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Reviews369 Reading Frames in Modern Fiction, by Mary Ann Caws; xii & 312 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, $27.50. To die formalist, pictures are about painting. To die deconstructionist, they are about frames. In Reading Frames in Modem Fiction Mary Ann Caws, a formalist widi deconstructive leanings, argues that frames are "what literature is, for a large part, about" (p. 8). Her case is elegant, scholarly, and unconvincing. In making it, however, she offers provocative if idiosyncratic readings of major texts and provides a cautionary example to poststructuralists whose work is insufficientiy informed by current pragmatics of reading. Caws's diesis is diat various framing devices— spatial borders, temporal delays, rhetorical heightenings, and intergenre crossings — cause certain scenes in premodern and modern novels to stand out from die flow of narrative. In opening chapters on "Aperture" and "Perceiving Borders," she concatenates a litany of synonyms for die process of framing: setting, inset, arrest, surround, enclosure, and circumscription. Her object is not to establish a working taxonomy but to destabUize the signifier itself: "allframes are constantly open to shift and exchange" (p. 5, her emphasis). Quickly enough, die entire notion of framing becomes so elastic as to lose aU critical force. What foUows is a rhapsodic and inconclusive "meditation" (p. 88) on framing, "developed hypouieticaUy in view of a variety of texts" (p. 4). From die "Pre-Modern Borders" ofJane Austen, Herman MelviUe, and Thomas Hardy, Caws moves to the "High Modernist Framing " of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf. The transition between the two groups is a long chapter on "Translation of Genres" in which Caws, a seasoned comparativist, analyzes Baudelaire's translation of Poe's tale "The Oval Portrait" along widi die translation's poetic supplement, "Un Fantôme." Her object is to take "notjust an ordinary picture inside a text, but a portrait inside a text it entitles and gives life to, together with the poetic translation of diat picture-in-a-text and the text-around-a-picture, to show in what sense its nonliterality is bodi murderous and creative" (p. 87). The discussion is as impassioned as it is obscure. The books ends with a three-page conclusion, "Closing the Border," in which the author reveals, Montaigne-like, that her real subject has been herself. "The study of frame is always a self-study of our reading habits as weU as of the picture itself," she concludes (p. 265). It would be easy to dismiss Reading Frames in Modem Fiction as the selfabsorbed ruminations ofa literary mandarin had the book come from a critic less perspicacious than Mary Ann Caws. Her work on Tzara, Breton, and Char has defined die surrealist aesthetic for specialists and nonspecialists alike, and her study of visual and verbal perception, The Eye in the Text (1981), is a model of fruitful interdisciplinary criticism. There, thanks to her keen understanding of 370Philosophy and Literature mannerist and modernist aesdietics, Caws transforms the commonplace image of the threshold, le seuil, into a Barthesian "figure of production," a critical heuristic offar-reaching productivity. No such transformation occurs in Reading Frames, despite the author's best efforts to whip the titular metaphor into life. The problem is diat deconstruction, the radical formalism tiiat Caws practices here, lacks (indeed, disavows) an intersubjective pragmatics ofreading. For her, "Reading is a solitary act of creation: none can create with us or coUaborate in the reading" (p. 230). From this standpoint, no shared "framing" of text or experience is possible. In a cursory survey of frame dieory Caws briefly discusses die anthropological researches ofBateson and Goffman but casts her lot witii the poststructuralists Hamon and Derrida. She ignores entirely die cognitive frame theories of Marvin Minsky, Terry Winograd, and Benjamin Kuipers as weU as die communitarian dieory of reading developed by Stanley Fish. For diese reasons, Reading Frames in Modern Fiction remains a minor work by a major critic. One eagerly awaits the day when "die impassioned reader of frames" (p. 149) returns her gaze to the picture. University of HartfordWilliam L. Stull Virginia Woolfand the Politics ofStyle, by PamelaJ. Transue ; vi & 222 pp. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986, $39.50 cloth, $14.95 paper. The "politics...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 369-370
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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