Self-Reflexive Novels and Novelists

After a few minutes of reading stories that are not selfreflexive, readers sometimes forget what they are doing and feel transported into the world of the book. Considering this experience naïve, authors of self-reflexive fictions thwart it by such devices as commenting on their own composition and focusing on storytellers as characters. To some extent, literary self-awareness has existed at least since Gilgamesh (c. 3000 b.c.e.), which mentions its being recorded on stone, but that single reference is not enough to make it very self-reflexive.

Truly self-reflexive fictions fall roughly into four levels of introspection: misguided self-consciousness, in which narrators examine their own words, seeking an elusive self-understanding; the Künstlerroman (artist’s novel), a novel about the education of a writer or some other analogous artist; “self-begetting” fiction, about its own creation; and extended Midrash, which focuses on its position within literature by combining narrative with literary criticism.

Self-reflexive authors tend to use language that is surprisingly contrived or casual, or to deviate from convention in countless other ways; this deviation highlights the text itself, thus making its portrayal of the world seem less real. This effect, called metafiction, is common to all self-reflexive works, though it is usually more extreme in each successive level.


J. D. Salinger

Misguided Self-consciousness

The malice-devoured narrator of Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevski, set a pattern for misguided self-consciousness in twentieth century fiction: A narrator analyzes his or her own text, indeed is often a would-be artist, but lacks sufficient insight. Irony thus divides author and narrator. For example, Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Lolita (1955), by Vladimir Nabokov, wishes to immortalize statutory rape as serious literature; however, his account is classified in the preface as a psychological case, and the novel is ultimately darkly comic, ridiculing Humbert Humbert.

Comparably, The Great American Novel (1938), by Clyde Brion Davis, purports to be the diaries of a journalist who spends his whole obtuse life planning a never-written novel. The first-person voice in Grendel (1971), by John Gardner, becomes fascinated with a narrative poet but ultimately rejects art, morality, and any other order. In fictions primarily about misguided selfconsciousness, the monstrous or moronic narrator is an artist manqué.

The Künstlerroman

Near the start of Metamorphoses (second century c.e.; The Golden Ass, 1566), the author, Lucius Apuleius, predicts that its protagonist will have adventures worthy of being in a book. Although Apuleius writes the book, he declares his belief that the adventures themselves take precedence over the authorship of the story. Only with the nineteenth century did writers reach such a status that a genre arose to extol them—the Künstlerroman. Some of these works include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1824), and Novalis’s Henry of Ofterdingen (1842).

Like many imitations of this type, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Of Time and the River (1935), The Web and the Rock (1939), and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940) are disguised autobiography, depicting an artist’s disaffection from contemporary society. More original are books that try to refresh the formula, such as Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1929). At first it seems to be a novel of misguided self-consciousness, the ravings of a mad diarist, but Hesse portrays outpourings of the unconscious as an artist’s proper education. Another variant of the formula is to counterpoise the perspectives of many writer characters, as in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928), André Gide’s The Counterfeiters (1927), or Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (1962).

In the United States, authors frequently labor to keep self-reflection from turning into preciosity. Consequently, a popular variant of the formula is to disguise it as masculine adventure, as in Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels. The first, Ender’s Game (1985), seems to be about a prepubescent military leader, although his siblings become famous writers. In the second volume, Speaker for the Dead (1986), his education is shown to have prepared him to write the scriptures for a new religion. By the later volumes in the series, including Shadow of the Giant (2005), his powers as author have reached a magical dimension such that he can make characters literally live merely by imagining them. In the Künstlerroman, being a writer is deemed the ultimate expression of a person’s potential, whereas the following level, the self-begetting novel, celebrates the author’s godlike creation of a whole world.

The Self-begetting Novel

In an attempt to define all self-reflexive long fiction, Steven G. Kellman devised the term “self-begetting novel,” by which he means a work that appears to have been written by a character within that work. Although he admits that this is actually not the focus of all selfreflexive works, his phrase does suit those fictions that suggest self-enclosure by, for example, ending with references to their beginning.

Kellman sees self-begetting fiction as predominantly French, stemming from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1922-1931, 1981). Henry Miller, in Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), models his writer-protagonist’s resistance to devouring time on Proust’s work. Comparably, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1949) concludes with its main character, Antoine Roquentin, wishing to write a novel so that people might one day revere him the way he does a singer on a repeatedly heard record. As Kellman observes, the waitress who plays the record is named Madeleine, an allusion to Proust’s madeleine cake, whose taste triggered the protagonist’s paranormal, vivid recollection of his past. Significantly, Michel Butor, famous for his A Change of Heart (1958), and Samuel Beckett, author of Malone Dies (1956), and The Unnamable (1958), have written not only self-begetting fictions but also major essays on Proust.

The aforementioned Proust-like narratives are increasingly constricted and dissatisfied with life. Miller’s world is designedly more tawdry and sordid than that of Proust. Sartre ventures further still into squalor, inspiring the “nausea” of Roquentin. Two decades later, rather than being by class a writer-intellectual like Roquentin, the protagonist of A Change of Heart works for a typewriter company, and Beckett’s fictions concern barely human authors in nightmarish worlds. Kellman argues that Beckett’s parodies of the tradition bring it to a close.

Anne Rice’s best-selling The Tale of the Body Thief (1992), however, combines elements of this French tradition (such as slow movement, world-weariness, and prestigious allusion) with American self-begetting narrative (adventure, youthful perspective, and uncouth diction, as in J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye). Rice’s French American protagonist Lestat alternates between poetic monologues about his centuries-long self-disgust and slang-filled expressions of his immortal youth. As epigraph, Rice quotes William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” about the need to leave the transience of life for the eternity of art or of the supernatural. Lestat achieves both: He writes the book and chooses a vampiric identity, which seems the next step beyond Beckett’s almost dead narrators. In Sophie’s World (1996) by Jostein Gaarder, the protagonist is a woman who fears that she might be only a character in a book, a worry shared by Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman in David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System (1987).

More purely American is the deliberate vulgarity of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), a fictionalized autobiography prefaced and repeatedly interrupted by the author’s discussion of its composition. To emphasize circularity, he begins the story by accurately predicting that the final word will be a bird’s song endlessly reheard by Billy Pilgrim, the time-shifting protagonist. ‘

A frequent metaphor in American self-begetting novels (including Rice’s) compares the self-begetting to physically sterile but psychologically productive sexual adventures. Two groundbreaking works of this sort are Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973). These forays are fraught with shame and angst. Roth’s persona ends by wondering if he has allowed the irrational to govern his writings, and Jong’s protagonist at least once dreads being caught in her own book. Sexual explicitness brought Fear of Flying its notoriety; nonetheless, it has much in common with more restrained, feminist, self-begetting novels such as Doris Lessing’s masterpiece The Golden Notebook (1962).

In The Golden Notebook, the protagonist writes a series of notebooks culminating in the novel itself. This shows the closeness of the notebook form and selfbegetting fiction. For example, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, also known as The Journal of My Other Self (1930), although not precisely circular, frequently doubles back on itself, as Brigge keeps referring to earlier sections. His final discussion of the Prodigal Son involves the idea of cyclic return.

Comparably, the diarylike structure of Kfbf Abe’s The Box Man (1974) is possibly solipsistic and pervaded by metaphoric use of the box as an emblem of self-containment. Despite the form’s fascination with autonomy, throughout the world variants of selfbegetting fiction take on local color, as N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968) does from the Native American chant that begins and ends it, making the whole into the eternally repeating song of its protagonist.

Extended Midrash

Because of its use by such critics as Harold Bloom, the term “Midrash” has come to denote literary interpretation in narrative form. Before there was a critical term for it, extended Midrash became fashionable through James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), based on a massive analogy between itself and Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), though it links itself to a vast number of other works as well. For example, its character Stephen Dedalus (protagonist of Joyce’s serialized Künstlerroman of 1914- 1915 [1916 book], A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) spends a long chapter discussing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a manner applicable to Ulysses itself.

In the same year that Joyce published the even more metafictional Finnegans Wake (1939), Flann O’Brien issued the almost equally experimental At Swim-Two- Birds, a parody of Irish literary tradition. The appearance of these works did not mark the opening of floodgates, since Ulysses—like extended Midrash—requires readers who are able to comprehend a vertiginous play of allusions. Consequently, works of this sort are hardly plentiful. Even the most erudite readers do not always esteem them. In Remembrance of Things Past, for example, Proust’s narrator condemned theorizing about art within a novel, likening it to leaving a price tag on a purchase.

Midrash first developed as an ancient form of Jewish biblical criticism. Some modern fictions continue applying Midrash to scriptures. For example, biblical hermeneutics are repeatedly foregrounded in Thomas Mann’s multivolume Joseph and His Brothers (1934) also known as The Tales of Jacob), thereby underlining the fact that his retelling of Genesis is a speculation or even a fantasy. Its protagonist is himself both storyteller and dream interpreter, analogous to Mann himself. Comparably, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) contains a Midrash-like dream about a character named Salman who finds that the Quran is imperfect, destroying Salman’s belief in everything. This sense of unreality spreads into the dreamer’s life, eventually causing him to kill himself. He has been an actor in religious roles, a part of the public’s collective dreams, which mingle with their interpretation of scriptures. Caught in their pious fantasies, for much of the book he is transformed into an angel with a halo, a stereotyping that contributes to his suicidal depression.

Although stories about scriptures, myths, and fairy tales are the most common varieties of extended Midrash, authors’ involvement with academia has resulted in other uses. For example, to his college class, Vladimir Nabokov presented an analysis of an apartment’s structure in Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis (1936). This analysis found its way into a poem, on which a crazed exegete then expatiates, in Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire (1962). From an even more abstract source—a structuralist conference—Italo Calvino gleaned the idea of arranging tarot cards at random. The narrators of his The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1976) connect these arrangements simultaneously to characters in the novel and to ones from world literature. Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1981) takes the selfreflectivity one step further: It is a novel about a reader trying to read a novel named If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), the narrator’s obsessions with love and with scholarship on Gustave Flaubert converge.

Samuel R. Delany’s series of fantasies, beginning with Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979), wanders among his personal concerns as a gay African American, the Conan parody he is writing, and the literary theories (particularly deconstruction) that inspire the narrative. In extended Midrash, nonfiction (criticism, autobiography) and fiction converge ambiguously, creating a feeling of uncertainty that life often gives as well.

Because of its ambiguities, ironies, and complexities, extended Midrash cannot be treated as if it were a simple statement of an author’s opinions. Milan Kundera, for example, objects vociferously when critics treat the essays within his fictions as if they were his own views. Rather, he insists that their function is to reveal how he invents his characters. For example, as he reveals in The Art of the Novel (1988), his ruminations on the Romantic tradition led to his devising an imaginary member of it, the character Jaromil of Life Is Elsewhere (1974). In that novel, Kundera’s remarks about Romanticism are meant to create this character from the outside rather than through the devices of psychological fiction. His practice has its roots in eighteenth century characterization through recognizable types. Nonetheless, Kundera’s version is significantly different from this conventional stereotyping. He not only breaks the illusion of reality by spending much of his novels explaining how he devises characters, but also, through meditations on language and literature, constructs new types and narratives about them. Certain words and scenes thus repeat as motifs.

Some comparable repetition pervades all self-reflexive fiction. As Ulysses and Finnegans Wake prove, despite this iteration, self-reflexive fiction can have great length without being necessarily tedious. Nonetheless, as Robert Scholes observes, self-reflexive fiction more commonly presents its complexity within the limits of the short novel, novella, or even short story, as in the metaphysical fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. Consequently, it tends toward unconventional, multilayered, integrated condensation reminiscent of experimental poetry.

Currie, Mark, ed. Metafiction. New York: Longman, 1995.
Doody, Margaret Anne. The True Story of the Novel. NewBrunswick, N.J.: RutgersUniversity Press, 1996.
Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. New ed. New York: Methuen, 1984.
Kawin, Bruce. The Mind of the Novel: Reflexive Fiction and the Ineffable. 1982.Newed. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006.
Kellman, Steven G. The Self-Begetting Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Self-Reflexive Novels

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