- The Imposition of Form: Studies in Narrative Representation and Knowledge
"Quel roman que ma vie!" exclaimed Napoleon Bonaparte, who in fact wrote a novel not nearly as vivid as the life he regarded novelistically. For the past two centuries, emperors and other readers have conceived themselves in narrative terms and forms. However, it is the contention of Claudia J. Brodsky that the novelization of everyday life is not merely a popular metaphor; following Immanuel Kant, she contends that "our knowledge of experience shares the discursive characteristics of representational fiction." A learned contribution to [End Page 743] epistemology and narratology, The Imposition of Form proceeds from the premise that "Narrative never offers itself as a harmless endeavor." The damage done is phenomenal and phenomenological.
Kant and Proust are the book ends to Brodsky's study, which begins by establishing the elusiveness of consciousness beyond categorical form and circles back to the French author's embodiment of "the paradoxical cognitive necessity of narration." It is paradoxical because, claims Brodsky: "When Kant and Proust point to a basis for narration which itself would not be narrative in nature, they begin instead to represent narration."
The assertion demands some attention to other media, such as painting, music, and cinema, and to other literary genres, but The Imposition of Form illustrates its insights with separate discussions of Goethe, Austen, Balzac, Stendhal, and Melville. Goethe's theory of colors, Zur Farbenlehre, is applied to his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, whose English title—Elective Affinities—Brodsky worries into support for her contention that the German's poetics of colors is an account of figuration. She analyzes the ironies in Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, with particular attention to whether irony is inherent in all narration. Balzac's Illusions perdues and Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir are adduced as case studies in how "images and ideas, poetry and thinking, can only take the form of appearances within narration." Melville's Pierre, Or the Ambiguities is examined as a narrative that subverts narrative.
The Imposition of Form provides trenchant insights into the novels it selects for analysis. Brodsky makes a convincing case for reading Pierre as "a novel which tells the story of why there are novels" and for the importance of the book's full title, of the ambiguities diat render the first half of it underdetermined and the second overdetermined. Her reading of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu as "a novel which effectively denies the representational status of representation itself" offers much of value about the parallels between the narrator's petite madeleine and Swann's musical petite phrase and between the entire first-person mnemonic structure and the third-person Swann episode encased within it.
However, the choice of texts seems arbitrary; Cervantes, Sterne, Galdós, Kafka, Kundera, or almost any other author might have been selected for chapters that, for all Brodsky's manifest fondness for Austen, could be called Performance rather than Persuasion. "I detest jargon of every kind," declares Marianne Dashwood in a passage from Sense and Sensibility that Brodsky herself quotes. Would that she shared that aversion.
In a passage from Illusions perdues included within The Imposition of Form, Lucien de Rubempré is advised on how to write a book review: "You will begin by finding the work beautiful, and you can enjoy yourself by writing what you think of it." The Imposition of Form is beautifully erudite, but I think that, with circumlocutions that send the mind spinning clockwise and sense-foolish and footnotes so high on the page they become thighnotes, it is also a euphuistic exercise. [End Page 744]