Spring Reading: A review of some of the book I have enjoyed so far this year.
The Opacity of Narrative by Peter Lamarque (Rowman & Littlefield)
We all like to tell stories but narrative is invested with meanings that make it more serious and questionable than we ever imagined. There is something called narratology –a term that Word 10 flags up as a spelling mistake – because a story isn’t simply a representation of a world that does or could exist. Fictional or not, a narrative is an artefact, not some entity in the natural world, and a postmodernist like Hayden White writes of historical narratives shaping the relationships that turn facts into a story with a particular significance. This isn’t saying historians constitute the actual facts but it does get close to saying the resulting narrative is not altogether different to a story that might emerge if they did. The historian shares something with the novelist: both recount and shape events within a temporal dimension, imposing a structure, and creating a narrative. Herodotus is a historian but what he writes is also a work of literature and the first Penguin edition classified it as fiction; Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark was published as nonfiction in America but fiction in Britain; Hitler’s Diaries turned out to be fiction but this doesn’t make it literature. The Opacity of Narrative sets out with admirable lucidity the questions and queries and the tricky issues in the fields of epistemology, philosophy and aesthetics that arise when narrative loses any claim to transparency. It becomes important to work on identifying kinds of narrative practice, the different conventions they follow and the nature of the truth claims involved and this book succeeds in making you think about what is involved in doing so. A story is never just a story.
China Miéville critical essays edited by Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia
Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville by Carl Freedman (Gylphi)
The form of fictional stories that monopolize the subject matter of newspapers’ book reviews and the display tables in bookshops is representative realism, filling in a story in reassuringly familiar ways as if there is a readily knowable world out there and a novel can capture it verbally just as a photograph shows us what it is a photograph of. A photograph or a realistic novel, we naively feel, stands in a causal, mimetic relation to their subject matter but, as the essays brought together by Edwards and Venezia and the critical study by Freeman show, there is a narrative complexity to China Miéville’s novels that rejects such a model of transparency In place of a fixed line leading to a determined destination, Iron Council describes a train line (and the journey along it) that is always in the making: ‘Miles of track, reused, reused, it is the train’s future and its present, and it emerges a fraction more scarred as history and is hauled up again and becomes another future.’ In The City & The City the ability of
language to cement an ideology of seeing and unseeing is on show in a single city of two psychological halves, the inhabitants of one literally not seeing what is in front of their eyes. In Embassytown, a species incapable of understanding metaphor, for whom each word can mean one thing only since meaning does not depend on a system of differences, discovers what it means to use words non-literally. For Miéville, the issues raised by his imaginative stories are packed with political intent and this is what makes him the most interesting of all contemporary novelists.