- The Self-Destruction of the Enlightenment Novel: Voice and the Problem of Narration in Blanckenburg’s Beyträge zur Geschichte deutschen Reichs und deutscher Sitten
Readers familiar with the first book-length publication in German dedicated to the theoretical study of the novel, Christian Friedrich von Blanckenburg’s Versuch über den Roman (1774), might be forgiven for not knowing that the same author also published a novel. In the reception of both Blanckenburg and the eighteenth-century German novel, the theorist’s only work of fiction has been relegated to footnotes, when not ignored completely. There are, however, good reasons for this neglect. Not only is it a work of dubious literary quality, it is also a book that displays a peculiar ambivalence with respect to its own generic status. Although it presents itself as—and sometimes appears even to take the shape of—a novel, there are salient aspects of the book that persist in obstructing its ostensible narrative form. This tension is already present in its title, Beyträge zur Geschichte deutschen Reichs und deutscher Sitten, which gives little indication that it is even intended to be a novel. For although “Geschichte” is a standard designation for fictional narrative at this time (as in Blanckenburg’s two favourite novels, Geschichte des Agathon and The History of Tom Jones), the word has here been stripped of this potential generic connotation, first by being subordinated to the term “Beyträge,” and second by not being tied to an individual (so critical to Blanckenburg’s normative conception of the novel), but instead to the entire German people. In this context, “Geschichte” suggests that we are dealing here not with any fictional “story,” but with something much broader that concerns historical events. Indeed, the word “Beyträge” rather unambiguously announces that the book is to consist of scholarly “contributions” of a historiographical nature.
This genre designation is made to carry the most weight in the title not only semantically, as its first word and dominant conceptual category, but also graphically. If we look at the book’s title page (Figure 1), we can see how the text’s generic status is maintained, even as it is confused, in a peculiar typographical [End Page 148]
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organization of terms in which “Beyträge,” in the largest font, is prominently centred, but “Geschichte” pushed toward the margin. Complicating this hierarchy further is the third, most unambiguous generic category, “Ein Roman,” which is nonetheless shrunk down in size and cordoned off, not for emphasis, but as if to keep it in check. Is this book a “novel” or a set of scholarly “contributions”? Even before it properly begins, Blanckenburg announces and puts into tension these generic categories, with the latter—the non-fictional scholarly discourse—seeming at first to dominate, at least typographically, over the former. [End Page 149] This tension persists throughout the entire work, which Blanckenburg clearly wants to be a novel, but which he cannot help sabotaging at every step of the way with authorial intrusions that crowd out most of the material of narrative interest. The theorist-turned-novelist thus privileges the theoretical over the narrative, filling his new book with meta-discursive commentary in which it appears the author has decided to write his announced “Beyträge” after all, even at the expense of its expected story, its “Geschichte.”
In this article I will analyze Blanckenburg’s novel guided by three main motivations, each tied to this generic hybridity. First, more broadly, the lack of critical attention to the novel needs to be rectified. As the only work of fiction by the author of Germany’s first theoretical monograph on the novel, a work that continues to be relevant to discussions of the history and theory of the genre, the Beyträge deserves more than a cursory look. Coming only one year after the voluminous Versuch über den Roman, Blanckenburg’s novel asks to be read as the author’s attempt to model that which he argues for in his theoretical work. The Beyträge, however, has received very little critical attention and is...