Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Time and Narrative in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" by Gerard Genette

Gerard Genette, a good example of the critic as technocrat, whose commentary on Proust's masterpiece contains such illuminating lines as "...the relationship between the time of events and the time of the narrative could be summarized as follows: N(arrative)1=H(istory)4; N2=H2; N3=H4; N4=H2; N5=H4; N6=H1(Swann's love); N7=H3," opens this brief (and obvious and labored) essay with a "hypothesis" that is surely the reductio ad absurdum of reductive literary criticism: "...all narratives, regardless of their complexity or degree of elaboration...can always be considered to be the development of a verbal statement such as "I am walking" or "He will come" or "Marcel becomes a writer." " Genette grants that this is a "rudimentary analogy" but then proceeds to base his entire argument (in a sentence that is, incidentally, a little masterpiece of the non sequitur) upon its "strength." The structuralist commentary that follows contains no insights that could not be gained from a reading of Proust and is thus, quite literally, worthless (and as such, it's probably the worst entry in an otherwise impressive anthology, Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, Hoffman and Murphy, eds.) And so as I read the essay, my mind kept returning to that opening paragraph and an activity that I'll call "Gerard's Game": the moronic reduction of complex fiction to denuded, 'see Spot run'-style statements. Here are a few that came to mind:
  • Ahab chases a whale (Moby Dick)
  • Caddy leaves home (The Sound and the Fury)
  • Connie gets laid (Lady Chatterley's Lover)
  • Gatsby loses everything (The Great Gatsby)
  • Sebald walks (The Rings of Saturn)
  • Austria sucks (pretty much anything by Thomas Bernhard)
  • Tristram tells a tale (Tristram Shandy)
  • Hamlet sees a ghost (Hamlet)
  • Lad kills Pop, fucks Mum (Oedipus the King, sounding like a classic tabloid headline)
  • Bloom poops, walks, drinks, wanks, thinks (Ulysses)
  • Marlow does the Congo (Heart of Darkness)
  • Burroughs does smack (Junky)
  • Randy Romans roam the Roman realm (The Satyricon)
This could go on indefinitely...

Genette's fundamental "hypothesis" tells us nothing about the books in question, but I'm intrigued by its similarity to the "high concept" pitches so beloved by Hollywood executives ("It's Field of Dreams meets Rambo"). I guess all unimaginative technocrats think alike. (Well, of course they do. That's how they recognize one another.)

1 comment:

Joe Miller said...

Marlow rambles. Lord Jim