The Fictional Self
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera reckons the novel's job isn't to tell a story but to offer an existential enquiry. "If I locate myself outside the so-called psychological novel, that does not mean that I wish to deprive my characters of an interior life. It means only that there are other enigmas, other questions that my novels pursue primarily." The psychological novel, for Kundera, creates motives which become actions that can conform to narrative demand. But the character in the enquiry does not know his motive, and so it's the novelist's job to search it out. What is it that lies within the story that is more interesting than the story which can readily be told is surely the real trouble with fiction. A Tom Wolfe quote, invoked by Adrian Martin in his essay called 'The Trouble with Fiction', reckons a Robert Coover story with its opening sentence, "in order to get started, he went to live on an island and shot himself" might be a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the fictional form. However, if one's to escape from the conventions of narrative for the purposes of character, can there be any better method than killing your central character in the opening line - a common trait in Coover's work if we think of A Pedestrian Accident, where "Paul stepped off the kerb and got hit by a truck", and Klee Dead, opening with "Klee, Wilbur Klee, dies"? It seems to allow the perfect opportunity for the morality of the living from the perspective of the dead. There is a nice phrase from Foucault that would seem to touch upon this: "Breton remoralized writing, as it were, by demoralizing it completely". It is as if what Wolf so hates is that Coover and others have killed literature to allow man once again to live within it - on his own multi-faceted terms rather than those of narrative expectation.
For is narrative by implication a form that transcends individual lives for the purposes of movement? Narrative is not necessarily the best of all possible, realistic worlds, merely the one offering the most momentum, the one most given to carrying a character from one plot device to another. Narrative here becomes the transcendental cluster, as if the only way to create a meaningful text is for the meaning to be fundamentally within the fictional narrative world rather than within the fictional self. A useful way to define the difference would be to look at it from Leibniz's belief in the best of all possible worlds, and Deleuze's insistence that even within Leibniz's strictures there is room for a multiplicity of possibilities. While Leibniz "turns our relative world into the only existing world, a world that rejects all other possible worlds because it is relatively the best", Deleuze suggests "the soul is what invents its own motives, and these are always subjective...the action is voluntary when the soul...gives itself amplitude." Thus narrative is the single reality of the best of all possible worlds; the existential enquiry the search for the variables within this singular reality.
Deleuze offers a useful avenue of enquiry here, explored in both The Logic of Sense and The Fold, for if we no longer believe in a fundamental meaning, does this mean that we can no longer create clusters of meaning provisionally, almost solipsistically if necessary, without falling into paranoia or a certain meaningful meaninglessness? Are two of the most significant attempts to escape from the nineteenth century novel and obligatory narrative the paranoiac fiction of Pynchon and Vonnegut, and the nouveau romangeometries of Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon? On the one hand we have a narrative form so determined to join the dots of amorphous reality that paranoiac subjectivity proves the only way; on the other a narrative form so loose that a sort of geometric objectivity serves as the benchmark for literary integrity. With the nouveau roman so often the narrative doesn't move forward; it's the spatial layout that becomes ever more present, as the writer goes to great lengths not to narrate, but to describe. Narrative time gives way to descriptive space. But isn't there a third option here; the option Kundera proposes when offering up the possibilities in the existential enquiry? Isn't there a semi-narrative form that can be excavated through the endlessly analysable possibilities of the self, and the wonderfully mundane lives we all lead? As Kundera says, in his recent essay collection, Curtains: "The everyday. It is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well; for instance, the magical charm of atmospheres, a thing that everyone has felt in his own life..." With the complexity of self and the immensity of everyday life, how could fiction ever really arrive at crisis?
A key text here, and a brilliantly brief example of existential enquiry, is Borges' Borges and I, where, the narrator informs us, "I live and let myself go on living so Borges may contrive his literature and this literature justifies me." In Borges' story there is no God to answer to, but neither is there meaninglessness nor paranoia. There is instead Borges as a kind of experimental self, as a being who may or may not exist, but by some curious alchemy brings into existence meaning. "It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him." Borges in some ways reverses the Cartesian logic, so that the cogito ergo sum becomes not "I think therefore I am", but if I write therefore I'm not. If in Descartes' take thought has nothing to do with extension, and that existence is in thought, in Borges thought into extension (into writing), simultaneously negates and creates being. Thus thought isn't transcendental, in other words preceding existence, but circular. The very circular reasoning Descartes so desperately tried to escape, becomes Borges' very ontology.
Equally important here is Kundera's work, and his fictional enquiries into the self. He brings characters into being not on the basis of representational significance, but as "experimental selves". For example, Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being only becomes a fully-rounded character the moment he becomes central to a Kunderan concept: "I had been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections [on Nietzsche's notion of eternal return] did I see him clearly." On the idea that his characters lack psychological depth, physical characteristics, Kundera says in The Art of the Novel "making a character 'alive' means: getting to the bottom of his existential problem. Which in turn means: getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him." Often to understand the elements which shape a character Kundera will offer the apparently trivial, and yet shape that 'triviality' into an existential weightiness. For example there is a moment when Tomas's lover, Teresa "fell asleep at his side, clutching his hand" and Kundera goes on to explain how "even at the age of eight Teresa would fall asleep by pressing one hand into the other and making believe she was holding the hand of the man whom she loved..." So, Kundera says, if "in her sleep she pressed Tomas's hand with such tenacity, we can understand why: she had been training for it since childhood."
But of course this existential problem Kundera searches out is not always exclusively the characters', but also, in both obvious and oblique ways, his own, which returns us to Borges. Though Kundera quotes approvingly someone asking the novelist Karel Capek why he doesn't write poetry, and Capek replying "because I loathe talking about myself", Kundera talks about himself - or at least writes about himself - more than almost any other writer. 'Kundera' has a cameo role in Immortality, going down to the gym, and 'he' kick starts the narrative in Slowness as the narrator and his wife Vera spend time at a rural hotel. Generally, though, Kundera draws not on his own life, in the autobiographical manner of John Updike or Philip Roth, where huge chunks are thinly veiled incidents from their lives, but instead on the writer's paradoxical, existential self. He quotes Broch, on Broch himself, and on Musil and Kafka: "the three of us have no real biographies." However what they do all possess, very intensely, is a distinct phenomenology: they don't so much re-present the world, for they have no faith in its general, normative existence, but offer a perspective on it. And it is this very notion of perspective that Borges pinpoints when he says, "I live, let myself go on living so that Borges can contrive his literature." Here we might ask whether 'I' goes on living so that Borges can contrive his literature, or that Borges contrives his literature so that 'I' can go on living. The two selves are actually inextricable, so that the real trouble with fiction has also to be the trouble with living. How many artists, though, can live with the weight of that responsibility, the realisation that to create is no longer to recreate, to facsimilise the standard phenomenology - be that autobiographical or otherwise - but to instigate a world of one's own?
The writers that come to mind include Dostoyevsky, Lawrence, Miller and Kafka, as well as Kundera and Borges, and whether the phenomenology comes from strength of mind (Kundera and Miller), apparent weakness (Dostoevsky and Kafka) or a vacillating position in between (Lawrence), there is a determined sense to bring into the world a perspective that would previously have been alien to it. This is a literary approach that doesn't assume a space for their creativity, but insistently seizes the terrain. Deleuze (and Felix Guattari) describes such an approach though Lawrence. "In a violently poetic text, Lawrence describes what produces poetry: people are constantly putting up an umbrella that shelters them and on the underside of which they draw a firmament and write their conventions and opinions." (What is Philosophy?) Do many writers not work very much from this notion of convention and opinion, and never quite create the space for an indirect subjectivity that can release the phenomenological, that allows for the perceptually original?
How though is one to generate this perceptual originality? First of all it might be useful to look at stories that would seem to deny the possibility, like the fable, and the contemporary novel that frets over whether it has a story to tell. If we look at Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus, we have the geometrical novel we've proposed would later be evident in Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, punctuated by the narrative fables told within the body of the story. So as the narrator takes us into the world of the rich Canterel, a man of leisure who has devoted his life to experimentation in the house and grounds he owns outside Paris, we are offered immensely detailed descriptions of statues and machinery that spatially exhaust us as they grind narrative time to a halt, and turn it into descriptive space. However, we also have the temporal pace of the fables within this spatial 'narrative'. For example in chapter two we're given a story within a story after Canterel insists he needs a murky tale for the darkly coloured mosaic he was working on. Thus the novel launches into a fable set in 1650 where a wealthy duke hires a disreputable rogue to kidnap the beautiful wife of a baron after the duke has fallen in love with her. The rogue is caught during the kidnapping, and thrown into a crypt from which there is no apparent escape, with only a lit branch for comfort. In the crypt he comes across a volume of tales, one of which, 'The Tale of the Watery Globe', tells of a father who left all his wealth to his daughter when he died; and nothing to his eleven unscrupulous sons. Consulting a wicked fairy, the fairy manages to turn the sister into a dove for twelve months, and within that time the brothers should search her out and kill her before she turns back into a human. The brothers spend most of the year enjoying their father's wealth, and it isn't till near the end of the year that they finally go searching for the bird. Due to various permutations they fail to kill the bird, find their lives in danger, and are eventually saved by their sister who turns once again into a human being. They are so grateful that they mend their ways and live happily under their sister's good soul, as she shares her wealth with them. After reading the story, our rogue is saved by the very woman he was trying to kidnap, and though as she frees him, he has a wonderful opportunity to kidnap her once again, the generosity of the baron's wife, and the story he read in the crypt, convinces him otherwise.
Now clearly Roussel is offering us moral tales, here, but it is just as interesting to look at them not first and foremost as moral, but primarily as temporal: he injects into the novel the spatial that, published in 1914, preceded many of the experiments taken up by the nouveau roman writers in the fifties, and punctuates it with the extreme temporalism of the occasional fable. Obviously many will insist that the novel has always possessed a spatial dimension, and even the fables Roussel tells offer this spatial element. But their purpose is really to move through time rather than through space, so any spatial aspect is subordinate to the time dimension. Thus while Roussel gives over five pages to describing a device "capable of creating a work of aesthetic merit solely due to the combined efforts of the sun and wind"; he takes only eight to tell the fable within the fable. In the fable from within the novel we've alluded to, description is present, but subordinate: it sets the scene, but doesn't dominate it. Indeed one may even wonder whether if the novel becomes focused on description over narrative, space over time, does it lose its ontological purpose? If painting is ontologically descriptive, and the cinema a combination of description and narrative, is the novel not very much a narrative form? One of the questions Kundera's work addresses is really this tension between a novel's spatial and temporal elements. What Kundera does better than almost anyone is subordinate space and time to a third dimension: the meditative. So when Kundera loosely describes the space (Tomas and Teresa lying in bed) and the narrative event (Teresa has been screaming and when quietening down clutches Tomas's hand), he also insistently works at dissolving the spatial and temporal. This is what Kundera would call the digression, or more precisely, "meditative interrogation": "a position that is neither sociological, nor aesthetic nor psychological." But it does answer to two ontological bases for the novel: one is that the novel is, as Kundera notes, in relation to a Fielding observation, an exploration of human nature. The second lies in the novel's capacity to explore this human nature through 'meditative interrogation". Where cinema seems, as the film theorist Andre Bazin so astutely noticed, especially adept at recording life, the novel has an equivalent ontological capacity to explore inner life. The meditative interrogation gives to the novel this third dimension, so that a character is never given, a space never assumed, and a story never inevitable. Fiction becomes the opportunity to explore the contours of the self.
This of course doesn't mean such an exploration is the exclusive realm of the novel, but we can generally say when another art form interrogates the contours of the self, it is often through the masterly observation of outer life and not inner life. Antonioni's best films are astute examinations of posture, and even Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour uses flashback as another layer of life rather than as a given of an interior existence. One of the questions the great modernist filmmakers have asked is, how do we get close to the interiority of the novel? The answer is perhaps that it doesn't need to: it can do so many other things: the necessary there-ness of the shot, the sense of off-screen space in relation to the on-screen image. This obviously doesn't mean that modernist filmmakers' experiments with time and space to generate novelistic possibilities, and nouveau roman's attempts to create spaces that are as readily cinematic as novelistic, are futile attempts to wrestle ontological givens of one form and make them serve another. This is absolutely central to experimentation and development in form.
But that is not really our question. What concerns us much more is how with the twin expectations of space (setting the scene) and time (telling the story) make demands on the writer that undermine their capacity for perceptual originality. We can say that there are at least three main avenues by which the writer can deviate from expectation, and achieve direct subjectivity, or not so much subjectivity, as an aesthetic deviation that announces a perspective that seems fresh. The first would be to disobey the rules; the sort of rule that demands only so much description in relation to the story. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a fine writer of space, because his area of mastery happens to be description. If we take the opening of Love in the Time of Cholera, for instance, we notice how through description Marquez sensualises the world he asks the reader to enter. "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on the urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before." Later he describes the room and its contents. "On the floor, tied to a leg of the cot, lay the body of a black Great Dane with a snow-chest, and next to him were the crutches. At one window the splendour of dawn was just beginning to illuminate the stifling, crowded room that served as both bedroom and laboratory." Though in The Curtain, Kundera says that in Marquez's One Hundred Year of Solitude "there are no scenes! They are completely diluted in the drunken flood of narration", we might say that it's less narration than an endless flow of descriptive possibilities.
Certainly it is so if we compare Marquez with Paul Auster's minimally descriptive approach. "It was the wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning there was simply the event and its consequences." Here Auster doesn't tell us where we are, and we will only find out if it proves useful to the furthering of the narrative. Marquez is a writer who constantly introduces us to the physical spaces his characters pass through. In a passage that in some ways resembles the one mentioned, in Of Love and Other Demons, a character enters a room: "He pushed the door open without knocking and tried to see Bernarda in the darkened room, but she was not in the bed. He called her by name, and she did not answer. Then he opened the window, and the metallic light of four o'clock revealed her, naked and sprawled in a cross on the floor, enveloped in the flow of the lethal gasses." Once again Marquez offers a sensually descriptive scene, and once again we see a writer who pushes into the intensely descriptive, just as Auster moves in the direction of the intensely narrative. Now neither writer pushes either direction to extremes, as we proposed the nouveau roman writers obsessed over the description of spaces do, or so minimize the detailing of space that they focus on the intensification of narrative, evident in Borges's stories, for example, when he claims "why take five hundred pages to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes." Borges demands dizzyingly intense narrative, while the nouveau roman novelists want to expand time through the delineations of space, through describing incidents, or even places, in such detail, that time and narrative all but dissolve in the minutiae of description.
Here for example is the opening few lines from Claude Simon's Triptych. "The postcard shows an esplanade bordered by a row of palm trees standing out against a sky of too bright a blue, at the edge of a sea of too bright a blue. A long cliff of blinding white facades, with rococo decorations, follows the curve of the bay in a gently sweeping arc. "Here is Borges at the beginning of 'The Immortal': "In London, in the first part of June 1929, the antique dealer Joseph Cartaphilus of Smyrna offered the princess of Lucinge the six volumes in small quarto (1715-20) of Pope's Illia. The Princess acquired them; on receiving the book she exchanged a few words with the dealer." If Borges is famous for contracting time, in covering great swathes of it in a few sentences; Simon and other nouveau roman writers are famous for often doing the opposite. What we're proposing here are the two extremes of the time/space tension in fiction, and where a novelist deviates or conforms to one or the other to arrive at a perceptual freshness. Auster and Marquez move towards the narrativizing and the descriptive respectively, but don't eschew one or the other to the point of experimentation: they do not expect perceptual freshness to come from the stretching of form, so much as in the quality of narrative exploration in Auster; the power of description in Marquez. If we call Simon and Borges experimental writers, it lies in their extreme positions on issues of space and time in fiction.
However this of course only covers two of the deviations we earlier proposed. What about Kundera's notion of the meditative interrogation, a quality he of course sees in Hermann Broch and Robert Musil and, by extension in his own work? This is very different from an interior monologue, or stream of consciousness: it is not about getting close to a character's thought process, but to have much more a thought process about a character. As Kundera says in The Curtain, "Musil tells us what he himself is thinking as he levels his long gaze on Leo Fischel and his night time performances." Kundera goes on to quote Musil on a stale marriage between two of the characters in the novel: "for years now, Leo's dark audience has not given off the faintest applause at the presentation, nor the slightest sign of disapproval, and surely that's enough to rattle the healthiest nerves." So where much twentieth century fiction has removed the omniscient narrator from the novel, evident in W. G. Sebald's comment, quoted in James Wood's How Fiction Works, that "any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as a stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable", it is as though Musil practises an albeit paradoxical first person omniscience. For if we take that famous opening line from Austen's Pride and Prejudice, "For it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife", or, a passage from Emma, "human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure to be kindly spoken of", we see they are blanket statements. They're there neither to be expanded upon nor contradicted, and thus fulfil the role of omniscience.
However the meditative interrogation is less interested in blanket statements than an ongoing, tentative enquiry. Hence an ostensibly similar statement to Austen's, Musil's "it is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing could be more wrong than to deny this," from The Man without Qualities, leads to further analysis, "nevertheless, in the sum total or on the average they will always remain the same possibilities, going on repeating themselves until someone comes along to whom something real means no more than something imagined." All this is contained within a chapter that so obviously announces itself as an abstract interrogation rather than a narrative development or spatial exploration: "If there is such a thing as a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility."
We see this need for abstraction in both Broch and Kundera also. In a chapter from The Realist, Broch opens with a disquisition on the difference between the rebel and the criminal. "The rebel must not be confused with the criminal, though the society may often stigmatize the rebel as a criminal, and though the criminal may sometimes pose as a rebel to dignify his actions. The rebel stands alone, the most faithful son of that society which is the target of his hostility and rejection..." Kundera's work proceeds in a similar fashion, so that in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the beginning of chapter 'Four, Lost Letters', begins: "according to my calculations there are two or three new fictional characters baptized on earth every second. As a result, I am always unsure of myself when it comes time for me to enter that vast crowd of John the Baptists. But what can I do? I have to call my characters something, don't I?"
This isn't to suggest that earlier writers haven't given themselves space for digressions: Kundera throughout his non-fiction work has talked about his predecessors in digressive narrative, going much further back than the 20th century, especially to writers of the 18th, like Diderot, Fielding and Sterne. But it was if the 19th century determined that the novel must create a plausible blend of narrative and description, time and space, the flow of events and the capturing of scenes. In the 19th century, Kundera notes, "the scene became the basic element of the novel's composition..." (Testaments Betrayed). So when we think back to those aphoristic Austen statements, we notice how they can immediately be followed by the setting of the scene. Musil's and Broch's statements seem to require further explanation before the scene can alight on the pages of the novel.
We may even ask whether the scene should ever alight on the page. Is there an approach that means scenes are never realised, merely exemplified: in other words a scene isn't set; it becomes much more an act of quotation illustrating the thesis: illustrating the meditative interrogation? If Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen' remains one of the great post-war stories, it resides in the enquiry taking precedence over the scene, so that she can move through several months in a woman's life, and years of her burgeoning crisis, without losing herself in the cause and effect mechanics of the conventional fictional form. In this story that runs to between about twelve and fifteen thousand words, Lessing foreshortens its length by the meditative interrogation present in the story's opening statement. "This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence, the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence." With such an opening statement can the scene alight, or does it not require further analytic exploration as Lessing delves into the mind of her central character - while retaining the necessary analytic distance - and details the history of the Rawlings' marriage? For example when Lessing describes central character Susan's frame of mind, it is a mind framed by Lessing's sense of external observation, an observational sense consistent with the way Kundera describes Musil's long gaze on Leo Fischel. After Susan takes the room of the title to escape from her domestic life, Lessing asks, "What did she do in the room? Why, nothing at all. From the chair, when it had rested her, she went to the window, stretching her arms, smiling, treasuring her anonymity, to look out." Here Lessing isn't interested in setting the scene, but instead in observing it. The fictional form becomes not a vessel of drama, but a mode of observation. The more partial, discursive and interrogatory the opening statement; the greater the need, we can see, for observing the events over dramatising them. Consequently we have the relative unimportance of the scene alighting on the page.
Such an approach allows for the problem of time and space in fiction, and the assumptionof time (the narrative) and space (the scene) to be enveloped by the meditative interrogation. While many writers still insist on the scene as the main component of the novel to further the narrative, and others regard the intense, infinitesimal detailing of the scene as a means to stall the narrative, in Broch, Musil, Kundera and Lessing (and other post-war writers including Kelman and Handke) we see time and space being absorbed into the nature of the existential enquiry. Obviously one needn't say the fictional form's future or authenticity lies in this approach: how can we dismiss the intense descriptive possibilities of a Marquez, a novelist whom Kundera also feels does away with the scene, Auster, whose narrative force often dissolves descriptive possibilities, or the nouveau roman novelists who asks us what it means to describe reality - who fill the 'frame' with as many details as a camera would capture simply by photographing an event? The meditative interrogation is merely, yet never merely, a forking path fiction can take.
© Tony McKibbin