- Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter by Samuel Frederick
According to a powerful literary-critical tradition that extends as far back as Aristotle, plot is to narrative what the mean will later become to the normal curve—the standard by which other points on the curve are judged. Moments of literary digression occupy the interpretive margins like so many standard deviations. In this smart and readable book, Samuel Frederick works toward a theory of narrative that would allow us to talk about narrative in respect to literary works which favor digression over plot (in what follows, I render consistent Frederick’s occasional habit of using italics to distinguish his broadened conception of narrative from a traditional, plot-based narrative). He builds a case for talking about the kind of narrative conveyed through an “impulse to tell, over and against any cohesive set of things to be told” (171). In doing so, Frederick inflicts damage to the influential narrative model of Peter Brooks, according to which narrative is driven always and everywhere by a goal-directed masculine desire.
Of the four main chapters, the first two are devoted to Robert Walser. In his first chapter, Frederick provides readings of two short stories, “Einmal erzählte einer,” and “Der Spaziergang.” A subsequent chapter examines a number of Walser’s so-called microscript pieces, the short texts Walser wrote out in idiosyncratic hand. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Die Verstörung provides the material for chapter three, and the final chapter is an examination of Adalbert Stifter’s Nachsommer.
In Walser, says Frederick, the reader encounters “a proliferation of deviations that branch out from multiple beginnings” (27), each of which undergoes shift and change such that it becomes unfixable as a beginning. “Einmal erzählte einer,” for example, adopts a narrative mode whereby narrative paradoxically emerges out of Walser’s persistent metacommentary, either about his reluctance to narrate or about the narrative itself. If Walser’s microscript texts eschew conveying events per se, Walser instead produces narrative by allowing plotless forms to proliferate, most typically when the narrator reflects on writing in the act of writing. Inverting the hierarchy hitherto established by narrative theory, Walser’s microscripts offer discourse, which inclines toward the serialization or concatenation of events, in place of story, which revolves around plot.
Frederick then elegantly reinterprets Bernhard’s well-known description of himself as a “Geschichtenzerstörer,” so that it speaks, not to what many commentators have taken as an aversion to mimetic description, but rather to a false representation of wholeness. In his battle against losing himself in what Frederick (somewhat repetitively) calls the “infinite continuum,” Bernhard produces works “littered with the corpses of the stories he has shot down” (103). In Verstörung, Bernhard effectively [End Page 183] leverages the Prince’s madness (the infinite) against the plotted whole (the finite) in order to gesture toward a utopian state.
Prompted by Stifter’s indifference to narrative causality combined with the author’s enthusiasm for relaying incidental details, Frederick then reads Der Nachsommer as a narrative experiment in overcoming narration. With an eye toward bringing out the narrative qualities of the novel, its subsequent editors excised considerable portions of Stifter’s text. The bulk of this chapter is an illuminating consideration of some of the most striking editorial changes they made.
What, for the reader, is the payoff of digression—defined by Frederick as “such excess, that which breaks up—unsettles—plot’s drive for unity by means of disruption, dispersal, or proliferation” (117)? A number of answers are offered: the excess of difference conveyed by Walser’s prose texts short-circuits a desire, ordinarily shared by the reader, for “resolution or orientation toward an end” (55). Walser invites a way of reading which renders the ordinary meaningful. In Verstörung, Bernhard marshals normative expectations of plot so as to reveal to us their incongruence “with a world that resists being totalized” (111); and Stifter’s Nachsommer circulates in a postnarrative...