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This article is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

No More Stories Gabriel Josipovici
with thanks to Kirsty Gunn

Our Stories and Our Lives

Why is talking about narrative so difficult? Why do we feel, as we try to do so, that we quickly sink into a quagmire from which it is impossible to escape? I think it has to do with the fact that narrative is inescapably bound up with our own lives. We live immersed in stories, making sense of our lives and even of individual episodes in them by means of the stories we tell both to ourselves and to others. Stories are as much part of us as our dreams.

This is not the case with other art forms. Poetry, painting, sculpture, music and dance may of course deploy stories to achieve their ends, but the crucial fact is that they are clearly demarcated off from life. They are outside us. They are made. But doesn’t much poetry, from the Odyssey to the work of Robert Frost, also consist of stories? You may ask. Yes indeed, but the fact that these stories are in verse immediately puts them on a different footing from prose narratives, for each time we move from one line to the next we are reminded that what we are reading is something that has been constructed, composed; whereas one of the slippery things about prose narratives is that not only is it easy to forget that they are made, but that they seem to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, between dream, fantasy and reality. We ‘lose ourselves’ in a novel as we lose ourselves in a daydream, but never in a narrative poem: the rhythm keeps reminding us of the maker, even in the most casual of poems, such as Byron’s Don Juan.

There are in our modern Western world plenty of people ready to tell us that we all have one story inside us and that they can (for a fee) help us bring that story out into the open. But think about it for a moment. Do we not tell one story about ourselves to our doctor? Another to the police? Yet another to our partners and children? Moreover, could it not be, as Freud suggests, that we often tell stories – to ourselves and to others – as a way of avoiding scrutiny – both our own and others’? Kafka, who not only wrote some of the greatest stories we have but also thought intensely about stories and story-telling, towards the end of his brief life came to think that telling stories, writing stories, was really nothing but a way of avoiding facing up to his own death.

Whatever we think about this (and it’s a difficult thought to absorb), it is clear that the main difficulty we encounter in trying to talk about stories is that they – both in the writing and the reading – are much more deeply entwined with our lives and with all the swirl of thoughts we have, from adolescence on, about what it means to be ourselves and what it means to be alive. Unless we recognise this, we will make no headway in understanding them. We may understand this story or that, this novel or that, but when it comes to the question of what stories are, what stories do, we are at a loss.

Novel and Story

Everyone knows Oscar Wilde’s quip: ‘Anyone can write a three-volume novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature.’ Wilde wrote this in 1891, in an essay interestingly called ‘The Critic as Artist’. The essay – it is in two parts and takes up some sixty pages in my edition – is full of Wilde’s wit and fondness for paradox, and in the end is disappointingly thin. It does, though, make one very important point, highlighted in the title: the artist today needs the critical spirit as much as the spirit of invention. Wilde makes the point succinctly here: practitioners of the popular form of the three-volume novel only need one thing: a complete blindness as to what is still possible in the form they have chosen and a complete ignorance of how life is lived. And things haven’t much changed since 1891. We can all substitute contemporary equivalents of the three-volume novel and its practitioners, though we will each include slightly different examples.

Wilde returned to the theme in The Importance of Being Ernest:
Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
There is much to ponder here. Why does a happy ending so depress Cecily? Why do we laugh at the confidence of Miss Prism’s assertion? And then there is the deeper question raised by Wilde, whether any kind of fiction writing is not the product of naivety and a burying of the head in the sand.

We need to distinguish what I have so far elided: stories and novels. Humans are story-telling animals and there have no doubt been stories told around the camp fire and by mothers and grandmothers to children and grandchildren from time immemorial. The novel, on the other hand, is a modern form, coterminous with the Renaissance and its emphasis on individuality, the Reformation and the crisis of authority it both embodied and precipitated, and the emergence of print. No one has explored the difference better than Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘The Storyteller’. In fact his argument is founded on the proposition that the decline of storytelling is inextricably linked to the rise of the novel, and that ‘the dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing’.

‘What can be handed on orally,’ he suggests, ‘is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel.’ And he adds:

What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature – the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella – is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounselled and cannot counsel others.

Even the first great book of the genre, Don Quixote, teaches how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and do not contain the slightest scintilla of wisdom.
I personally would suggest that the five volumes of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel sequence, written and published in the mid-sixteenth century, fifty years before Don Quixote, constitute the first great book of the genre, exploring critically but with exuberance the plight of the novelist in the world of print, able to disseminate his ideas far more widely than even the most successful medieval author, but at the same time reduced to scribbling alone in his room, far from that audience; he is free to invent what he likes, but by the same token aware that what he invents carries no authority.

These are difficult things to speak about and they are difficult to understand. What exactly does Benjamin mean by: ‘The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale’? And what exactly do I mean by ‘free to invent what he likes but by the same token aware that what he invents carries no authority’? We need some more examples.

First, Kafka. In the next-to-last item in the collection of brief remarks he jotted down in the winter of 1917–18 when, having been diagnosed with TB, he went to stay with his sister Ottla in the country to try and understand what this (in effect sentence of death) meant for him, and which are usually known as the Aphorisms, though the term is plainly a misnomer, he writes: ‘But then he returned to his work as though nothing had happened. We are familiar with this kind of remark from any number of old tales, even though it may not be found in any of them’.

This is, I think, Kafka’s rueful farewell to story-telling, one of his many attempts to understand the traditions from which he felt himself so brutally excluded. It suggests – as does Benjamin’s essay – that we find a number of writers working well after the arrival of the age of print still somehow maintaining the vestiges of the confidence and authority emanating from the old storytellers. And we love them for it, Kafka suggests, even though he – we – can no longer find it in ourselves to emulate them. For in us the critical spirit, the spirit of Rabelais and Cervantes, which Wilde found so lacking in Miss Prism and her like, cannot be gainsaid.

But then is this perhaps a weakness in ourselves? At times Kafka, like Proust, who recounts similar doubts in À la recherche even as the entirety of the novel effectively answers them, is inclined to think so. He longs to be like his uncritical friends Max Brod and Franz Werfel, prolific and successful novelists both, just as Proust longs to be like Balzac. But unlike those English novelists and critics who urge their fellows to write like Dickens, and their American equivalents who are perpetually looking to write or read the Great American Novel, they soon remind themselves that they have no option but to go with their instincts and that those instincts are the right ones.

Rather than taking another example (for however much we think, when dealing with this most difficult of subjects, that we have understood, we can always do with another example) from Kafka or Proust, I want to take it from a writer of the next generation. Endgame is a play, not a novel, yet, as much as Rabelais, Cervantes, Kafka and Proust, Beckett finds that one – perhaps the only – way to advance is by exploring what is wrong with current ways of advancing – with, if you like, the dramatic equivalent of the three-volume novel: a first act that sets up the plot; a second that develops it; and a third that resolves it.

‘It’s story time,’ Hamm announces in the middle of Endgame. ‘Where was I?’ Then, as Beckett puts it in his stage direction, ‘Pause. Narrative tone’:
The man came crawling towards me on his belly. Pale, wonderfully pale and thin, he seemed on the point of – [Pause. Normal tone.] No. I’ve done that bit. [Pause. Narrative tone.] I calmly lit my pipe – the meerschaum, lit it with… let us say a vesta, drew a few puffs. Ah! [Pause.] Well, what is it you want? [Pause.] It was an extraordinarily bitter day, I remember, zero by the thermometer. But considering it was Christmas Eve there was nothing… extraordinary about that. Seasonable weather, for once in a way. [Pause.] Well, what ill wind blows you my way? He raised his face to me, black with mingled dirt and tears. [Pause. Normal tone.] That should do it. [Narrative tone.] No, no, don’t look at me. He dropped his eyes and mumbled something, apologies I presume. [Pause.] I’m a busy man, you know, the final touches, before the festivities, you know what it is. [Pause. Forcibly.] Come on now, what is the object of this invasion? [Pause.] It was a glorious bright day, I remember, fifty by the heliometer, but already the sun was sinking down into the… down among the dead. [Normal tone.] Nicely put, that. [Narrative tone.] Come on now present your petition and let me resume my labours. [Pause. Normal tone.] There’s English for you. Ah well… [Narrative tone.] It was then he took the plunge. It’s my little one, he said…
Hamm is someone imbued with the critical spirit vainly trying to impersonate Kafka’s confident nineteenth-century storyteller. Being Beckett, of course, the story Hamm invents before our eyes is immediately gripping, despite the fact that it is a blatant fabrication. Beckett is challenging us, it would seem, to refuse its seduction, constantly interrupting it with comments on it in a ‘normal tone’. Note the blatant examples of realism, of the stock-in-trade of what we might call Prismic novels: ‘wonderfully pale and thin’, where the adverb implies a viewer who is filled with wonder authenticating what we are being told; what today we would call brand names, ‘the meerschaum’, ‘a vesta’, to root the narrative in the ‘real’ world; ‘I remember’, anchoring it in the truth of an individual’s life experience; poetic, resonant phrases: ‘but already [the anchor again] the sun was sinking down among the dead’. But of course the fact that I remember and confidently lay that memory down before you is undercut by Hamm presenting us with two totally incompatible memories: a freezing icy day, a warm sunny day (many more emerge in the course of the story). ‘Nicely put that’ and ‘There’s English for you’ now, in the wake of all this, take on a bitterly ironic quality.

Hamm’s story isn’t designed to appeal to the audience and draw it into the world of the story as would similar passages in plays by, say, Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, or equivalent extracts from novels by, say, Colm Tóibín and Iris Murdoch. Rather, it serves to stave off the feeling expressed by Hamm just before he embarks on his story: ‘It’s finished. We’re finished.’ And ‘Something dripping in my head’. Earlier in Endgame he had found a less tragic, less dramatic phrase, but one which for that very reason rings the more true: ‘Something is taking its course’.

There are no words for that. There is no story in that. As the story Hamm tells shows, ‘story time’ is only a way of passing the time while ‘something is taking its course’, silently, inexorably. For Hamm, for Beckett, for us watching.

A New Puritanism?

Hold on, hold on, you will say. Are you not being too extreme, too divisive? Like the Puritans of old, are you not setting up too extreme an opposition and forcing us to take sides when we would like to have a bit of both? Can we not enjoy both Beckett and Dickens?

No one is denying that the traditional novel, from Defoe to the present, can do many things: it can alert us to the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised (though perhaps nowadays television may be a more potent instrument for such insights and for the reforms we feel should flow from them); it can help to pass the time on a long train or plane journey (though these days smartphones seem more popular); it can help us get to sleep at night; and, perhaps most important of all, those who learn to ‘lose themselves’ in books (and fewer and fewer people seem to have that ability these days) discover a genuine pleasure in the release from the pressures of the moment, a pleasure I am more inclined than I suspect Beckett would be to describe as beneficial. We need our public libraries, we need to help children discover the joys of reading as much as the joys of food and the joys of sex (to give a nod to two famous mid-twentieth-century books).

But that does not stop us asking the questions I have so far been concerned with. It does not stop us asking: what was it about Rabelais and Cervantes, about Proust and Kafka, that made them feel so important, so significant? The two Renaissance novelists, along with their immediate descendant, Laurence Sterne, were the first to ask: what is fiction? And that question, which was taken up by the Romantics with their questions: what is poetry? what is literature? resonates so deeply because in the end it is a religious question, the religious question of a society which can no longer take religion for granted. It is the question all religions ask: What is human life?

But asking it does not mean that it can be answered in any way other than by the asking, and that means, by the writing. And the paradox of the situation is that if the writers felt they had the answers, then their question, their writing, would no longer have any value.

We need to get closer to the act of writing.

Cacoethes scribendi

Beckett sometimes dismissively described the urge to write as cacoethes scribendi. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes this as: ‘A mania for writing; or writing regarded as an ingrained bad habit’. The Latin phrase, it explains, is derived from the Greek and comes from Juvenal’s Seventh Satire. It has been found in English writings since the sixteenth century.

Juvenal writes: ‘Still we labour away, marking our furrows in the fine dust, / Turning the sands of the shore with our ineffectual ploughs. / Try to stop: the itch for writing holds you fast in ambition’s / Noose, grows old along with you in your sorrowful heart.’ For a Beckett or a Kafka, ambition holds a minor – though not inconsiderable – place. In spite of everything, part of them would love to be recognised. But only a part of them. What did Beckett say when he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize: ‘Quel désastre’. And he meant it. Something else is driving them forward. What?

Human beings, I said earlier, repeating a platitude, are story-telling animals. But even before we told stories we were makers and players. Dunbar and Henryson and the other early sixteenth-century Scottish poets were in fact known as makars. This makes sense. The poet, the sculptor, the musician, before the age of individualism, was thought of as a craftsman, one who puts things together, beautifully, forcefully, playfully, truthfully. The storyteller, in Benjamin’s formulation, would have been at ease here, putting together and passing on what had been passed on to him. But the novelist is no longer that. He or she creates their own content, for the novel has, after all, to be ‘novel’. They do it because they can, because it earns them a living, and often because they enjoy it. But in so doing they cannot help but fall into the trap Beckett explores in Endgame: the better they are at it, the more it keeps them and their readers from grasping what it is that is ‘taking its course’. They may tell us much about the world, about human desire, about morality, but by turning this into a story they only protect themselves and us from reality. And are rewarded for it by grateful readers, since, as T.S. Eliot said, ‘Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’.

A few, in the modern era, try to make of their writing pure play. The loose grouping of writers who formed the French collective OULIPO have tried and often succeeded in doing just that. But it is revealing that the best among them turned out to be those who used the games of language and storytelling to explore the human concerns they felt could be expressed in no other way: Raymond Queneau with his joyful exploration of what one might call the Spirit of France, Georges Perec with his painful exploration of the fate of Jews and of his family in the murderous twentieth century.

Kafka, in a beautiful little parable, pinned the problem down: the need to make, the cacoethes scribendi, that afflicts those who write prose narratives today, can be given its head and thus avoid the traps into which a Miss Prism will keep falling if, and only if it recognises the paradoxes that beset it from the start:
Sancho Panza, who incidentally, never boasted of it, in the course of the years, by means of devouring a large number of romances of chivalry and banditry to while away the evening hours, succeeded in diverting the attention of his devil, to whom he later gave the name Don Quixote, from himself to such an extent that this devil then in unbridled fashion performed the craziest deeds, which, however, for lack of a predetermined object, which should of course have been Sancho Panza, did nobody any harm. Sancho Panza, a free man, tranquilly and perhaps with a certain sense of responsibility, followed Don Quixote on his travels and had much and profitable entertainment from this to the end of his days.
For Sancho Panza, of course, we can substitute all the best and, in Wilde’s terms, most critical writers of narrative fiction of the past five centuries. Never very numerous compared to their Prismic contemporaries, but quite enough to keep all alert readers happy for a lifetime.

This article is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

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