Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Art of the "Novel Within a Novel"

The Art of the "Novel Within a Novel"

Metafictional (Dream) Discourse

“placing a discourse
within another discourse”
—Leonid Livak, “Vladimir Nabokov’s
Apprenticeship in Andre Gide’s
“Science of Illumination”: From The
Counterfeiter to The Gift, Comparative
Literature Summer 2002

• Brian Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years describes a fascinating incident when Nabokov gets the news about his lucrative Lolita film contract:

“When the contract arrived, his reaction was bizarre — and uniquely Nabokovian. He recalled a curious dream he had the year his Uncle Vasily Rukavishnikov died in 1916. Uncle Vasya had said to him: “I shall come back to you as Harry and Kuryrkin.” Within the dream, the two names had signified a duo of (otherwise nonexistent) circus clowns. Forty years later, Nabokov still recalled the dream and now saw the dream-duo as a foreshadowing of Harris and Kubrick in another theatrical setting. In 1916 he him become a wealthy young man who had inherited Uncle Varga’s fortune, only to lose it the next year in the revolution. Now Harris and Kubrick had returned him at one stroke to the ranks of the wealthy. That kind of combinational replay is the stuff of his fiction. No wonder he would make Van Veen engage in a serious study of the “precognitive flavor” of dreams in the hope…of ”catching sight of the lining of time.” (VN:TAY 366-367)

• Does the mise-en-abyme insertion of a ‘dreamtime text’ as well as ‘multiple dream-characters’ into this Nabokovian dream narrative suggest any Gide-esque enlightenment or possible science of illumination ideas in regard to the supposedly precognitive aspect of the above incident noted by Brian Boyd?

• Can we perhaps discuss with the help of Leonid Livak’s Gide text any possible mise-en-abyme ‘metafictional’ (dream) discourse relationships of the above incident to Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs or Nabokov’s The Gift or Nabokov’s supposedly ‘precognitive’ Ada dream interests?

• Gide defines the mise-en-abyme technique as a transposition of the work's subject matter on the level of its characters. More precisely, this procedure consists of placing a discourse within another discourse, whereby the incorporated text resembles or "mirrors" as Gide puts it, the incorporating one, emphasizing the formal structure of the work as a whole and drawing attention to the relationship between the author and his creation. The dreamer and his metaliterary dream text?

• This "science of illumination" was to be implemented by the compositional principle of the mise-en-abyme, a term Gide had coined some twenty years earlier, as well as by the introduction of multiple narrative voices that recount the same story from different viewpoints.

• "Those are two different esthetics [ ...] There exists a subtle science of illumination; to vary illumination infinitely is an art in itself."

• Gide's attempt to compose a pure novel, as described in The Journal of the Counterfeiters, is mirrored in the esthetic activity of The Counterfeiters' anonymous author-narrator, who also keeps the journal of his work (FM 109). (By calling The Journal "l'histoire meme du livre" ["the very history/story of the, whereby "l'histoire" could mean both history and story, Gide endowed it with the value of fiction.) The artistic project of this narrator (and the Gide of The Journal) is mirrored in turn by Edouard's attempt to write a pure novel, an endeavor related through Edouard's diary and notebooks.

• Like Edouard, who thinks that narrative infinity is contingent on the writer's ignorance of his novel's finale, Fedor feels that his text already exists in another dimension and can be transferred into this world only intuitively (FM1200-1; 6138,171, 194/D156, 192, 218). Does dreaming qualify as another ‘dimension’? Does dreaming involve narrative infinity?

• Both writers know that the denouement of their novels will be revealed by the same fate that provides their novelistic material (FM1082; G363/D407). Fedor's method of trial and error is consistent with Edouard's cult of artistic process. Neither The Counterfeiters nor The Gift presents the final product of its hero's quest, furnishing instead a series of experiments that mirror both the future novel and the novel we hold in our hands. One might even argue that Fedor's conviction that his text exists in another dimension furthers Edouard's art of novel, since the French novelist is unsure whether his ideal novel could ever be written.

• Symptomatically, Edouard's friend Laura suggests that he will not write his novel, while Fedor's mother believes that her son will eventually realize his magnum opus (FM1083; G139/D157). Does the Nabokov dream and its subsequent apparent ‘narrative closure’ with the Lolita film contract suggest a novelistic denouement along the lines of either Edouard's art of novel or Nabokov’s approach?

• But if Gide makes clear the mirror relations between incorporated and incorporating texts, Nabokov obfuscates them. Is obfuscation an oneiric metafictional dialogical factor in any possible mise-en-abyme dream effect?

• The incorporated (dream) texts are thus mutually reflective and complementary? Non-linear? Polymorphously perverse? Placed after the stories of Lasha and Fedor's father in The Gift, Chernyshevskii's story precedes them chronologically. As with Nabokov’s Uncle Ruka dream? At once echoed and foreshadowed by the preceding stories, it forces the reader to return to the stories of Lasha and Fedor's father, which acquire additional significance in the rear view mirror of Chernyshevskii's life. Does the supposed film contract and possible dream synchronicity provoke a looking back and retreading-rereading of the Uncle Ruka dream narrative?

• Polemically paraphrasing Stendhal's "realist" view of the novel as a mirror of life ("Un roman, c'est un miroir qui se prom≠ le long d'une route"/A novel is a mirror walking along a road), Edouard says about his own journal and diary: "C'est le miroir qu'avec moi je prom&ne. Rien de ce qui m'advient ne prend pour moi d'existence reelle, taut que je ne Fy vois pas reflete" (This is a mirror that I carry with me. Nothing that I meet becomes real to me until I see it reflected in this mirror, FM 1057). In a similar fashion, Fedor describes himself as a poet with a "mirrory heart" (G65/D76), haunted by mirrors from childhood." Do dreams mirror life? Is Nabokov’s dream a novel walking down the road? A road of narrative infinity? Does this have anything to do with Freud’s royal path to The Unconscious? ( Forgive me, Volodya.)

• Viewing prose as "mirror-like" and akin to that of the emigre writer Vladimirov-Nabokov's alter ego in The Gift (G321/D359). This detail elevates the mirror theme to the metaliterary level. Like the author and hero of The Counterfeiters, the author and hero of The Gift write "mirror" prose. Is this metafiction? A novel like Pale Fire?

• Following the mise-en-abyme technique, the mirror composition of The Gift is reflected in Fedor's texts, whose mirror composition will in turn be reflected in his future novel. Furthermore, the mirror relationship between Fedor's writings and Nabokov's novel forces the reader to become a (re)creator who shuttles from incorporated to incorporating texts, (re) establishing The Gift's larger meaning. Does dreaming involve mirror composition? Textual shuttling?

• And while writing The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality, a study based on a study of women's pictures in a store window, Chernyshevskii leads "an uneven struggle with the desires of the flesh, ending in a secret compromise" (G219/D247). Tellingly, Fedor's association of his own asceticism with masturbation-"Take oneself in hand: a monastic pun"-is provoked by a prostitute who pretends to contemplate the window of a women's clothing store (G325-26/D364-65). Male or female prostitute? Albert or Albertine? What about Edouard and Caloub? How does Nabokov disguise or obfuscate the Gide Immoralist gay metatext and why? Why didn’t Gide continue the next spiral narrative novel with Caloub rather than contemplate Lafcadio Wuki a street-smart 19-year-old in 1890’s Paris?

The mirroring effect of dreams

• The mirroring of Fedor's ideal by Chernyshevskii and Bush also harks back to The Counterfeiters, where Edouard's antagonist, the count of Passavant, brags about a future novel in which he will fully realize himself (FM1044). Gide's narrator is unequivocal about their distorting but revelatory mirror relationship, whereby Passavant's brilliance recalls fake coins:

•Le regard ironique d'Edouard coupa le reste de sa phrase. Habile a seduire et habitue a plaire, Passavant avait besoin de sentir en face de lui un miroir complaisant, pour briller. (FM 1167) Edouard's ironic gaze cut short the rest of his [Passavant's] phrase. An able seducer and used to being liked, Passavant needed to feel in front of himself a complaisant mirror in order to appear brilliant.

• This passage recalls Gide's description of his science of illumination, in which the chronological line of events, illuminated by a light source that moves parallel to it, yields to an oblique line illuminated unevenly by a stationary source. Elaborating on this point, Gide wrote in The Journal:

• Je reprocherais a Martin du Gard l'allure discursive de son recit [. . .] Sa lanterne de romancier eclaire toujours de face les evenements qu'il considere [ ....] jamais leurs lignes ne se melent [cf. "geometry without the axiom of parallel lines"] et, pas plus qu'il n'y a d'ombre, il n'y a de perspective [cf. "curved space"]. Etudier d'abord le point d'ou doit affluer la lumiere; toutes les ombres en dependent. Chaque figure repose et s'appuie sur son ombre [cf. "change of shadows"]. (JFM34-35)

• I could criticize Martin du Gard for the discursive stride of his narrative [ ...] His novelistic lantern always illuminates the contemplated events from the front [ ...] Their lines never mix and there is neither shadow nor perspective. One must first study the source of light; all shadows depend on it. Each figure is based upon and relies on its shadow.

• For Fedor, a glimpse into the otherworldly dimension, whose angle is tilted, requires a tilted mirror and a play of shadows; direct reflection produces a (vicious) circle, a multiplication of deceitful appearances (G328, 341-343/D368, 382-384). That is why, despite "the circular nature of everything in existence" (G204/D230), Fedor sees circularity as "a diabolical semblance of space" (G17/D24). "In our straining toward asymmetry, toward inequality," says Koncheev in Fedor's imaginary dialogue, "I can detect a howl for genuine freedom, an urge to break out of the circle" (G343/D384).

• When the light goes out, the glass reveals the outside world, transforming the light of a street lamp into a prismatic rainbow on the wall. As a result, Fedor "felt-in this glassy darkness-the strangeness of life, the strangeness of its magic, as if a corner of it had been turned back for an instant and he had "glimpsed its unusual lining" (G183/13205). It is precisely this "strangeness of life" that Fedor will attempt to convey by giving his ideal novel the spiral structure of an apple peel, whose twists reveal both its inside and outside surface.

• That kind of "glimpsed its unusual lining" replay is the stuff of fiction. No wonder Nabokov would make Van Veen engage in a serious study of the “precognitive flavor” of dreams in the hope…of ”catching sight of the lining of time.” (VN:TAY 366-367)

Dream multiple narrative voices

• The second major device of Gide's science of illumination is the use of multiple narrative voices, which, like the mirror composition, simultaneously makes the reader a co-creator and channels reading in a direction projected by the author. Gide's reader sorts out multiple narrative voices, evaluates their credibility, and decides how faithfully each voice conveys a given event (JFM33).

• A case in point is the affair of Vincent Molinier and Laura Douviers. We first learn about it from Vincent's brother Olivier, who eavesdropped on Vincent and Laura. The same story is related differently by Vincent to his new lover Lilian Griffith, who reinterprets it for her confidant Robert de Passavant. We then learn more contradictory information from Laura's letter to Edouard.

• Next comes Edouard's own interpretation in his diary, stolen and read by Bernard. Bernard reinterprets Edouard's and Olivier's versions and tells his own directly to Laura, later proposing another view of the events in his letter to Olivier. The narrator also gives his take on Vincent's affair "for the edification of the reader" (FM1045). Finally, Laura's husband provides his understanding of the situation. This technique echoes the novel's composition: numerous versions of the same event function as mutually reflecting and distorting mirrors.

• The multiple exposition of events is reinforced by the obfuscation of the relationship between the dream-narrator and his dream-narrative. Gide's reader is led to believe that the dream-narrative "I" belongs to the omniscient dream-author-narrator, who places the discourse of his characters in quotation marks to distinguish it from his own.

• The dream-narrator emphasizes his control of the text, commenting on the novel's stylistic and compositional aspects. Yet a tension between the narrator's presumed omniscience and his actual lack thereof runs through the book. Signs of the latter range from remarks that pass for stylistic idiosyncrasies, to his ignorance regarding key details, to statements implying that characters act independently from the author. Does the dream narrative "I" vacillate between being the property of an omniscient author-narrator and that of a subjective observer, whose exposition of events holds no more truth than the viewpoints of the novel's characters?

• The webs of deception in The Counterfeiters and The Gift reveal a tension between the authors' desire, on the one hand, to control the interpretation of their texts and, on the other, to elevate the reader to the status of an artist. If one falls into the trap of circularity, one will reread The Gift as Fedor's novel and The Counterfeiters as Edouard's creation. But if one heeds the suggestion that narrative infinity is a spiral, one will take over Fedor's and Edouard's ideal novels. Is dreaming a narrative infinity is a spiral?

• The ending of The Counterfeiters is supposed to give the impression of a limitless narrative, while the lack of a plot outline of future events ("l'erosion de contours") encourages the reader to write his own story (JFM83, 94, 96). This creative freedom confirms the text's premise of an esthetic pluralism ("Rien nest bon pour tous"/"Nothing is good for everybody," FM1089) that contrasts with the artistic assumptions of the nineteenth-century realist novel. The Counterfeiters appears as a "modele maximale" of novelistic narrative and one of many possible constructions of a story."

Yet The Journal and Diary also attempt to explicate the novel authoritatively. The Journal even suggests that The Counterfeiters's composition and narrative technique help control the reading of the novel. The apparent goal is to let the reader believe qu'il est plus intelligent que l'auteur, plus moral, plus perspicace et qu'il decouvre dans les personnages maintes choses, et dans le tours du recit maintes verites, malgre l'auteur et pour ainsi dire A son insu. (JFM72)

...that he is more intelligent than the author, more moral, more perspicacious, and that he is discovering numerous things in the characters and numerous truths in the course of the narrative despite the author and, so to speak, without the author's knowledge.

• The narrative divergence between Gide's and Proust's novels was remarked by contemporary readers. Thanks to his ties to the editorial office of the Nouvelle revue franfaise, Gide was familiar with Reinembrance in its entirety during his work on The Counterfeiters, while the last volume of Proust's novel, The Found Time (Le Temps retrouve), became available to the average reader only in 1927. The Journal of the Counterfeiters appeared concurrently with The Found Time, as if to draw attention to the formal differences between The Counterfeiters and Remembrance

There’s nothing more gauche than an author today posing as a Russian Gide in drag—even doing Miss Proust these days can get rather iffy with that trashy Baron de Charlus hanging around all the swank soirees and recitals. To be sure, though, my dear Nabokov, your Dar owes many hidden influences to Les Faux-Monnayeurs. Helping you with the delicate mise-en-abyme art of your own truly great gay novel-within-a-novel. Just the other day Caloub asked me, my dear, could you possibly do the same?

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