restricted access Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (review)
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Reviewed by
Gérard Genette. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. xi + 490 pp.

Originally published in French in 1982, this book is a dazzling display of wit, ingenuity, and erudition. Developing a general theoretical framework for studying actual and possible interrelationships between texts, the book also features a wealth of brilliant readings of individual works and traces interconnections between literatures written in French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, Latin, and ancient Greek. Indeed, Palimpsests, along with other recently-translated books such as Fiction and Diction and Mimologics, proves that Gérard Genette is not just the author of pathbreaking and influential works in narratology, but also one of the world’s foremost poeticians and critics, an incomparable stylistician, and perhaps the best taxonomizer (and coiner of terms) this side of Linnaeus. Exemplary in its theoretical rigor, opening out onto breathtaking new expanses of literary-historical investigation, Palimpsests also demonstrates the practice of close reading at its very best. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky have done the English-speaking world a great service in (finally!) providing a supple, lively, and painstakingly accurate translation of the book.

Genette begins by distinguishing between criticism, which studies the text considered in its singularity, and poetics, which studies not singular textuality but rather transtextuality—“all that sets the text in a relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other texts.” Further, the author identifies five types of transtextual relationships. Intertextuality is [End Page 1043] the actual presence of one text within another, by way of such mechanisms as quoting, plagiarism, and allusion. Paratextuality refers to the pragmatics of textual transmission; the paratext can include titles, subtitles, prefaces, forewords, book covers, “and many other kinds of secondary signals, whether allographic or autographic” that help establish a generic contract between the author of the text and the reader. Metatextuality names the relation by which one text bears critically on another. Commentaries operate metatextually, but (as Genette goes on to describe in chapter 52) so do hybridized texts like some of Borges’s literary fictions, which provide spurious commentaries on fictitious texts. Architextuality refers to “the entire set of general or transcendent categories—types of discourse, modes of enunciation, literary genres—from which emerges each singular text.” Finally, there is hypertextuality, the proper subject of Palimpsests. Hypertextuality refers to “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary.” (It would be worth doing a separate study of the relations between what Genette calls hypertext, on the one hand, and the meaning assigned to that term since the advent of electronic textuality, on the other hand.) Whereas metatexts or commentaries explicitly mention the hypotext(s) around which they orient themselves, in the case of hypertextuality, a text B may not “speak” at all about text A and yet still not be able exist, as such, without A. Thus hypertexts derive from hypotexts through a process that Genette calls transformation, whereby text B “evokes” text A more or less perceptibly but does not necessarily mention it or cite it. In turn, transformation encompasses both simple transformation and indirect transformation, which Genette labels imitation.

Before proceeding to catalogue and exemplify modes of hypertextual transformation by drawing on the literatures of many cultures and epochs, Genette further delimits his field of study. A first broad distinction can be made between parody and pastiche—transformation with and without a satirical intent, respectively. But the author makes a further discrimination between parody, travesty, and caricature; meanwhile, the satirical/non-satirical opposition needs to be refined to include playful, satirical, and serious moods. Combined with the contrast between transformation and imitation, Genette’s approach yields a grid [End Page 1044] of six possible hypertextual modalities, exemplified in a more or less pure or mixed form in the world’s literatures. These hypertextual possibilities include playful transformation (=parody), satirical transformation (=travesty), serious transformation (=transposition), playful imitation (=pastiche), satirical imitation (=caricature), and serious imitation (=forgery). As Genette notes, the book as a whole elaborates...