- The Narratology of Observation. Studies in a Technique of European Literary Realism by Martin Wagner
Martin Wagner seeks to build a bridge between competing conceptions of realism that are based on the prevalence of either description or narration—and, moreover, between definitions of the two latter terms that regard them as mutually exclusive—by characterizing realist narration through its use of "observation." In his model, this term is liberated from its everyday use and turned into a concept that is both more complex and precisely delineated. In numerous iterations throughout the volume, he defines it as a specific combination of description with narration: beginning with a moment or scene of description (for instance of a character entering), "observation" in this sense then develops seamlessly into temporal progression as it continues in(to) event mode. In his introduction Wagner presents the opening paragraphs of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary as an example of this technique (2–6).
Wagner briefly contextualizes this "literary observation" with reference to scientific observation, citing Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin along with Lorraine Daston and Carlo Ginzburg. In developing a new argument about a topic that has been discussed for millennia, he skilfully delimits his use of sources and makes excellent use of them. He wears his erudition lightly throughout the study, with passing or more in-depth references to texts that encompass the classical European tradition (with a slight leaning towards French in both primary and secondary sources), starting with Quintilian and Aristotle, calling expectedly on [End Page 179] Michael Fried and (by way of distinction) Jonathan Crary, and including György Lukács and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as well as Roland Barthes and André Breton. His prose is polished and engaging, a far cry from the dry academic writing one sometimes has to slog through.
Wagner demonstrates persuasively how literary narratives manage to integrate observations into a plot sequence. His examples span several centuries and include texts written in French, German, and English. Four of seven chapters (including the introduction and conclusion) are devoted to analyzing texts, from Alain-René Lesage's Le Diable boiteux (1707) and Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne's Les Nuits de Paris, ou le Spectateur-nocturne (1788) through Goethe's Werther (adding to the store of existing analyses of the famous 10 May letter; 105–07) and Georg Büchner's Lenz, to Edgar Allan Poe's "Man of the Crowd" and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes narratives. The examples serve to provide a historical trajectory that is outlined in the introduction, expanded in the subsequent chapters, and extended to the "afterlife" of literary observation after 1900 in the conclusion (165, 171). Not only do they span a good two centuries, but Wagner also presents them with specific inflections. Lesage marks for him the stage before observation, in Wagner's sense, establishes itself; Rétif is the main representative of observation; Goethe, Büchner, and Poe are classified under "Failing Observations" (thus the chapter title). The primary texts here make up a substantial portion of the volume, used by Wagner to contrast different historical periods—with the result, however, that only one of the four text-analysis chapters actually exemplifies the model of literary observation that he proposes. One might question the choice of supporting a theoretical model with examples that for the most part do not fall under the paradigm presented. Reworking a field that is so well known, Wagner may have trusted readers to supply examples from texts of their choosing in the realist tradition.
Wagner's model may be "[s]imple," as he modestly calls it (v), but it does indeed address what has often been considered a categorical divide between description and narration in narrative studies from a new angle. It provides a welcome new perspective and brings what Wagner considers a specific and major feature of realist texts into sharper relief. Its utility for readers is a strength. Literary historians may differ as to...