Quiz: A Critique of Metafiction

Which fashionable post-modern meta-fictionalist is being described in this quote [n.b. quote re-written to prevent people just looking it up on google]:

“Certain well-respected novelists do seem to have a tendency to give themselves away, which is surely annoying for those of us who are serious about fiction. Recently I was reading X, and was struck by his lack of consideration on this matter. In a parenthesis, a digression or aside, he’ll admit to the reader that he’s only ‘making believe’, that the events he’s describing have not really happened and in truth he could give the narrative any turn he liked. This kind of betrayal of what is a sacred office appears to me a terrible crime.”


Cherry-Picking in the Ancient World

This is a shortened version of a long essay I’m not going to write on this post here by the great Mitchelmore: – but merely the bits about Greek tragedy.


The hero of Greek tragedy was not an autonomous individual. He was caught in and made by a whole web of different interpenetrating elements. These were what led to tragedy but also what absolved him from full responsibility. Terrible things might happen to him, but he could not blame himself, or, to put it in terms of Greek tragedy itself, he might be polluted but he was not guilty.

and Mitchelmore:

Romantic scholars who could only see solitary individuals in their isolation [in the figures of Greek tragedy], a tragic hero like Hamlet, at the centre of the story. Like our contemporary critics, they read what isn’t there because they can see only personalities and the weighing of personal responsibility. It’s a habit of mind we see in conventional fiction beginning and ending in a solitary consciousness .

If none of Sophocles’ heroes “blames himself” or feels remotely guilty then: why does Ajax commit suicide, Deianeira commit suicide, Jocasta commit suicide, Oedipus blind himself with a hair-pin, and pretty much everyone in Antigone commit suicide. – Because I’m not convinced pollution can account for this, or really has anything much to do with it. Suicide (and self-blinding) is not part of any purification ritual.  Indeed, the shedding of blood is itself an act of pollution. Oedipus does indeed go into exile at the end of Oedipus Rex – there’s one act of purification (and there are a few others specifically in the Theban sequence) – but it’s not a general thing in Sophocles or indeed the tragic point.

No, not merely do ancient heroes “blame themselves”; they have a tendency to blame themselves for things which from which we (and to be honest, people in the ancient world) would normally absolve them. We think perhaps their reaction is a bit extreme and they should think things through a moment. – Take the Ajax for instance: a man kills some sheep in a fit of madness; his immediate thought on discovering this is to kill himself; everyone else in the play (surely representatives of the ancient world) tries to persuade him not to kill himself; he deceives them: he tells them he will just carry out a small purification ritual for the sake of the sheep and forget about the whole matter; later that night, he sneaks away from camp and kills himself. – His essential reason? I could not bear to look upon my parents’ faces after such shame. (Oedipus has the deeper problem: if he kills himself, he will only meet up with his parents sooner, and also by now they’re just the very people he doesn’t want to meet; – so he resorts to self-blinding).

Here’s an essay by renowned classical scholar E.R. Dodds on the subject, for your amusement and comparison [warning: this essay may upset views you learned long ago and which you’ve long maintained through idle complacence]. A few selected quotes:

Oedipus is great because he accepts the responsibility for all his acts, including those which are most objectively horrible, though subjectively innocent.


If Oedipus is the innocent victim of a doom which he cannot avoid, does this not reduce him to a mere puppet? Is not the whole play a “tragedy of destiny” which denies human freedom? This is the second of the heresies which I set out to refute. Many readers have fallen into it … and you can find it confidently asserted in various popular handbooks, some of which even extend the assertion to Greek tragedy in general – thus providing themselves with a convenient label for distinguishing Greek from “Christian” tragedy.

Which last quote should give you a clue as to the literary cherry-picking going on here – I suspect by both Josipovici and Kierkegaard: – I’d like to see them argue the same notion of Greek/Sophoclean tragedy from the point of view of, say, Electra or Philoctetes.

Mitchelmore again:

As the comparison above makes clear, Euripides was the Dickens of his time, Sophocles the Beckett. Why this kind of misreading continues is an issue worth pursuing.

and when we pick ourselves up from the floor, perhaps we wonder for once if Mitchelmore is not here pontificating eruditely on a subject about what he knows nothing. – Why do foolish moderns fall into the trap of believing Euripides to be an example of a “modernist” tendency? – Well, I don’t know: perhaps it’s because he’s generally considered as foreshadowing the kind of existential uncertainty that is characteristic of the subsequent Hellenistic period, historically linked as it is to the collapse of the polis-society under the autocracy of Philip of Macedon, and whose greatest poetic flourishing was to be found in the Alexandrians – those most “modernist” of all the ancients.

Unread Classics

One of my tactics, in order to appear well read, has always been to concentrate on a writer’s more obscure works and neglect their famous ones. Thus in any literary discussion, when the Other is going on about, say, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, you can always respond by saying, “Yes, that’s all very well – but have you ever read The Insulted and Humiliated?” – and then give an account of it. This will not only impress upon your interlocutor your erudition, but will lead him quite falsely to believe that you have read Crime and Punishment, despite the fact that you’ve never even mentioned it.

Well, ok – maybe this isn’t entirely the true reason I’ve often not read the most famous books of the most famous authors. I think, rather, it’s because I’m afraid of them – that once I’ve read them, they won’t still be there yet to read. But it does lead to glaring omissions: – I have, for instance, read 8/14ths of Hardy, but I’ve never read Jude the Obscure; and I’ve read 11/18ths of Conrad, but I’ve never read Nostromo. (Also, I don’t think I’ve read anything of either Hardy or Conrad in the last 10 years).

So I thought, seeing as we’re coming towards year end and with any luck (and a good deal of reading – rather than studying, which is what I should be doing) I’ll have finished about 90 books by the end of October (and thus be well on towards my target of 100 for the year), I should read some renowned classics. Here are a few ideas I’ve found on my shelves (all never read):

  • Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  • Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  • Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (I think I’ve now read ALL of GGM apart from this, except Living to Tell the Tale)
  • The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins (I did start it once, when I was young)
  • Moby Dick, Hermann Melville
  • Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust (just vol 1 of the Penguin Classics ed. – the other volumes are stored away elsewhere)
  • (I actually wanted to read Bleak House as well, but despite the fact that I was sure I had a copy of it, I don’t)

Oh, there are many more, I’m sure.

Then, my plan for the beginning of next year (which like all my plans, will no doubt never come to fruition) is to concentrate on:

  • pre- (or at least very early) c19th novels (and other novel-like things)
  • c19th classics from slightly more obscure literary traditions (e.g. Green Henry by Gottfried Keller, The Manuscript from Saragossa by Jan Potocki, The Doll by Boleslaw Prus, Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi, The Black Diamonds by Mor Jokai, Prague Tales by Jan Neruda – that sort of thing)
  • and epic poetry (particularly, the obscurer ones from antiquity – I’ve started on Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica already) and Arthurian romance

Though no doubt, in reality, I’ll just continue reading randomly as I always do – and it wasn’t worth saying any of this.

Books Read – Sept 10 (and a few days of Oct)

Little reviews here.

I’m sure I read quite a bit in September really, but I didn’t finish much – as can be seen by the fact that I’ve already finished as many books in October.

The only really out-of-the-way writer on the list is Liu E, a Chinese writer around the beginning of c20th – so fitting in with that fascinating group who lived the revolution, rather than those later writers who were merely brainwashed into writing about it. As Wikipedia notes, the version I read was severely bowlderised by the Chinese authorities (it was published by their literary propaganda arm, Panda Books).

Actually, it’s worth reading just for the opening: a dream sequence worthy of Kafka or Ionesco. (That is, a dream sequence in which it only gradually dawns on you, through its increasing strangeness, that what you’re reading is a dream sequence.)