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 :)

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