- Inner Workings of the Novel: Studying a Genre
I confess that I asked to review Allan Pasco's new book sight unseen, with the intention of praising a distinguished scholar for his continuing contributions to narratology. I would have liked him to have written a different book than he did. This attitude is neither fair nor appropriate in a reviewer, who should simply go try to write that ideal book himself. I hope, then, that our disagreements can be understood not as evaluations of Allan Pasco's book per se but as testimonials to the provocative power of his analyses.
Allan Pasco defines the novel as "long prose fiction that is unified, coherent, and literary" (ix; emphasis in original). He does not seek its unity and coherence in emplotment, characterization, depictions of society, or message. He finds unity in constellations of symbols, and in "sequences" (a term never defined) that may crystallize into a reader's awareness by the end of a narrative. Pasco uses "theme" to designate the coherence produced within a narrative by recurring situations, motifs, topics, images, or symbols. His proof texts are Camus's L'Exil et le royaume; Barbey d'Aurevilly's Les Diaboliques; Flaubert's Tentation de saint Antoine; Huysmans' À rebours; and Proust.
The major differences between our outlooks concern the use to Camus's and Barbey's short story cycles to illuminate the novel; what I see as the lack of adequate contextualization for all the works; a need for a richer sense of character and of interpersonal relations in the three novels; and a fuller treatment of "theme" in its ethical rather than esthetic sense. By "ethical" here I mean a work's "message," the reason why we should care about the story we are reading. Such messages hold up standards for judging human behavior. They may be axiological (concerning relative values), deontological (moral values), epistemological (how much is knowable), or anagogical (spiritual progress—see Dante's letter to Cangrande della Scala). The Kunstlerroman such as Proust's reflects a secularized version of the anagogical.
Where Allan Pasco tries consistently to minimize the importance of character and plot, I try consistently to enhance it. To do so, I consistently emphasize implicatures. Admitting that one person's implicature is another person's psychic projection, or void—never proof positive—we can quickly see the difference between our views in what Pasco says (in passing) about La Princesse de Clèves. "Of Mlle de Chartres . . . we are told only that she is a great beauty and that she has very white skin and blond hair. From that point on, her actions and the stories told to her are hung from little but her name, to which readers of good will attach significant traits [through psychic projection] as they follow her adventures" (4). True, Madame de Lafayette's physical description is perfunctory. But it sets up the major conflict of the work. In the late seventeenth century French court, where the discrepancy between the public and the private self was all-important (see La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère), the typical problem of physically beautiful people is aggravated: they tend to be seen only as desirable objects. The fascination they exercise is also their curse. Prior to this description, moreover, we readers have already been told that the future Princesse is an only child, [End Page 160] dominated by her ambitious, widowed mother, who pushes her into an arranged marriage (compare George Sand's Indiana). The tragedy of her life flows from that family dynamic. Moreover, thought report, which occurs throughout the narrative, provides rich, unequivocal information about her character. So does her unconventional decision to confess to her husband her attraction to another man, as a way of resisting it. (Unconscious vengeful cruelty? We have no way of knowing.) She undergoes deep, agonizing spiritual struggles. The open-ended conclusion avoids pat moralizing, leaving us to do much interpretative work ourselves. What are we to make of the memories of "inimitable" examples of virtue that...