France and Russia in Narratological Research

Valerij I. Tiupa (Moscow)

France and Russia in Narratological Research

Abstract: There are long-standing and deep relations with mutual interests and reciprocal influences between French and Russian narratology. The importance for the Russian humanities of narratological works by Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Gérard  Genette and, later, Paul Ricœur and contemporary researchers in the human sciences in Russia is well-known. In turn, studies by the Russian formalists, succeeded by Mixail Baxtin, Juri Lotman and Boris Uspenskij, have become highly significant for French narratologists. This article takes a look at the historical differences between narratology and poetics in France and Russia. It is observed that in Russia the transnational convergence between narratological interests can be seen in the common ground shared by Russian analytical poetics and French discourse analysis. The author argues in favor of collaborative research for the construction of a historical narratology based on the principles of the historical poetics first outlined by Aleksandr Veselovskij.

Keywords: historical narratology, poetics, Baxtin, Foucault, Lotman, Ricœur, Uspenskij, Veselovskij


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If we were to consider French and Russian narratology as two poles with tension between that contributes to their development, this tension would reveal differing approaches in the field of poetics.

French literature gave rise to classicism and normative poetics, closely associated with tradition and strict rules for literary creation. Within the French context, the destruction of norms celebrated by deconstructive poetics that so fascinated Julia Kristeva or Roland Barthes is seen in a positive light. However, Russia and Russian culture have suffered so much real destruction that we do not wish to hear this word. We have experienced many revolutionary upheavals in our history that have compromised continuity.

At first glance, this may seem paradoxical. However, against the backdrop of the discontinuity of our cultural development, Russian philology gave rise to the “historical poetics” of Aleksandr N. Veselovskij (1838–1906), based on the principle of continuity. Historical poetics was ousted from Soviet literary criticism early on because of revolutionary fervor, to be officially revived only at the turn of the 1970s and 80s. Since then, it has been the methodological foundation of much scientific research in Russia. For us, “poetics” marks the beginning of positive research; we feel no need for deconstruction.

These circumstances explain why Russian-language narratological studies were conducted under the names “poetics of narrative” and “poetics of the plot” (or “plot theory”) for many years. Many of these approaches were regarded as separate scientific fields, particularly by one of our leading theoreticians of literature, Natan D. Tamarčenko.

The French structural or classical narratology of the 1960s and 70s (Barthes, Todorov, Genette, etc.) was perceived in Russia as a special science: the “grammar of storytelling.” Narratology became available in Russian translation to most Russian philologists only starting in the 1980s and especially after 2000, at a time when classical structural narratology in France had to a large extent waned.

The spread of French narratological research to Russia marked the meeting of two national trends in the field.

Interest was mutual. At a time when Russian translations of French structural narratology became widely available in Russia, Paul Ricœur’s Temps et récit (1983–1985) appeared. Ricœur’s reflection on the philosophical foundations of narratological research took account, by his own admission, of the lessons of Baxtin, Propp, Todorov, Greimas, Bremond, Genette and Lotman.

Research gives evidence that contemporary narratology is a fairly homogeneous scientific field with some local peculiarities but few national borders.

Characterizing narratology as a “foreign” Western science is completely baseless. One noteworthy proof of this is Wolf Schmid’s well-known Narratology: An Introduction, a tutorial for beginning narratologists which was originally written in Russian and based on Russian material (2003; 2nd edition. 2008), later translated by the author into his native German and published in 2005 (3rd edition 2014), with the English translation appearing in 2010.

In Russia, the convergence of narratological interests took place as the mutual affiliation of Russian “analytical poetics” and French “discourse analysis,” initiated in part by M. M. Baxtin’s “The Problem of Speech Genres” (1953).[1] In this article, Baxtin, for whom there was no word in Russian at the time for “discourse,” employed the term “vyskazyvaniye” in the sense of “utterance” in order to set it off from the linguists’ understanding of the term as “syntagm” (predlozheniye; Fr. syntagme).[2]

No catalog of narrative techniques or grammar of narration covers the main thing in narratology, namely that all forms of verbalized narration are discourse, an utterance as the interaction between two conscious beings, both of whom are creative and receptive. This thesis no doubt contains the key to postclassical narratology, thereby leaving proto-narratology to the poetics of narrative.

Nevertheless, emphasis on the communicative nature of narrative – for storytelling is possible only to “someone,” to an addressee, often potential – is not the whole essence of modern narratology. The second fundamental element of is eventfulness.[3] The scientific value of narratology is that it has grown into an anthropological doctrine of the formation, storage (in textual forms) and retransmission of events as they are experienced by humans by virtue of their presence in the world.

In 1973 (and we have reason to believe that it was after reading Genette’s “Discours du récit,” published one year earlier), Baxtin observed as follows in his article about the chronotope in the novel:

before us are two events – the event that is narrated in the work and the event of narration itself (we ourselves participate in the latter, as listeners or readers); these events take place at different times (which are marked by different durations as well) and in different places, but at the same time these two events are indissolubly united in a single but complex event that we might call the work in the totality of all its events […] we perceive the fullness of the work in all its wholeness and indivisibility, but at the same time we understand the diversity of the elements that constitute it. (Bakhtin 1981 [1973]: 255)


In this quotation, “event,” a category important for Baxtin early on, also refers to speech event as developed in “The Problem of Speech Genres.”

I have already spoken and written about the deep conceptual convergence between Baxtin’s theory of utterance and the completely independent reflections on “discourse” by Michel Foucault in his Archéologie du savoir (see Tiupa 2015).

A growing interest in the communicative properties and strategies of narrative has led contemporary Russian narratology far beyond the framework of poetics. In addition, there is evidence that Ricœur’s writings rank high in both the French and Russian narratological communities. On the whole, the independent initiatives by and Baxtin and Ricœur to bring philosophical issues to bear on narrative theory buttress humanistic knowledge and at the same time correlate with the concerns of Russian culture.

The most important innovation by Ricœur is his notion of mise en intrigue, or emplotment, and the tension produced between the beginning and the end of a discourse with regard to the possible outcomes. Emplotment is based on the receptive narrative experience of the reader and is thus, according to Ricœur, perpetually in a state of formation. The story, “in order to become a logic of narrative,” must “turn to configurations fixed in culture, to that schematism of narrative at work in the typical plots handed down by tradition. It is by this schematism alone that action becomes tellable” (Ricœur 1984: 68).

It is noteworthy that more than a hundred years before Ricœur, one of the pioneers of Russian proto-narratology, Veselovskij took up the category of plot (intriga in Russian). In particular, he wrote about the underlying schematization of narrativity: “The plots in our novelist’s works are reduced to a small list, which can easily be reduced to an even smaller number of general types” (Veselovskij 2010 [1940]: 19).

Further investigations on the concept of plot are central to present-day narratological studies.[4] Comparing various theories of plot in classical and postclassical narratology, Raphaël Baroni observes: “According to the structural approach, plot is a completed whole within which complication and denouement are symmetrically related, whereas for the postclassical narratologist […] plot is a reading experience in the course of which tension is produced: complication and denouement are formed as a succession of steps that punctuate the uncertain progression through the twists and turns of the story” (Baroni 2010: 211).

Among Russian narratologists, reading in this sense is generally referred to as “intriga slova” (“intrigue of the word”), a situation in which the reader’s attention is focused on the words rather than on the events or the characters. This expression is employed in a collection of essays devoted to Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago (see Tiupa, ed. 2014). Beginning with Chekhov’s late prose, the reader’s interest falls not only on what may or may not happen but also on what words will be employed at the end of the story. Thus, for example, Nabokov’s story “Christmas,” about the great suffering of a father who has buried his son, ends surprisingly with the word “happiness.” This is not a coincidence.

Close attention to the receptive side of narrative practices fosters interest in the narrative identity of the subject as well as in the ethical side of narrative. This development can be observed in many works, among them Ricœur’s Soi-même comme un autre (1990) as well as, more recently, in Liesbeth Korthals Altes’s Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction (2014).

When taking ethos as a rhetorical category (cf. Dubois et al. 1970, esp. chap. VI), it must be recognized that ethos is related to plot. Referring back to Ricœur’s work, we can say that both categories characterize narrative discourse in their appeal to the addressee. It must be observed, though, that the tension generated by plot tends to weaken the ethos of the story whereas concentration on the moral trial of a narrative may overshadow the plot.

In research on narrative ethos, an important consideration in the Russian humanities, the influence of French culture with its strong rhetorical connection can be seen. Significantly, Perelman’s neo-rhetoric and the “Common Rhetoric” of the Belgian “groupe μ” came to Russia at the same time as narratology. No less an important role in this process was played by Gérard Genette’s interest in rhetoric.

The fundamental concern of Russian narratology that might very well appeal to Western scholars is historical narratology, foreshadowed by Veselovskij’s “historical poetics.” The beginning of this great project goes back to Olga Freidenberg’s essay “The Origin of Narration” (1997 [1945]) and to Yuri M. Lotman’s “The Origin of the Plot in the Light of Typology” (1973 [1970]). Further attempts at the “historicization” of narratology in Russia are currently underway (cf. Tiupa 2016).

Unlike the well-known Russian formalist school, which played a significant role in classical structural narratology, the Russian school of historical poetics, which has recently attracted the attention of German philologists (e.g., Kemper et al., eds. 2013), is practically unknown in France.

Narratological categories should be considered not only in the synchrony of narrative structures, but also in a historical or diachronic perspective: genesis, evolution, functioning of narrative practices in the course of successively changing cultural periods. The historical approach brings out the nature of the category in its anthropological etiology and the perspective of sociocultural valence.

The problem of narrative strategies that characterize narrative utterances from the point of view of their integration into discourse, and not as a sum of “devices,” is particularly important (cf. Tiupa 2014 [2009]). This question is clearly bound up with the problem of genre. The historical approach to genre strategies has every chance of rehabilitating the concept of the genre on new, non-normative grounds (see Schaeffer 1989).

The Austrian narratologist Monika Fludernik had good reason to speak in 2003 about “the depth of neglect of the diachronic approach prevailing in narratology” and to call for a “breakthrough” in the “exciting new field of [historical – V.T.] research” (Fludernik 2003: 334 and 332). To date, this call has yet to receive a worthy response, although several attempts in this direction have been made, one example being Irene J. F. de Jong’s (2014) work devoted to ancient Greek narrative. Another example is Wolf Schmid’s Mentale Ereignisse. Bewusstseinsveränderungen in europäischen Erzählwerken vom Mittelalter bis zur Moderne (2017; Russian translation forthcoming).

The construction of a historical narratology – more fundamental than the “diachronic approach” to narrative practices that has recently appeared in Western research – is an ambitious and labor-intensive project. The path to this goal appears to stretch beyond the horizon of the current situation but remains fertile ground for further collaborative research.

Translated from the Russian by Katerina Sokrouta


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Bakhtin [Baxtin], M. M. (1986). Speech Genres and other Late Essays. Vern W. McGee (trans.), Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (eds.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Baroni, Raphaël (2010). “Réticence de l’intrigue.” In Narratologies contemporaines. Approches nouvelles pour la théorie et l’analyse du récit. John Pier and Francis Berthelot (eds.). Paris: Éditions des archives contemporaines, pp. 199–213.

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Valery I. Tiupa

Candidate of Philological Sciences (Moscow State University, 1974) and Doctor of Philology (Moscow State University, 1992). He has taught at universities in Samara, Lvov, Kemerovo (where he opened the Department of Literary Theory in 1980) and Novosibirsk. He trained at the Sorbonne and has taught in Poland and Germany. Since 1998, he has been a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, where he is Head of the Department of Theoretical and Historical Poetics. Besides narratology, his ​​scientific interests include the general theory of literature, analysis of the literary text, comparative studies, Pushkin and Chekhov. He is also editor-in-chief of the review Novyj filologicheskij vestnik and co-editor of the online international journal Narratorium. Author of numerous articles and of several books, including Introduction to Comparative Narratology (in Russian, 2016) and Readings in Non-classical Narratology (in Russian, 2018), as well as editor of more than fifteen collective works, among them Narratology and Comparative Studies (in Russian, 2015).

[1] See also “The Problem of the Text In Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis” (1959–60). Both essays are available in Bakhtin [Baxtin] (1986).

[2] As for the term “metalinguistics” employed by Baxtin in his essay to designate this theory, a term apparently unknown to Russian linguists at the time, it was taken from Whorf (1952).

[3] According to Schmid (2003), contemporary narratology is based on the concept of narrativity as eventfulness.

[4] For an overview, see Kukkonen (2014).