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Reviewed by:
Randall Craig. The Tragicomic Novel: Studies in a Fictional Mode from Meredith to Joyce. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1989. 191 pp. $29.95.
Edward Engelberg. Elegiac Fictions: The Motif of the Unlived Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989. 297 pp. $28.50.

The strength of Craig's compact book lies in a feature not advertised in the title: he opens with a striking analysis (helped by Nietzsche, Bakhtin, and others) of Plato's dialogue The Symposium as a "proto-novel," anticipating the fundamentally "dialogic" nature of his subgenre, the "tragicomic novel." Plato's "tragi-comic" elements, "Eros, the child of Plenty and Poverty," lead, somewhat metaphorically, into the mixture (or rather, as Shaw reminds us, the "chemical combination") of sorrow and laughter, formulated in so many eloquent ways by the authors Craig cites, and especially by the five he chiefly discusses. But the dialogue form is submerged for the next four chapters, on Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, James's The Awkward Age, Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale, and Gerhardie's The Polyglots; the "talk" and "conversation" which fills them is not formally equivalent. It reemerges in the last chapter, on Joyce's Ulysses, interpreted as the interplay of its "dialogical tragicomedians," chiefly that "jocoserious" pair, Bloom and Stephen. So the structure of the book loops back on itself, with Joyce reuniting its two primary elements.

The second clue to Craig's purpose is his understated, almost tacit, concern for "realism," not only as a mode, but as a historical period: "life's limitations are fiction's possibilities," said Arnold Bennett. This turns out to be what separates Craig's tragicomedy from other tragicomic genres. He deals only casually and tangentially with the drama, whose term he has borrowed; modern (dramatic) tragicomedy he equates with the (nonrealistic) Drama of the Absurd, thus making it irrelevant to his discussion. The eliding of "Realism," the period of literary history, with "realism," the set of conventions and the world-view essential to tragicomedy, also clarifies his starting and ending points. He sees no possibility of tragicomic fiction before Meredith and chooses not to continue after Joyce into the next generation of "realistic" British writers (Greene, Murdoch, and so on); writers going beyond Joyce fall into the "monologic" modes of artifice and the absurd, the grotesque and the metafictional. However, his third ingredient is an (empirically fortuitous?) linking of "realism" with self-consciousness and reflexivity (albeit relatively embryonic in his first four texts), in which characters' confusions between "life" and "art," between "reading" (the "hermeneutic") and "ethics" (the "existential"), structure, in all five books, the "tragicomic" minglings and bewilderment, the "disconcerting amalgam of antithetical feelings," that are definitive for his mode.

The books chosen are (apart from Ulysses) ones seldom discussed and perhaps never before compared. Numerous insights emerge along the way: the key role of Meredith, for instance, read far more often by his successor-authors, it seems, than by modern critics. The Polyglots, however, despite Craig's best efforts at placing it in this "modal" context, remains obstinately anomalous. Although I might quarrel with his use of the term "tragicomic" or with the inevitability of grouping these five books, I am impressed by the cogency and seriousness of his linking of the "novel" in Plato to the "dialogue" in Joyce. The book could well be longer, with further examples, clarifying such tangential matters as the "black humour" [End Page 669] of Pirandello and Beckett. His notes are extensive and excellent; some could well be included in the text.

Craig and Engelberg have many interests in common. The tension between the "aesthetic" and the "existential" assures many tragicomic characters "lives of irresolution and incompletion," says Craig, and his revision of a critique of The Awkward Age from "a weak and uncertain image of life" into "an image of a weak and uncertain [that is, tragicomic] life" would define a sizeable proportion of Engelberg's several dozen texts. Craig's bibliography on tragicomedy and his rigorous definitions would have been useful for Engelberg's fourth chapter, "The Tragicomedy of Wasted Lives: Chekhov and James [The Ambassadors]."

But Engelberg, unlike Craig, wants to include everything. The categories...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 669-670
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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