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  • Metalepsis and Mise en Abyme
  • Dorrit Cohn (bio)
    Translated by Lewis S. Gleich (bio)

The mechanisms of metalepsis, as several chapters in this work show, extend beyond narrative fiction.1 For my part, reflecting on metalepsis has led me to an extension and a critique of the brief section in Narrative Discourse where Gérard Genette names and examines it. To begin, I will focus on two distinctions that seem essential to me. Genette defines narrative metalepsis as “any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe (or by diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc.) or the inverse” (234–35). Metalepsis thus designates the transgression of a line of demarcation that authors usually do not touch, namely the “shifting but sacred frontier between two worlds, the world in which one tells, the world of which one tells” (236).

The first distinction I wish to stress is between metalepsis at the discourse level and metalepsis at the story level.2 Metalepsis at the discourse level is (in the sense established by Genette) a kind of “figure”: it consists in the habit of certain narrators interrupting the description of the routine actions of their characters by digressions; it results in a light-hearted and playful synchronization of the narration with the narrated events. Genette illustrates this kind of metalepsis with several passages from [End Page 105] Balzac, including one that begins thus: “While the venerable churchman climbs the ramps of Angoulême, it is not useless to explain …” (235). In the following pages, I will not be concerned with this relatively inoffensive kind of discursive metalepsis,3 but rather with the kind of metalepsis that is much more daring and shocking, also much more spectacular, and that appears at the level of the story: a particularly troubling transgression that Genette exemplifies with Julio Cortázar’s story “Continuity of Parks.” In this very brief tale, a man who is reading a novel becomes the victim of a murder that is committed in the novel that he is in the process of reading. Here, the boundary between the primary story (the reader’s story) and the secondary story (the framed novel) is violated, leading to a confusion between distinct ontological levels.

The other important distinction—Genette makes it himself, but without emphasizing it—is between what I call exterior metalepsis (by far the more frequent) and interior metalepsis.4 I call exterior all metalepsis that occurs between the extradiegetic level and the diegetic level—that is to say, between the narrator’s universe and that of his or her story (e.g., John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman). I call interior all metalepsis that occurs between two levels of the same story—that is to say, between a primary and secondary story, or between a secondary and tertiary story (e.g., Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds).

Exterior Metalepsis

Although my interest in the following pages is mainly in interior metalepsis, I will pause for a moment to consider exterior metalepsis, first to focus on a fact that has not been noted until now, namely that we do not find metalepsis in homodiegetic narratives but only in heterodiegetic narratives. One searches in vain for cases of a fundamental destruction of the narrative situation in the first person. We do not even find it in the most casual stories, the most self-ironic. Thus, the metafictional games of Tristram Shandy leave intact the form of the “I.” It is the same in Beckett’s The Unnamable and in Nabokov’s The real Life of Sebastian Knight. Thus, Beckett’s narrator maintains the same “I” when he writes, “How, in such conditions, can I write. … I don’t know. … It is I who write, who cannot raise my hand from my knee. It is I who think, just enough to write, whose head is far” (295). And Nabokov’s narrator maintains the “I” even when he questions his own existence in the final sentence of the novel: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows” (205). This “someone” is evidently the author, who is however far from...


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