“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Intentional Fallacy and Edouard Leve's Suicide

According to the most precious intellectual resource of our time--by which, of course, I mean Wikipedia--the intentional fallacy is a term that "in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a 'fallacy', a critic suggests that the author's intention is not important." The principle was a tenet of the academic movement known as the New Criticism--a method of literary criticism that emphasised the literary/rhetorical aspects of a text and argued for textual interpretations based on the internal linguistic evidence within a text, rather than by relying on historical, biographical or theoretical methods of analysis. Later on, the intentional fallacy was the one of the chief pieces of evidence used to convict the New Criticism of ahistoricism (or of prefering synchrony over diachrony, if you prefer the Marxist/Hegelian way of saying the same thing), a charge still levied against the New Critics today.

That being said, the academy's attacks on the New Criticism have largely been a case of protesting too much; the fact is that virtually every high school and undergraduate literature seminar is run along practices and methodologies espoused by the New Criticism--specifically that rational human beings can uncover the "meaning" within a text through close reading. And by extension, the intentional fallacy is a pretty sound general concept: sure, we can probably agree that Melville meant to include a whale in the novel Moby Dick, but would we agree that he intended it to be a fable about the impossibility of humans mastering nature (which is, incidentally, the most boring interpretation of Moby Dick I can think of)? And even if Melville had intended the latter, would it limit other readings of Moby Dick, or make them less "correct"?

The problem of intentionality is further compounded by the fact that writers are notorious liars (how strange for a group of people whose career involves making things up!), and even their own speeches, notes, and diaries, as a result, are often treated more like the statements of an analysand than gospel truth. The fact of the matter is that, once a book has been published, the author can no longer claim authority over its meaning (indeed, book reviews are predicated on this notion).

But Eduoard Leve's novel Suicide presents a serious problem for the notion of the intentional fallacy. In the novel, the narrator recounts a series of interactions with a friend (addressed throughout as "you"), who, as we learn in the opening pages, has committed suicide. Ten days after delivering this manuscript to the publisher, however, Leve took his own life. It is impossible, or so it seems to me, not to read the novel in light of this fact.

The translator's thoughtful essay at the end of the book emphasises that Leve's own suicide and the fictional suicide within the book are different in many ways, but, in point of fact, Suicide is a book that plays with these very concepts of identity. The narrator claims that he was never really close with "you" while "you" were alive, but the level of detail about "your" internal psychological states radically undermines this claim. Like in Bergman's great film, Persona, Leve's characters--the narrator's "I" and his friend's "you"--slowly merge into a singular entity over the course of the novel. Unsurprisingly, this gesture is emphasised by the fact that "you" has a variety of difficulties in accepting his own subjectivity.

On a formal level, Suicide is written in appropriately spare prose, but flows in a stream-of-conscious type of narrative that would appeal to fans of Bernhard (although without Bernhard's trademark irony). My only qualm, ironically, concerns the book's final gesture, which requires a stark formal shift into verse, that doesn't quite work, although it is possible that the verse does not translate into English as well as the prose. All in all, Suicide is a phenomenal little novel well worth a read, and a brilliant introduction to Leve (this is his first novel translated into English). As a result, I am now very much anticipating the publication of his book Autoportrait, due to be published by the always-brilliant Dalkey Archive next year.


James Harris said...

Just read it in French - not showing off - and have to say the formal shift works brilliantly in the original, as far as my judgement of these things in French is in the money. Out of interest, how is the last line translated into English? In French it's 'Le mort m'attend.' The waiting comes last as opposed to 'me', which I presume would be the English order ('Death waits for me'.

It's an amazing book I think. I love the anecdote about the woman crying when she recognizes the shoes of her own son, also a suicide. Happy you enjoyed it too!

Emmett Stinson said...

I don't have the English version to hand, but I will note that, as a general rule, translations of prose are a whole different kettle of fish than translations of poetry...so in this sense, I wouldn't be surprised if it is largely an issue of translation (which isn't to say that the translation is bad--because it appears to be phenomenal--but that the final section may not translate as effectively as the prose in the book).

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