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FICTIONALIZING FACT Lilian R. Fürst The impetus for this essay comes from two quite disparate sources: from my work on realist fiction, and my more recent reading in medical history. Common to both these fields is the imbrication of fact and fiction. I want to explore how the interplay of these seemingly opposite elements functions in fictive and in historical writing. The theoretical foundation for such an enterprise stems from Hayden White's Metahistory (1973) which wrought a significant change in the understanding of the relationship of fact and fiction. Previously it had been assumed that they were opposites; Levin, for instance, in The Gates ofHorn, asserts: "Fact, not truth, is the opposite offiction" (26). By contrast, White argued in effect for their essential complementarity by insisting that all historical images partake ofthe fictional insofar as narrative history, far from being a dispassionate chronicle of stable occurrences in the past, is a reconstructive and interpretative act filtered through the historian's perception. Fact and fiction become thus not just coextensive but also porous, potentially cross-fertilizing each other in ways that prove decisive for the writing of fiction and history alike. I will address the interdependence of fact and fiction in realist narrative rather briefly since I have dealt with it at length inAM is True: The Claims and Strategies ofRealist Fiction. The appropriation of factual components into the realm offiction is one of realism's most consistent and distinctive practices. The analysis of this procedure is greatly facilitated by the terminology suggested by the theoretician Benjamin Harehaw, who proposed "external field ofreference" for the actual world from which elements may be imported into the "internal field of reference " created within the narrative. The preeminent imports from the external into the internal field ofreference are geographical and historical . For example, Yonville-L'Abbaye in Flaubert's Madame Bovary is precisely sited eight miles from Rouenjust offthe new Abbeville-Amiens highway on the borders of Normandy, Picardy, and the Ile-de-France. Similarly, the fictitious provincial town that is the locus of the action in George Eliot's Middlemarch is placed in relation—and in contrast—to the larger world of the political capital, London, of Rome, where Dorothea spends her miserable honeymoon, and ofParis, where Lydgate had done advanced medical training. The deliberately nameless town in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks is quite easily identifiable through its landmarks and its proximity to Hamburg and Travemünde. In each instance the place is mounted onto the topography of the actual world, but in every one of these novels it comes to be invested with meanings and connotations pivotal to the unfolding of the fictive action. YonvilleL 'Abbaye, in an ironical subversion of its grandiose name, is the cemetery of Emma's dreams (its main road, not by coincidence, abuts in the cemetery); Middlemarch pressures its citizens to descend from their lofty ideals into the middle marches ofhuman life, accepting the compromise Vol. 21 (1997): 4· THE COMPAKATIST of second best, while the North German Protestant work ethic of success as status and money determines the path of all the Buddenbrooks. The factual core of these locations is transfigured in the course of the plot into a fictive and metaphorical force. Historical facts undergo a parallel annexation. The economic reconfiguration of France in the wake of the revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic wars and the resultant rise of a capitalist bourgeoisie forms the context for all of Balzac's Comédie humaine. The democratization of England through the First Reform Bill of 1831 as well as the industrialization represented by the cutting of a railroad are the frame for the personal fates in Middlemarch. Buddenbrooks is punctuated by the recurrent theme of the transformation of Germany between 1835 and 1875 as it moves toward unification as a nation state through the incorporation of such events as the revolution of 1848, the Austro-Prussian war of 1870, and the formation of the North German Customs Union. The risk-taking venture capitalism of the upstart Hagenströms is more congruent to the new adventurous climate than the Buddenbrooks' cautious, dignified business policies. The function of such fictionalizing of geographic and historical fact in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 4-9
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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