- Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter by Samuel Frederick
Narratives Unsettled asks an important question about the relationship of digression to narration. Are digressions merely external or internal to the story told, or are instances of radical digression—free of plot—narratives in their own right? In the book, Samuel Frederick engages with the longstanding belief in the inherent interdependence, if not equivalence of narrative and plot. Frederick’s study consists of an introduction, two thematic sections of two chapters each, and a brief coda followed by an appendix that contains three short stories by Walser—“Spaziergang im Park,” “Einmal erzählte einer,” and “Asche, Nadel, Bleistift und Zündhölzchen.” The detailed and highly theoretical introduction outlines the place of digression in the long history of narratology. Here, Frederick articulates his main argumentative claims: Conventionally, plot, instead of narration, has been the unifying element of a narrative, streamlining the disparate elements of a story and synthesizing all probable and necessary narrative incidents in order to represent all action in a unitary mode. Under the hegemony of plot, digression is either appropriated as the part of the text treating “insignificant” matters or as the part that deviates. Frederick argues that if plot affirms “its identity by appropriating difference,” then digression affirms “difference by repudiating that identity” (3–4). In order to posit a positive definition of digression as a constitutive narrative function, Narratives Unsettled rejects the idea of digression as anti-narrative and avoids classifying it as experimental prose so as to avoid the negative connotations of failure and negation. Frederick sets out to define digression as potentially productive for narration and ultimately arrives at the claim that plot is unnecessary to narration. Plot, and this is the thrust of his argument, is not identical to narrative, nor is its teleological and coalescing structure the [End Page 136] sole guarantee for narrativity. Instead, narrativity consists of “acts of telling” motivated by a desire to tell that remains a constant even in the absence of a discernible plot. Unsettled narratives, the type of stories that lend the book its title, are works that, despite undermining plot’s driving force, uphold narrativity by this impulse to tell. In these works, digressions unsettle plot’s quest for unity through dispersal, proliferation, and rupture and consequently negate narrative’s traditional centripetal structure in order to create narrativity “from multiple nodal points, decentered, mutable, always potentially shifting.” Walser, Bernhard, and Stifter, authors who span more than a century of writing, serve as exemplary cases for the modes of digression that Frederick describes, each achieving “narrative multiplicity” in its own way (17). For Walser, digressions arise through proliferation, for Bernhard through rupture, and for Stifter via dispersal.
Under the conceptual heading of “Proliferation,” Frederick unites two chapters dedicated to the works of Walser. In the first chapter, “Deviations and Divergences,” the author sketches out how “perambulatory prose” is generated by what he calls “instances of pure narration” in “Einmal erzählte einer” from 1931 and “Der Spaziergang” from 1917. According to Frederick, Walser’s texts lack overarching plots that would hold the stories together from beginning to end and thus proliferate into “multiplicitous disunity.” In doing so, they upend the exclusionary definition of textual elements as either being internal or external to plot (20). Chapter 2, “Storytelling without the Story,” investigates Walser’s Mikrogramme, arguing for a “pure discourse” produced by an excessive foregrounding of the narrative voice as well as ample metanarrative commentary. Here, narrativity comes about through discourse free of story, free of interrelated events. Frederick’s reading of “Asche, Nadel, Bleistift und Zündhölzchen” from 1915 shows how trivial and useless objects become poetological reflections of nonteleological and therefore purposeless narratives.
Part II, “Rupture/Dispersal,” is devoted to chapters on Bernhard and Stifter, whose works serve as counterpoints to Walser’s proliferations. In chapter 3, “Digressivity, Madness, and the Infinite Continuum in Thomas Bernhard’s Verstörung,” Frederick shows how the mad monologue of the prince takes over in the second half, after...