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Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 87-91

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Book Review

The Musicalization of Fiction:
A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality

The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality. By Werner Wolf. Amsterdam-Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi B.V., 1999. xi + 272 pp. $50 paperback.

In his latest book, The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality, Werner Wolf continues his program of examining musical elements in narrative. He coedited the proceedings of the First International Conference on Word and Music Studies (Graz 1997) with his colleagues Steven Paul Scher and Walter Bernhart. From that conference paper and from seminars on interart relationships, or to use his term, "intermediality," Wolf has constructed a theory of imitation of music in fiction. Aldous Huxley's term "musicalization of fiction" from the 1928 novel Point Counter Point serves to qualify the broader term of intermediality. Wolf evaluates the term here within 19th and 20th century Anglo-Irish fiction, to claim that intermediality describes a transfer process of structure and aesthetic intention from music to fiction.

Experiments in fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries are experiments in cultural reflection, says Wolf. He notes that fiction has the "semiotic function to interpret culture"(229) while it concocts an imaginary world with imaginary characters, allowing the reader to experience what Huxley called the "happiness of being high" (p.236). Wolf writes that Huxley's plot-strands in Point Counter Point have an imagistic "artificiality, in spite of its mimesis of Britain of the 1920s"(p.174). When we think artificiality, we think of classical forms, of choices of structural minutiae which in juxtaposition create an objective, determined form in [End Page 87] repose, a harmony of parts and particles so to speak. Here is Wolf's dilemma: he attempts to wrench a modern and postmodern aesthetic out of essentially harmony-driven structures, finding that these formal experiments come up short and do not always succeed in creating new meaning. Wolf stresses the paradox of modern fiction that uses referentiality to everyday life routines, but then aestheticizes these realities through musical processes, hence the theory of intermediality.

Intermediality is a new word of the 1990s stemming from the theme of the Venice Biennale on "Art and Life in the Nineties." The objective there was to aestheticize concrete life functions in various art forms. While intermediality defines the relationships between art forms and spaces of meaning, multimediality is a superimposition of performed arts one on the other, one usually being privileged, as in Wagnerian opera (music) or television commercials (visual arts). Wolf uses the term intermediality to detect implicit and explicit discourses, similar to intertextuality. As in intertextuality, the critic probes relationships between one artistic medium and another, which the reader picks up as allusions to two histories, reflexive of each other. Wolf would like to prove that the intermedial transpositions from music give formal and aesthetic substance to the art of writing. This is nothing new. Even in the age of Couperin, parlor sonatas evoked the drama of medical surgery, or buggys on cobblestone streets, or pickpockets. Molière's adage "je prends mon bien ou je trouve" speaks of the long history of using materials in the culture. Depending on the critical paradigm, intermediality has different definitions: "borrowing" in music, "interarts" in humanities, "iconicity" or "ekphrasis" in art criticism, even "audio-visual techniques" in the 1999 Handbook of Critical Media Literacy of Pailliotet and Semali. Wolf's title subordinates his meaning of intermediality to the musicalization of fiction, restricting his analyses to forms of music as used in fiction.

The problem I detect in this theory of intermediality is that it is conservative. Based on pre-modern musical gestures, the theory does not experiment with new meaning, but rather with the old-fashioned idea of function following form. The aesthetic of music is not convincingly transformed into a function of narrative. The formal elements of Huxley's novel Point Counter Point do not do the work of...


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