restricted access History, Politics, and the Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Dominick LaCapra. History, Politics, and the Novel. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. 217 pp. $22.50.

LaCapra's bold title belies the subtlety of his argument, but to have rendered it any more specific would have forced a categorization that would bind the approach in ways that LaCapra explicitly eschews. Readers anticipating a traditional contextualization of text, a superimposition of "reality" and "fiction," will have to revise their expectations, for part of LaCapra's project involves an invalidation of precisely those terms and the binary views that attend them. His enterprise has far more to do with the inscription of temporality than with "actual historical events" per se; "politics" refers less to systematic ideologies than to the legitimation crises that confront the authors of the novels under discussion. By means of discursive strategies that admittedly "emulate these novels," LaCapra offers us a closure-resistant reading-against-the-grain of a broad selection of works. His readings are demonstrative efforts, exemplary in their suggestive potential, engaging in their participatory appeal. The result is not only new readings; it intimates new ways of reading as well.

LaCapra's analyses proceed chronologically through a series of much-read and interpreted texts—Stendhal's Red and Black, Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, Eliot's Middlemarch, Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Mann's Death in Venice, Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and Mann's Doctor Faustus —only to breach convention and question the concept of canonization at the end with an insistent reading of Gaddis' The Recognitions. Each of the chapters contains much that is valuable, and each is quite capable of standing on its own. In some instances, LaCapra engages the authoritative readings of established critics in order to define his own tack; in others the discussion is less explicitly referential, guided more by LaCapra's own nonconfining hypotheses, responsive to the revelations of the texts themselves and supported by Bakhtin's "understanding of the novel as a self-contestatory, carnivalizing genre that tests the limits of generic classification and enacts a dialogical interplay of often dissonant 'voices' and ideological currents." LaCapra aims to provide readings that "supplement the relation between formal and thematic interpretation," while avoiding "the tendency to sacrifice the subtlety and insistence of specific readings to reductive larger perspectives."

His strategies are successful; a larger perspective emerges beyond the integrity of each chapter nonetheless, although it is by no means a reductive prefiguration justified by the readings. It is manifest in LaCapra's central theoretical categories of the novel's transformative potential, of hybridization, of dialogical connections between past and present, of the symptomatic. The project as a whole might well be described by LaCapra's own assertion regarding To the Lighthouse: it suggests "how written texts and institutions can be seen as displacements of one another, with the attempts and partial accomplishments of die former having limited but not insignificant implications for the critique and transformation of the latter." [End Page 732]

Marilyn Sibley Fries
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor