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  • Narrative Unreliability in the Twentieth-Century First-Person Novel
  • Thomas Lornsen
Elke D'hoker and Gunther Martens, eds. Narrative Unreliability in the Twentieth-Century First-Person Novel. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008. 338 pp. US$ 118. ISBN 978-3-11-020630-2.

First defined by Wayne Booth in his seminal 1961 work Rhetoric of Fiction, the concept of the "unreliable narrator" has become, as Tom Kindt points out in his contribution to the collection, "one of the current boom-sectors" (130) and one of the most controversial concepts in the field of narratology. After all, its study forces scholars to deal once more with old friends such as the "death" and "rebirth" of the author, the issue of intentionality, as well as the pairs fact/fiction and story/discourse. Furthermore, as Els Jongeneel rightfully points out in her contribution, unreliable narration "has become the authentic, 'reliable' hallmark of deconstructive thinking" (307).

In their introduction, editors Elke D'hoker and Gunther Martens correctly state the main problems of present-day scholarship on unreliable narration: A large number of conflicting definitions and a small corpus consisting almost exclusively of modernist English texts. Accordingly, the following fifteen essays, which spring from a workshop in June 2006 at the Catholic University of Leuven, set out to "describe theoretical conceptualizations [and] diverse uses and transformations of unreliable narration in different national literatures and poetical programmes" (1). Although no divisions are indicated in the table of contents, the volume is organized into three parts of five essays each: the first part focusses on theoretical issues, the second part offers close readings of texts featuring "perfect unreliability" (D'hoker 152), and in the last part we find studies of texts that "operate on the margins of unreliability" (5).

The volume starts off by pitting the two biggest players in the field – both keynote speakers at the workshop – against each other. First, James Phelan reflects critically on the peculiar [End Page 426] synthesis of rhetorical and ethical criticism advocated by his mentor Booth. Phelan then revises and expands this theoretical framework and goes on to investigate in a number of British and American novels the interplay of what he calls bonding and estranging unreliability. Ansgar Nünning, on the other hand, once rose to prominence in the field of narratology by launching a vicious attack on Booth's favourite brainchild, the implied author, and by calling for a new blend of cognitive, cultural, and historical approaches. In his contribution, Nünning moves closer to Phelan's position by accepting his redefinition of the implied author and by paying more attention to rhetorical issues.

It does come as somewhat of a disappointment that both Phelan's and Nünning's contributions are not new: Phelan's essay was previously published in Narrative 15.2 (2007), while Nünning presents a montage of his publications of the past twelve years, in particular his 2005 paper "Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches." Moreover, Nünning's countless accusations against previous conceptualizations of the unreliable narrator and the implied author – "ill-defined and elusive" (30), "imprecise and theoretically inadequate" (30), "woefully inadequate and untenable" (33), "ill-defined and paradoxical" (34), "notoriously ill-defined" (34), "ill-defined and potentially misleading" (36), "vague and ill-defined" (42), to list just a few – prove a case in point for Kindt's remark later in the volume, that, generally, "members of the Nünning School [...] do no more than to criticize the canonical definition as empirically inadequate" (130; see also D'hoker 149–50 and Van den Bossche 254). That said, Phelan and Nünning provide a thorough introduction to the history of the scholarly discourse on unreliable narration, with Nünning's bibliography alone consisting of more than one hundred entries.

Despite the volume's title, which limits the scope to the "twentieth-century first-person novel," many of the featured scholars argue convincingly that unreliable narration should be thought of as restricted neither to first-person narration (Jedličová; Martens) nor to the twentieth century (Nünning). This last point is of particular relevance, since the close ties between unreliable narration and other, more thoroughly researched phenomena have yet to be...


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