Thursday, November 18, 2010

Introduction to Forthcoming Book


This essay interprets the novels of Mordecai Richler. Interpretation, as Northrop Frye suggests, is an act of translation—“the process of translating into explicit or discursive language what is implicit in the poem." 1 Susan Sontag, however, is surely justified in objecting harshly to that kind of interpretation, which, basing itself on the fallacy of the division between form and content, seeks to reduce the work of art to its content, and, thereby, make art manageable and conformable. 2 By contrast with that, Rene Wellek and Austin Warren throughout Theory of Literature argue for needing to see the work as a totality, and for form as “the aesthetic structure of a literary work—that which makes it literature...that which aesthetically organizes its ‘matter.’” 3

Herbert Read's account of Martin Heidegger's view of form amplifies Wellek’s and Warren’s argument. Form, for Heidegger and Read, belongs to the very essence of being, since being is that which achieves a limit for itself: "That which places itself in its limit, completing itself, and so stands, has form.” 4 Form as a principle of order, that which forms, is what makes art "complete itself", which is to say, autonomous, or, in Wellek’s and Warren’s formulation, have its own mode of existence. As an ordering principle, form, to Heidegger, is identical with logos, which he defines as “gathering and togetherness”:

“'gathering’...maintains in a common bond the conflicting and that which tends apart... It does not let what it holds in its power dissolve into an empty freedom from opposi­tion, but by uniting the opposites main­tains the full sharpness of their tension.” 5

This paraphrases Coleridge's conception of a work of literature as an organic unity. That conception sees texts existing in their own way and with their own kind of life. The whole arises from the harmonious involvement of all the parts. The parts are unified by the whole they form, which ultimately is distinct from, and larger than, them. Finally, form is the same whether seen as stationary or as moving through the work from beginning to end, whether seen as product or as process. These are but aspects of each other, intrinsically related ways of speaking about the same thing. 6

Wellek and Warren argue that a work of literature is a self-defining totality with its own mode of existence. They corollarily argue that "the novelist offers...a world...recognizable as overlapping the empirical world but distinct in its self-coherent intelligibility." 7 This "self-coherent intel­ligibility" characterizes the form of the novel's world, a self-defining totality informed by a unifying principle. Dorothy Van Ghent makes this explicit:

“A novel itself is one complex pattern or Gestalt, made up of component ones. In it inhere such a vast number of traits, all organized insubordinate systems that function under the governance of a single meaningful structure, that the nearest similitude for a novel is a 'world.' This is a useful similitude because it reflects the rich multiplicity of the novel's elements and, at the same time, the unity of the novel as a self-defining body.” 8

More, no novelist projects a world, an illusion of reality, without, necessarily, projecting a world view or view of life—the two phrases are synonymous—which distinguishes the novel's world as a particular kind of world, and makes it cohere in the way Van Ghent describes. Indeed, Frye describes world-view when he describes form as meaning, holding the poem together in a simultaneous structure. 9 And, the idea of theme encapsulating form as meaning pervades this essay.

These considerations define generally the scope and dis­cipline of this essay, of what it means by interpretation. For, it elucidates what orders the worlds of Richler's novels and how world view simultaneously informs and is informed by the parts of these worlds. (To be sure, interpretation is approximation, since ultimate meaning resides only in the work itself—no heretical paraphrase here.) Understanding the reciprocal relation between parts and whole in Richler's novels creates possibilities for discussion as plentiful and diverse as are the parts. Eclecticism is, therefore, un­avoidable, and, indeed, necessary. To quote Frye again, “The sense of tact, of the desirability of not pushing a point of interpretation 'too far,' is derived from the fact that the proportioning of emphasis in criticism should normally bear a rough analogy to the proportioning of empha­sis in the poem.” 10

The truism that novels are about people and the synonymy of the phrases world view and view of life reflect how a view of the world is inseparable from a view of the condition of existence in that world, and from, it can be deduced, insight into the sources of that condition. What makes life the way it is determines the nature of the novel's world and so renders the novel's world self-coherent­ly intelligible. So form becomes meaning resonant in theme. This is why Wellek and Warren equate the novel's "'attitude toward life’" with its "fourth and last stratum, that of the 'metaphysical qualities.’” 11 It is why, as the condition of existence is embodied in the lives of the characters, characters exist only in their own fictional worlds, (which is why it is critically invalid to treat character as an isolable element outside the novel’s context.) Therefore, to understand the world of Richler's novels is to understand what makes life the way it is in them, and is to understand how characters embody the way it is.

So, as noted, character is not an isolable. And, so, character must be seen in his particular setting and in her particular plot. Setting functions in Richler’s fiction both as social causation and as metonym for the condition of existence. The Montreal Jewish ghetto settings are the powerfully formative social environments in which most of Richler's young protagonists—Noah Adler, Duddy Kravitz, and Jake Hersh as a youth—grow up and can never, finally, leave behind. Richler himself has stated that he was, as a writer, rooted in the first twenty years of his life, and that, as a result, and even when he lived and wrote in England, he wrote out of his Canadian experience. 12 The London setting, by contrast, a backdrop for the homeless, rootless exiles peopling Choice, is a kind of objective-correlative for their alienated condition. Only in the world of Cocksure, in which fantasy overtakes reality, and in which all power lies in the Star Maker, does setting have relatively little impor­tance.

Dorothy Van Ghent suggests that "human experience is organized into patterns that are in movement...'events.’” 13 E.M. Forster has wisely defined plot as "a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” 14 Causality is that which orders events, accounts for why and when things happen. It is precisely the principle ordering the novel's world, and is implicit in the conjunction of the events bodied forth. The plot of the romance, for example, unravels a complicated pattern of chance and coincidence that works mysteriously toward some end. Its plot forms a world of inscrutable fate and religion. The ordered disorder of the picaresque plot, by contrast, forms a world without order, a chaotic world. 15 Novels thrive on particularity. So plot is the particularizing of world view. To understand the world of Richler's novels, therefore, is to understand how the organization of events forms the novels' worlds.

A consideration of form as world must take into account the literary forms Richler uses to structure the worlds of his novels, which is to say, structure their world views. Indeed, his darkening world view consistent with his shift from a dominant mode of verisimilitude to the caricature and fantasy of satire and black humour largely guides this essay’s discussion. That shift resolves itself in the accommodation of this growing pessimism by the return to verisimilitude in Horseman. (No desire exists to make categorical genre definitions in which to fit Richler's novels. Rather, working definitions are here tools for better understandings, even though susceptible to arbitrariness and rigidity.)

Richler is a self-conscious novelist and novelists imitate literature as well as nature.16 He uses the technique of submerged form, which, as described by Jonathan Rabkin, consists of using a literary form in order to undermine it, to invert its view of reality and, so, reinforce the actual view being presented. 17 Richler buries forms within his novels. To understand where these forms begin and end, where their views of reality begin and end, is to have an illuminating insight into the kind of worlds which he gives form to.

1. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1969), p. 86.
2. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Delta, 1966), p.8.
3. Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1956), p. 421.
4. Herbert Read, The Origins of Form in Art, (New York: Horizon Press, 1965), p.79.
5. Ibid., p. 80.
6. Frye, p.83.
7. Wellek and Warren, p.214.
8. Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel, (New York: Holt, Rineheart and Winston, 1960), p. 6.
9. Frye, p. 83.
10. Ibid., p.86.
11. Wellek and Warren, p. 225.
12. Nathan Cohen, A Conversation with Mordecai Richler, Tamarack Review, (Winter, 1957), p. 7.
13. Van Ghent, p. 5.
14. E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 130.
15. Stuart Miller, The Picaresque Novel, (Cleveland: Press of Case Western University Reserve, 1967), pp. 9-12.
16. Frye, pp. 95-96.
17. Jonathan Rabkin, The Technique of Modern Fiction, (London: Edward Arnold, 1968), pp. 122-125.

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