publisher colophon
Reviewed by:
Del Lungo, Andrea. L'Incipit romanesque. Paris: Editions du Seuil, Collection “Poétique,”2003. Pp. 377. ISBN 2020571803

"It was a dark and stormy night. . . ." Few subjects lend themselves to such scrutiny in criticism – aesthetic and philosophical, thematic and formal, stylistic and rhetorical – as literary opening words or lines (or "signals" in Victor Brombert's felicitous phrase). And few subjects lend themselves in literary praxis to such extremes of formal conventionality and experimentation, rhetorical codification and inventiveness, analytic reflection, self-reflexivity and meta-commentary, thematic drama, and literary play, parody, irony, and iconoclasm as the opening lines of literary works. In any discursive practice, aesthetic or other, the strategies and stratagems of capturing attention, of stimulating curiosity, of creating anticipation, expectation, and suspense, of establishing story and orienting plot, of seducing, manipulating, baiting, and entrapping a reader, are as multifarious, varied, and diverse as literature itself and, ultimately, as the critical practices and approaches intending to elucidate these procedures. The purpose of Andrea Del Lungo's L'Incipit romanesque is nothing less than to categorize, describe, and analyze these practices.

This study is divided into three parts, each of which could stand on its own: an initial theoretical, somewhat philosophically oriented and essentially formalist, analysis of the practices of opening words (principally, though not exclusively – the title notwithstanding – involving narrative beginning lines); a second section involving some detailed textual analyses primarily inspired by and devoted to the philosophical and aesthetic playfulness of Italo Calvino and considering also other major works in various traditions, and a third section dedicated to a classification and commentary of the practices of literary openings in Balzac's La Comédie humaine. As is apparent, the net cast by this author is wide and this comprehensive treatment of the subject is one of the very useful and impressive features of this study.

In broaching a subject of such vast proportions and multiple dimensions, one might expect that the unity of the work derive from its grounding in a certain concept or method. Del Lungo, however, eschews a single methodology; instead, he tries out and adapts a broad spectrum of critical methods and insights, and evokes, as the work progresses, many critical schools and practices. Ultimately, however, the lines of intellectual [End Page 411] influence seem to lead to Genette, Rousset, and Barthes (particularly the Barthes of S/Z, Mythologies, and Eléments de sémiologie). Indeed, in both its strengths and shortcomings, this study suggests Barthes to me; it presents: on the one hand, a rather extraordinary range, an impressive erudition, an irrepressible enthusiasm for the subject, an exuberance, energy, and flair in writing (which comes through nicely in this French translation of the original Italian), flashes of genuine analytic brilliance and penetrating insight; on the other hand, there is a pronounced tendency to get bogged down in attempts to explicate, theorize, and systematize the approaches that have yielded such results. In other words, the principal strength of this work lies not in the conceptual or theoretical assumptions that guide it, which are simply too unsteady, but resides instead in the breadth of the author's range, the creativity of the insights, and the richness of the observations on discrete works. There are some speculations made in the direction of literary or intellectual history but these recede, however, before the much more assertive gestures of classification, categorization, and "functional" analysis.

In general, it will be more straightforward to give an empirical rather than conceptual or synthetic description of this work's development and insights though such an approach is of necessity partial and selective. As noted, this author's horizon is vast; the works considered range from Ariosto to OuLiPo, theoretical perspectives extend from Aristotle to Derrida, comparisons are drawn with the visual arts from Van Eyck to Mapplethorpe, musical analogies are proposed that are provocative and promising, though perhaps not exploited to their full analogical or analytic potential. Various extended metaphors are tried out: reading as a sexual or culinary act, opening lines as a seduction or transgression. Some analyses involve the enumeration of thematic scenarios, topoi, and leitmotiv of beginnings: arrivals and departures, or, more generally, the topos of traveling; such meteorological observations as "it was a dark and stormy night;" situations of awakening, falling asleep, or making random discoveries. The temporal horizons of beginnings are classified as well: "once upon a time," "in the beginning," in medias res, flashbacks and retrospectives, themes of birth and death. Functions, typologies, and catalogues according to almost every conceivable criterion are proposed and examined. Some of these are empirical, and thus based on specific works serving as examples, others are theoretical, identifying and classifying both actual and virtual or potential scenarios or literary functions. Some examples would be the classification of narratives according to the degree to which they manifest or dissimulate the arbitrariness of the beginning (more on that below); the distinction of three discrete forms of codification of the opening text (direct, indirect, implicit); the identification of three types of relation (direct, indirect, non relevant) of the opening words to the subsequent text; a distinction of four basic functions of the opening lines (codifying, thematic, informative, dramatic) the latter leading to a typology of functions according such parameters as the degree of immediate versus delayed thematic dramatization (serving to initiate the narrative) and the relative density (rarefaction versus saturation) of thematic information provided.

Much, perhaps too much, is made of the concept of the "arbitrariness" of the beginning. Gleaned from Genette and Barthes, this concept implies that in instituting a discursive and hermeneutical relation, an author exercises a power that is arbitrary. This notion recalls, of course, one of Saussure's foundational principles and, more interestingly, the adaptation of this concept by Barthes who, in his Eléments de sémiologie, also [End Page 412] chooses to emphasize arbitrariness as a type of exercise of power (rather than as a relation that is neither necessary nor motivated). Still, the notion of the arbitrariness of the beginning gives rise to some interesting commentaries and hypotheses relating to examples of how a discursive opening can be "naturalized" (again, evoking Barthes) in, for example, the literary topos of a found manuscript or correspondence with regard to which an author has exercised only editorial responsibilities, or relating to other ways in which the authorial authority and opening lines can be motivated, legitimized, or justified. In general, and despite these very interesting analyses, the notion of arbitrariness is overdramatized (the violence that the author repeatedly imputes to it is never demonstrated) and rather exceeds its conceptual usefulness. The examination of Balzac in the third part is conducted under the aegis of a general "totalizing" intention that for this author and others characterizes Balzac's poetics.

What hesitations or reservations I may have would be primarily of a minor and local character. There is an unmistakable stylistic verve, energy, and exuberance which tends toward repetition and periphrasis and, in the extreme, toward a rhapsodic style in which distinctions are drawn solely, it seems, on the basis of the manner of their expression; thus the "genèse du début" is opposed to the "début de la genèse" on several occasions for no other purpose than the rhetorical elegance of this chiasmus. Occasionally norms, forms, and standards are established to which one then presumes an author to be intentionally conforming or which an author may be implied to be consciously and intentionally subverting, which strikes me as a particular species of formalist fallacy. Note, for example, how normative intentions are attributed (however cautiously) to Balzac: "Balzac semble vouloir se conformer au modèle de début ponctuel déjà utilisé dans Le Dernier Chouan" (240). Such observations are quibbles, however, and these dissonances are a small price to pay for the considerable richness that this volume has to offer. The bibliography is comprehensive and well organized. A patient reader willing to bracket occasionally a desire to see the forest will be rewarded for his or her efforts with many interesting and useful insights.

Alain Toumayan
University of Notre Dame

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.