) and "sujet" is the "how" of it (how the reader first encounters it).

Suzanne Keen writes that sujet "indicates the words of the narrative as they are actually presented, including -- as they occur page by page -- any digressions, repetitions, omissions, and disorderly telling. (17)" She explains fabula as representing "the whole narrative content as (re)constructed in a reader's imagination."

So, if I were to summarize the fabula of Hawks's "The Blood Oranges" (or the first 50 pages of it that I've read so far), it basically goes like this: there were two married (American?) couples, Cyril and Fiona and Hugh and Catherine, residing somewhere in Italy. Fiona had an affair with Hugh and Catherine with Cyril, but later, under some vaguely mysterious circumstances Hugh and Fiona died, and now Cyril is living alone with a maid Rosella and every week visits Catherine who refuses to talk to him.

The sujet of "The Blood Oranges," however, starts at a very different place: Cyril, a quasi Don Giovanni, ("I took my wife, took her friends, took the wives of my friends and a fair roster of other girls and women, from young to old and old to young, whenever the light was right or the music sounded") is living alone in a villa with a "South European maid" Rosella, who is the only woman to date to refuse to sleep with him. Then, through a series of flashbacks and digressions, sujet meanders to tell us the back story, the fabula, I summarized earlier.

The terms "story" and "discourse" are in some ways more descriptive that "fabula" and "sujet," and in other ways very confusing -- simply because talking about the story of a short story might seem quite confusing. The terms "fabula" and "sujet" are borrowed from the work of Russian Formalists -- and if as I go along, I read enough books, I might be able to figure out again who borrowed them and from whom. The Russian word "fabula" does not mean "fable" (the word for "fable" is "basnya"), but is a more recent adaptation from (English? Latin?) that has been always used as this specific literary term.

So I wonder if there is any specific characteristic of the relationship between fabula and sujet in the stories and novels of the "fabulist" writers, if by calling them "fabulist" and ascribing them a specific aesthetic, we're making a statement about fabula and sujet of these novels. It seems, we're certainly making a statement about fabula: it is myth based, and certain supernatural things are possible. Sujet? Maybe in so far as some of the post-modern fabulists (Calvino, Hawkes) use hyper aware narrators to construct their myth-based tale. I wonder if someone has already written a dissertation on hyper aware narrators in fabulist fiction :)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Approach to theory

For a long time now I've been meaning to start reading, thinking about and blogging Narrative theories. More than anything else, I'm interested in it as a source of inspiration -- a tool set for accessing different voices and creative approaches to stories. A very important second goal is that Narrative theory provides a language for communication with the other writers, language that can be helpful to attenuate and pinpoint the unique aspects of a writer's voice, language that I can then introduce in a workshop setting to better explain my reading of another writer's story.

As a way to approach this ever widening field of study in the blog format, I think what I'm going to do first is to go through my notes from the Narrative Theory class I took with Professor Ellen Peel a couple of years ago and look through some of the the books that we used during that class. I'm hoping that this will be a good starting point from where I can branch out into reading and reflecting on different types of theoretical and critical texts. Reading theory is a demanding exercise, but one that seems to me to hold the greatest potential for a writer to keep increasing the level of awareness of her own subjective position and goals in writing, of reaching new depths (or lengths) of meaning.

Professor Peel, in her very systematic approach to teaching, started the conversation from discussing the definitions of crucial terms: fiction and narrative.

Fiction: from Latin "to fashion" or "to form" is related to "feign" -- or to pretend. In this, fiction is frequently contrasted with fact; the "truth value" of fiction is always in question. Fiction is not a lie, but it makes a different type of truth claim than fact. Fiction is not claiming that it's true, but it's not entirely a lie either. Fiction in its non-factual nature is a relatively recent distinction: fiction vs. history. Sometimes, the easiest way to define fiction as a genre is to contrast it with other genres: fiction vs. poetry vs. drama -- well, fiction is written in prose and not acted on stage.

Narrative: in its most basic, sparse definition, "narrative" is an account of events. Suzanne Keen quotes in "Narrative Form" (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) the definition of "narrative" from Oxford English Dictionary as referring to "the inquisitive Scottish law, where narrative means 'that part of a deed or document which contains a statement of the relevant or essential facts'," -- and that the word entered common parlance in the middle of the 18th C.

Interestingly enough, one might construe the definition of "narrative fiction" as being "the shaping of facts." And, of course, "narrative" does not have to be "fictitious." History is also a form of narrative -- and I guess so are some types of poetry.

In any case, narrative is an account of events, often opposed to lyric, where lyric tends to be about a single moment, not happening in time. Implication of this is narrative does happen in time and that time is one of the basic aspects of what we study when we study narrative.

Since events need to be told in some way, there needs to be a narrator. A further implication is that if there is a narrator, there also needs to be a narratee (or addressee, the exact term used depends on a given theorist): someone who is hearing the story. (This is a kind of postulate that really sets off my imagination. Must there be a narrator and a narratee? Can't we think of stories that break these rules? Christa Wolf's "Kassandra" comes to mind. She tells her story ostensibly to be forgotten. She tells her story exclusively in her mind. Her only possible narratee is herself -- but then, of course, it is a narratee.)

At the end of every chapter of her book, Keen provides a list of some excellent reference materials in narrative theories. I hope to have a chance to review some of them as I go along. Here's one, for example, Manfred Jahn's website, Narratology: A guide to the Theory of Narrative.

Here's what Jahn provides in terms of a definition of narrative: "For a simple answer let us say that all narratives present a story. A story is a sequence of events which involves characters. Hence, a narrative is a form of communication which presents a sequence of events caused and experienced by characters. In verbally told stories, such as we are dealing with here, we also have a story-teller, a narrator. This getting started section will mainly focus on narrators and characters." -- By "verbally told stories" Jahn also means novels. At least, his very first example comes from "Catcher in the Rye." In other words, his "verbally" does not mean "orally" -- the way I read it at the first glance. But it does highlight the important aspect of narrative: oral account of events or written, there is a difference. And there's certainly a difference when it comes to the question of narratee.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Simkhaster i gopen'ki

Recently, my memory spewed out a Yiddish expression my grandmother used to use to indicate messy situations people got themselves into or general madness involving several people. "So then David married Sarah and all of their children were at the wedding and her father got drunk and had to be carried home. In one word, simkhaster i gopen'ki," she'd summarize the situation with a sly smile.

I searched online to try to come up with an etymology of this expression, the mysterious "simkhaster" and the more understandable "gopen'ki" -- probably from the word "gop" or "hop" for jumping and running around. There were no hits on either Google or Yandex. So then I tried a different route and asked my dad if he had any idea what it meant. His explanation turned out to be surprisingly simple and illuminating. He says it comes from the holiday of Simchat Torah and the traditional dancing that happens during the festivities.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Catching up

Leafing through the blogs, came across Sonya Chung's wonderful write up on the work of Sergei Dovlatov (and how out of print it is in the US today). He is a Soviet (anti-Soviet) short story writer, a funnyman, who emigrated to the US in the 70s, and after considerable struggle, got his break with a publication in the New Yorker. My friend Johnnie knows Dovlatov's entire body of work by heart. I am not a huge fan, but only because Dovlatov's brand of humor is too mean to my taste.

"Ours is composed of 13 stories, each about a different Dovlatov family member (the collection was published as fiction but is quite evidently based on Dovlatov’s real-life family). There is Grandpa Isaak, a Jew of enormous physical stature, who was mysteriously arrested for espionage and killed in a prison camp; Grandfather Stepan, an Armenian Georgian, who threw himself into a ravine; Dovlatov’s bastard cousin Boris, handsome and talented, who courted danger and whom “life turned into a criminal”; Uncle Leopold, a “hustler,” who disappeared from their lives for over 30 years before being rediscovered in Belgium. Mother and Father, an actress and a theatre director, “often quarreled,” and divorce when Dovlatov is eight years old; and of course there is Lena (pronounced “Yenna”—more on Lena later), Dovlatov’s wife, who emigrates with their daughter Katya years before Dovlatov, the two of them estranged by then. In the opening of the story that describes their courtship and marriage, the narrator Sergei Dovlatov tells us, “I emigrated to America dreaming of divorce.”

Would you guess that Ours is essentially a comedy? The humor is exhilarating, in a specific way that I find hard to describe. It’s likely there is something that Russians who experienced the Stalinist and Soviet eras first (or at least second) hand recognize as “Russian humor,” and as a Westerner I am just an enthusiastic tourist, smitten by an approach to the terrors and darkness of life that is both sharp and silly. I suspect my receptiveness to Dovlatov is also related to a bit of miserable-family-memoir fatigue. A quick perusal of the memoir section of a bookstore (McCourt, Karr, Walls, Burroughs, Pelzer, et alia — all fine and important writers, no argument there) might illustrate for you what I mean?"

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

She's Leaving Home

This is the sad part of belonging to two different places at once: I am always not there. Leaving always hurts so badly, that even though I'm only leaving home to go home, home is always the place that hurts, the place I have left. Coming home to San Francisco, I have to age 10 years and start worrying about things like voting, dirty dishes, balls of dust gathering under the bed, continuing lack of income. And once again, St. Petersburg with its frost-bitten snowless asphalt-covered yards and dusky suburbs becomes a place of magic and imagination, the place where I have been cradled and cared for, where I am always a child.

Yesterday lasted for more than 40 hours. I woke up Sunday morning at the country house, and after breakfast with my parents, spent an hour on the grounds sweeping the fallen leaves and pine needles. It was so cold that the leaves were frozen to the grass, and, armed with a flimsy rake with missing teeth that belonged my grandparents, I wasn't as much sweeping as tearing them off the ground. My mom had to work -- she was trying to prepare for an exhibit in France -- so we drove to the city early, dropped her off, then my dad and I went home, and my dad read while I started packing. I called my aunt Maya to say good-bye and we had a fight. "Something was off this time," she told me. "You're not the same." I got angry. "You say this every time!" I yelled. And she does. And my visits are always the same. And even this fight was a part of the script, of a performance of our relationship. Around 7 pm, friends and family started showing up to say good-bye. My dad got alarmed that we had no food in the house, so he ran out to buy three logs of kolbasa (Russian variety of processed meat) and two cakes. My mom came home just in time to fix a broken espresso machine. I played with four little girls, ranging from 1,5 to 17 years of age. Everyone left around 10 pm, and my parents went to sleep. I said good-bye to my mom: she had a long day coming up and could not see me off in the morning. I called my aunt Maya again and made up with her. My brother showed up at 1 am, and so did my friend Johnnie and his wife Tanya. We drank more tea and talked about random things, including what it would take for them to come visit me in San Francisco. At 3 am we said good-byes and they left, and at 4 am my dad woke up and drove me to the airport.

I snoozed for an hour or two on a short flight to Munich, just long enough to have strength to play tourist again during my 7 hour layover. It was raining in Munich, and the rain didn't let off the entire time I was there. I took S-Bahn downtown, had a breakfast of warm semmeln, cheese and coffee, then went to the Neue Pinakoteka and wandered around until I found my favorite sunflowers. I discovered Van Gogh on my first visit to Munich, when I was 13 years old. I had a print of them plastered to the wallpaper of my bedroom -- the print, the wallpaper, and the room are now gone; they were removed a few years ago when my parents were renovating the apartment. This time, I didn't linger in front of Van Gogh. It was too sad. I went to the Marienplatz, had another sandwich, spoke German with a friendly woman who wanted to know what I was reading, then took the train back to the airport. The direct flight to San Francisco took 12 hours. I slept, read, half-watched movies. "Coco avant Chanel" with Audrey Tautou was the best one of the bunch. Dave picked me up at the airport -- and then I was home.