Marvels & Tales 18.1 (2004) 130-132
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Cycles of Influence: Fiction, Folktale, Theory. By Stephen Benson. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003. 314 pp.
I think all readers of Marvels & Tales, in fact all readers interested in fiction and narrative theory, should read and learn from this book. Stephen Benson makes a compelling argument: that theories of fiction and folktales have been inextricably intertwined, at least since the early work of Vladimir Propp and the Prague School. Twentieth-century grammars of fiction were often based on the folktale and its presumed likeness to language. This much most of us know. But he also shows that many fictions we think of as experimental or postmodernist have been deeply influenced by those grammars. Or, as he puts it, "it is precisely the figural repertoire utilized in the process of the abstraction of a structure and grammar of narrative that has fed back into many of the narrative fictions under consideration" (14).
His central example, in the central chapter of the book, is Italo Calvino. Early in his career Calvino put together a volume of Italian Folktales (1956), a collection that seemed to be governed by the model of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen in its effort to salvage a disappearing national tradition. But not long thereafter Calvino moved to Paris and joined the Oulipo group of experimental writers, founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1962. Rather than see these moves as competing trajectories, Benson shows how they are related, how Calvino's work with tales (both in his collection and in his own fictions) both feeds into and grows out of his work as an Oulipian theorist. As Benson says, "to concentrate on the traditional elements in a writer often held to be quintessentially postmodern is to make a point that is central to this book" (113). He points to Calvino's continuing experiments with voice, with variety and repetition, and with "invention within convention" (79) in all his fiction, early and late, as evidence for the complexity of his narrative commitments.
Another strand that runs through the book, as well as through the chapter on Calvino, is Benson's concern with what he calls "the folkloric story cycle." As he points out, Propp and other early theorists of narrative were primarily interested in the elements of discrete, individual tales. They developed their "grammars" by attempting to isolate features that various tales had in common. Benson, however, focuses on traditional story cycles, particularly Somadeva's Ocean of Streams of Story, The Arabian Nights and Basile's collection Lo cunto de li cunti or Il Pentamerone. He asks crucial questions about the relationship [End Page 130] of the frame tale and the framed tales, the simulation of an oral environment in written texts, and the question of an authorial presence. What happens when a group of texts is "embedded" in another? How should we analyze the relationship of embedded texts to each other? Are there internal cycles within the larger cycle? How should we understand the narrative tensions between closure and openness, the apparently limited and the limitless? Benson suggests that the move from a formalist or structuralist analysis to a more "pragmatic" approach to narrative will help us answer these questions.
Exactly what that more pragmatic approach might be, however, remains somewhat murky. In his fourth chapter, "Narrative Turns," Benson invokes Lyotard and Ricoeur to introduce the metafictional games of John Barth, Robert Coover, and (more briefly) Donald Barthelme. Again he argues for a parallel between theoretical work and narrative strategies. Just as modernists broke up the linear narrative of nineteenth-century novels, so the structuralists broke the tale into its constituent parts. Just as postmodernists returned to an interest in linear primary narratives and in framed tales, so poststructuralist critics looked for the ideological and mythic underpinnings of the human desire for narrative itself. He links Barbara Herrnstein Smith's concern for "narrative in the world," (121), subject to the demands of cultural context and history, to a new understanding of narratives as individual speech acts, rather than...