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Shorter Reviews127 The Poetics ofProse, by Tzvetan Todorov; trans, by Richard Howard, foreword by Jonathan Culler; pp. 272. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977, $15.00 hardbound , $4.95 paper. Todorov is a leading structuralist theoretician active in the current revival of poetics, which he defines as the quest for the "literariness" of literature. Todorov's work, along with that of Barthes and Derrida, is already having considerable impact on literary theory in America. When a young American scholar goes to Paris to stay in Todorov's apartment while Todorov travels to New York, that not only solves a housing problem, but also expresses a literary direction. In his introductory note Todorov refers to this collection of essays as the murder scene, which reminds one of his interest in detective fiction, and which may lead one to think of Todorov's apartment as the scene of the scene of the crime. More than this, detective work—cool, methodical, confident that literature poses only solvable problems—is a model of Todorov's own approach. As a consequence Todorov writes with a verve and clarity that make him of all the structuralists the most readable. He is quite the reverse of the darker hermeneuticians who adopt Heidegger's more mysteryminded approach. The essays in The Poetics of Prose were composed between 1964 and 1969 and fall into four different groups. The first are papers on general poetics. In "Poetics and Criticism" Todorov makes a notable plea for separating the task of poetics from that of practical criticism with its merely sporadic and ad hoc theorizing. His "Language and Literature" argues persuasively that not only must poetics make use of modern linguistics but that, equally, literary categories must play a formative role in our grasp of the full nature of language. One of the major events of structuralist theory in the past decade has been its destruction of the referentiality of the literary work and its replacement by the notions of vraisemblance and self-referentiality. Rightly seeing that here the structuralists pick up where the sophists left off (p. 81), Todorov presents his own "Introduction to Verisimilitude" where verisimilitude has as its authentic (vs. naive) meaning the way in which one text or discourse is consistent with or coheres with another text. Every attempt to seek some truth other thanthis will only run into another verisimilitude (pp. 82-87). In the penultimate essay, "How to Read?", the would-be science of poetics is said to have as its object "the product of a fictive and yet existing mechanism, literature" (p. 235). The supreme aim of such investigation, Todorov says, approvingJakobson, is the "device" (p. 236), and these devices (the rhetorical figures) in turn provide the basis for the proper task of "reading" as distinguished from "projection" and "commentary." The second group of papers ("The Grammar of Narrative," "Narrative Transformations," and "Narrative Men") examines the modes of emplotment, that is, the kinds of plot found in narrative fiction, in order to develop a grammar of plots. These interesting proposals complement the more detailed 1 28Philosophy and Literature case pursued in Todorov's previous book on Boccaccio's Decameron. A third group attempts the worthy task of resuscitating the category of genre as a norm or convention underlying the production of literary meaning, a task sorely neglected by Romantic criticism. This includes a refreshing reconsideration of the rosy-fingered "perversities" by which Homer's Odyssey refuses to conform to the classical scholar's idea of primitive form; a fascinating piece on "The Typology of Detective Fiction," and another, "The Quest of Narrative," on The Quest for the Holy Grail (his most extended genre study is his book on The Fantastic). Todorov's range of examples is often dazzling. The fourth and final group are exercises in "readings" of particular authors such as those on Benjamin Constant—a particularly absorbing piece—and on HenryJames. In these essays Todorov is almost always insightful or provocative in what he has to say, and often both. The only specific readerly reservations I would register apply to the extensive paper on James ("The Secret of Narrative") whose theoretical point is slim compared with the corpulent text that surrounds it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 127-128
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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