Book: Narratology à la Mäkelä

[--] comme si la plénitude de l’âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par le métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l’exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses douleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles… (Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary)

What’s the best way to spend the last evening in the U.S., getting ready for a two-week trip to Finland? A little more than half a year ago, by a fortunate coincidence, I chanced to come across a PhD dissertation – published as a monograph in Finnish, though the work would well deserve an international audience – by Maria Mäkelä at the University of Tampere. Textual Deceptions and the Unfaithful Mind (2011) is a cutting-edge foray into the tradition of adultery and illicit romance in occidental narrative literature; a hot topic, if we may say so! At the same time, the book offers an original narratologically grounded argument to the effect of analyzing literary representation of consciousness, in particular, the problematics of mind reading, where the case of unfaithful minds is regarded as an emblem of failed (and therefore paradigmatic) mind reading.

Following the sub-heading of the book, Conventions of Liteary Consciousness Representation as a Narratological Challenge is also an ambitious contribution to the swarming debates in contemporary cognitive narratology. The author engages herself in what she describes as descriptive poetics dealing with seven test cases, ranging from classics such as Gustave Flaubert‘s Madame Bovary (1857) to more recent works in the genre of adultery, such as Emmanuèle Bernheim‘s Sa femme (1993). Mäkelä uses all of these case studies to develop her argument about the gradual unfolding – for her, both historical and theoretical – of what she tags the literary mind. The study finds its climax in a modestly ground-breaking analysis of the media scandal centering around President Bill Clinton and the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the textual intricacies of whose illicit romance Mäkelä reads with unerring wit. This analysis shows how the literary conventions originally to have arisen in novelistic discourse can – and indeed often do and have – become a frame of reading applicable to non-literary phenomena.

The choice of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal as the interpretative pinnacle of Mäkelä’s book in itself shows how the study ultimately transcends the bounds of the corpus of cases under examination. Ultimately, mind reading is a phenomenon whereof literature offers an illustration par excellence, rather than arguing for the opposite thesis – much less interesting and arguably more conventional – that literature offers a deficient example of mind reading.

This is part of the reason, indeed, why the book is so insightful in unraveling a multi-layered narrative of a literary mind within itself: to start with, one might gain the impression that infidelity will be probed in a – literally – literary way, offering narratological interpretations of novels dealing with the theme. But what is really at stake, on a careful reading (taking ‘literary’ now in an aptly figurative way), will turn out as the bold suggestion that minds, as it were, are by their very nature unfaithful: mind reading was never possible in the first place, except in an indirect sense, and there are no more accurate worlds or realities of this phenomenon to be found than in the very genre of infidelity in literature… It is for this reason, then, that the very genre of literary adultery is made to do theoretical work in the book.

The author is herself aware of the exceptionally broad scope of the book, and in her concise but crisp conclusions, she outlines three programmatic suggestions as to where contemporary narratology might next be headed to. Among these, she suggests that “post-classical narratology ought not to focus attention only on narrative anomalies but to look for lines of interaction between real-life structuring … of experiences and litererary mechanisms”. This she takes to hold true, in particular, for so-called unnatural narratologists, who ought to turn their gaze from taxonomy of narratives to unnatural reading in general, interpretative strategies diverging from everyday experience.

So many strands for projects of future research open up from Mäkelä’s work that it would be vain of me to try to name too many of them. To mention but a few, intriguing new ideas could be developed respecting the idea of creating worlds vis-à-vis fictional narrative or, say, the thematics of distinctive minds emerging from such processes, feigned voices, if you like (how representing the contents of consciousness of a fictional character feigning to use his or her own voice is a deceptive venture to start with)… As regards theoretical frameworks, a discussion of these and related themes might be brought to bear on diverse fields such as psychoanalysis, film theory, media studies, and hermeneutics, to mention but a few. If, indeed, we’re faced with a circle where liteary representation of consciousness is based on literary as opposed to real-life frames, while literary frames themselves operate in everyday life, what more might we say about the radical inversion of the interrelationship between art and reality?

Strikingly beautiful roundedness in this book, indeed, but luckily nowhere near to a vicious circle. Quite the contrary, Mäkelä’s book demonstrates how narratology can actually be used to make better sense of human experience, and not just in comparative literature.

* As it happens, the said Mäkelä is also the fiancée of the author of this review. Frankly, I wanted to give it a try and do my best to see if I could draft an objective review of a work I would have enjoyed even without this happy union of souls…

One thought on “Book: Narratology à la Mäkelä

  1. We’ve been doing a similar thing here at Dickinson. In one of our 200-level clsaess in the required sequence, we have been having students film a scene from Crf3nica de una muerte anunciada instead of writing a final paper. This was an assignment thought up by my colleague Abraham Quintanar, who reasoned that, at that level, they did not have the language skills to write a good literary analysis, but they could still make a film. What impressed me the most was the sheer self-identification of having students go out into the world (or in this case the campus) and speak Spanish while they were filming. It was a much more public display of their language skills than many of them had undertaken before, and forced language use to take place outside the classroom walls.One caveat: it would have been a disaster without great tech support, which we have.

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