Narratology, Historical Poetics and Historical Narratology

Veronika Zousseva-Özkan (Moscow)

Narratology, Historical Poetics and Historical Narratology


Abstract: This paper discusses the current state of narratology and its prospects and contains arguments in support of historical (or diachronic) narratology. It also suggests that the experience of Russian historical poetics may be useful to develop its methodology. The proposed method is tested using the case of metanarration. It is demonstrated that authorial presence in the inner world of the literary work and metanarrative intrusions appear in the earliest known novels, but as natural and not “artificial” phenomena, that is to say, played with deliberately in the name of some artistic objective. It is only when the urge to play arises and the relation between art and reality is perceived as problematic and controversial that metanarration is transformed into metafiction. Consequently, the meaning and functioning of narrative phenomena are not the same at different epochs; they are determined by major narrative strategies and in turn determine them.

Keywords: historical poetics, historical (diachronic) narratology, metanarration, authorial intrusions, narrative strategies

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Russian narratology owes a great deal to French narratology. However, in Russia, the advances of narratology have not occurred within the framework of narratology properly speaking, but rather in the vaster context of literary theory, particularly French literary theory. In Russia, this discovery is known as the “French intellectual revolution” of the 1990s, the spirit of which has been described by Aleksandr Dmitriev as “the leap into modernity” (Dmitriev 2005: 187). Today, the “French turn of Russian thought” is less evident. The interest in French thought remains constant, though not unique, and coexists mainly with an interest in Anglo-American and German narratology, the latter represented in particular by Wolf Schmid (2003; Engish translation 2010). The works of Gérard Genette are also well-known in Russia (Genette 1998). The heritage of Paul Ricœur is not only acknowledged, but is being progressively assimilated by Russian narratologists, thanks in large part to the efforts of Valerij Tiupa.

At the same time, there is a clear tendency in Russia to return to the national philological tradition, particularly historical poetics. Studies in this field are being published and republished, commented on and revised, all of this accompanied with a lively scientific debate (as is the case, for example, of Aleksandr Veselovskij’s 1913 study, Historical Poetics, published by Igor Shaytanov in 2006–2010). In addition, there is a group of researchers who are now seeking to merge historical poetics and narratology.

The fact is that narratology today exists in “small time” (according to the expression of Baxtin, who opposed “small” and “big” time). Most narratological studies apply to works of modern times. However, there is some doubt as to the possibility of using its instruments for older works. It is not an accident that the panel discussions at the conferences of the European Narratology Network devoted to “diachronic narratology” (“narratology of the Middle Ages,” “the narratology of folklore,” etc.) are modest in size and few in number. Although there have been calls in favor of the diachronic approach, work in this area remains fairly undeveloped.

Just as the spatial expansion of narratology, which has stepped beyond the boundaries of literature, is strong, so its temporal expansion is weak. It is possible, however, to study the fundamental principles of how narratives work and the reflection in narratives of the major changes that have occurred to the human mind and to define the frontiers of narrative, but this is so only within the scope of big time. This approach offers a stereoscopic vision which makes it possible to correctly evaluate the dimensions and degree of novation of a given phenomenon. Too often it is said, for example, that metalepsis or an authorial intervention or an “unnatural” narrative by a dead narrator are the products of modernity, whereas similar narrative phenomena having other motivations and based on other premises can be observed in Antiquity.

Needless to say, giving narratology a temporal dimension requires a specific methodology. Merely labelling and describing such or such narrative phenomena of world literature and folklore using a present-day scientific language will come to nothing more than the mechanical and unsatisfactory junction of literary history and narratology. In my estimation, the experience of Russian historical poetics may very well help to develop a methodology for historical narratology.

Aleksandr Veselovskij, the founder of Russian historical poetics, saw as the subject of his research the genesis and evolution of literary forms. His aim was “to account for how the new content of life, that element of liberty flooding forth with each new generation, penetrates old images, those unavoidable forms into which all previous developments were inevitably molded” (Veselovskij 2010 [1913]: 20). Veselovskij’s comparative and historical method requires research on a vast amount of material in all world literature, making it possible to avoid arbitrary constructions and too high a level of generalization; in this way, it becomes possible to discover “parallel lines” and identify the major stages of the literary process that remain constant among different peoples. Veselovskij was the first to distinguish between motif and sjužet. It is to him that we owe the morphological approach that was later to be taken up by Vladimir Propp who acknowledged the “crucial importance” of Veselovskij’s discoveries: “demarcating motif and story represent an enormous conquest, for this creates the conditions for a scientific analysis of sjužets, and analysis of their composition, and it opens up the possibility of asking questions about genesis and evolution” (Propp 2000 [1984]: 192).

Olga Freidenberg, another pioneer of Russian historical poetics, developed a genetic method in her works aimed at “going from the surface to the depth, peeling away layer by layer,” and seeking to establish “the unity of the semantics and morphology of literature” (Freidenberg 1997 [1935]: 12). To Boris Pasternak she wrote: “The chaos of stories, myths, rites, objects became for me the logical system of defined meanings. Philosophically, I wanted to demonstrate that literature can be just as material for the theory of knowledge as the natural sciences and the exact sciences” (Pasternak 1990: 111). Freidenberg’s The Poetics of Plot and Genre (1935) is particularly interesting from the point of view of narratology: it is directed “not toward the study of literature and its established forms but toward the history of representations, of imagery, of the mind in relation to the forms of custom, fable, religion, language and myth they engender” (Freidenberg 1997 [1935]: 11).

Alongside Freidenberg’s work, the problem of a methodology for historical poetics was worked out by Mixail Baxtin. According to him, the subject of historical poetics includes the content of esthetic activity, that is to say, the genesis and evolution of the esthetic object, and its architectonics as well as the manifestation of these dimensions in the evolution of meaningful artistic forms.

An entire edifice is erected by Samson Broytman in his monograph entitled Historical Poetics (2001). In this work, world literature (or more precisely the evolution of the human mind as manifested in literature) is divided into three major stages: syncretism, eidetic poetics and artistic modality, each of which is characterized by certain narrative principles.

Now, it appears that historical narratology could very well draw on several aspects of historical poetics. First is the way of thinking within the framework of “big time,” that is to say, in accordance with the major stages reflecting the historical types of artistic phenomena which, in turn, are based on the fundamental generating principles of mind and worldview. Second is combining comparative and historical, genetic and typological methods. Last is exploring the material of world literature as broadly as possible. All this must be implemented using a specifically narratological approach centered around narrative strategies and the problem of event (which does not rule out historical poetics per se and its subject, given that it is not limited to narrative literary forms).

To illustrate this methodology, we turn now to the problem of metanarration, with a particular emphasis on authorial interventions. Research on this subject generally concentrates on twentieth-century literature, even though these phenomena can also be found in the novels of Sterne, Diderot and Cervantes and go back even farther in time. To grasp the nature of these phenomena and evaluate their place in literature of the artistic modality, it is necessary to trace their genesis back to the eidetic epoch, considering that elements of syncretism can also be found there (to adopt the expressions of Veselovskij and Broytman).

It is already in the earliest novels that we find metanarrative devices, particularly in their most basic form: commentary on the development of the story, indications as to sources, references to literary tradition, etc. The Golden Ass by Apuleius (ca. 153 A.D.) begins with a call to readers by the narrator, Lucius. Intrusions at the metanarrative level also occur in other parts of the text. At one point, for example, the narrator reflects on the modality of his narrative: “And with that, dear reader, you know that it’s a tragedy, no mere tale, that you’re reading: from the sock we mount the buskin” (Apuleius 2004 [1998]: 149). Sometimes he plays with the doubts of the reader to whom he grants a certain initiative: “But perhaps at this point the attentive reader will start to pick holes in my story and take me up on it. ‘How is it, you clever ass you,’ they will say, ‘that while you were confined in the mill you were able, as you say, to know what these women were doing in secret?’” (ibid.: 140). At the same time, despite the fantastic nature of the narrated events, the narrator seeks to follow the convention of verisimilitude of the event of narration: “All this I learned from overhearing various conversations. However, the exact words used by the prosecutor in urging his case and the precise terms used by the defendant in rebuttal, the various speeches and exchanges – all that, not having been in court but tied up to my manger, I don’t know…” (ibid.: 153).

Toward the end of the novel the number of metanarrative interventions increases, and the play with the perceiving consciousness grows more complex:

I dare say, attentive reader, that you are all agog to know what was then said and done. I should tell you if it were lawful to tell it; you should learn if it were lawful to hear it. […] But since it may be that your anxious yearning is piously motivated, I will not torment you by prolonging your anguish. […] I came to the boundary of death and after treading Proserpine’s threshold I returned having traversed all the elements; at midnight I saw the sun shining with brilliant light; I approached the gods below and the gods above face to face and worshipped them in their actual presence. Now I have told you what, though you have heard it, you cannot know. (Apuleius 2004 [1998]: 182–83)

It appears that this phenomenon is largely related to the metamorphosis or transformation of the hero from an ass into the priest of Isis and of the narrator into the author. It has occasionally been observed that the information about Lucius at the end of the novel differs from the information at the beginning. The priest who consecrates him hears the prophetic voice saying that

there was sent to him a man from Madaura, quite a poor man, whom he was at once to initiate into his faith. […] Though thus pledged to initiation and eager as I was, I was held back by the slenderness of my means. My modest patrimony had been used up in paying for my travels, and the cost of living in Rome was much higher than in the provinces where I came from. (Apuleius 2004 [1998]: 185–86)

While at the beginning of the novel the narrator hero speaks about his Peloponnesian origins, toward the end he is presented as a native of Madaura who goes to Rome where he carries on the profession of lawyer, a detail coming from the biography of Apuleius himself. Samson Broytman writes that “the second transformation and the convergence of the author and the character that take place here are particularly expressive, for they occur after the metamorphosis of crisis experienced by the hero” (Broytman 2004 [2001]: 137).

The question is to know to what degree this transformation is “played.” In my opinion, it is not so much the deliberate and free play of the author as it is an echo of the old syncretism, of the indivisibility of author and hero as active and passive divine natures which is felt in the narrative structure of The Golden Ass. It is not by accident that the convergence of Lucius and the author takes place after the phase of the symbolic death of Lucius and his passage through hell, at the time of his rebirth to a new life. In effect, this is the phase of the old cyclical story described by Freidenberg, a story that takes place with the solar or plant divinity.

We thus see that metanarrative devices arise at the dawn of the eidetic epoch, precisely as a reminder of the former oral nature of narrative as well as of the former indivisibility of the hypostases of author and hero. It is for these reasons that the first novels are characterized by first-person narration. This is the case of Petronius’ Satyricon and of the Greek novels of Antiquity. Olga Freidenberg explains this predilection of ancient literature for first-person narrative through an analysis of the origins of narration:

For the most part within this very “I-story”, in the active “I”, there lies a passive “I” which has become the object of the narration. This creates the double system of Classical narration, at first inseparable, when the subject “I” is still present but contains within itself, indirectly, an object “I”. The form of such an original narration is direct speech; the primary topic of the narration is the subject of the story itself. Its contents are deeds and sufferings. (Freidenberg 1997: 52)

The very curious rudiments of this “double system of Classical narration” can be found in the novel by Chariton of Aphrodisias, Loves of Chaereas and Callirhoe (early 2nd cent. A.D.). Here, the author also constantly shows his presence. Chariton begins and ends his novel by stating his paternity: “I, Chariton of Aphrodisios, amanuensis to Athenagoras the Rhetorician, will relate the love adventures of two Syracusians” (Chariton 1764 vol. 1: 1); “Thus far I, Chariton of Aphrodisios, have writ concerning the loves of Chaereas and Callirhoe” (Chariton 1764 vol. 2: 206). A real author (or a biographical, primary author, not a created author) and a presumed author (a secondary author, created by a primary author), an author-creator (to use Baxtin’s terms) are in this case not yet separated.

The text of the novel contains a number of narrator’s comments on the narrated events and the way of narrating. The simplest lines are aimed at structuring the text. Some of the comments give the narrator’s opinion on the narrated events as well as their supposed perception by potential readers: “I am of the opinion, that this last book will be highly entertaining to my readers; and expiate, as it were, for all the mournful incidents in the former ones” (Chariton 1764 vol. 2: 149).

What is most interesting, however, is that the last book (the eighth) of the novel contains a summary of the previous seven books. It is given not in the first person of the author, but in the first person of the hero, Chaereas. This final episode in the novel is motivated by the fact that the inhabitants of the city of birth of the heroes do not know their story, and it is the people of Syracuse who listen to him. The narrator could attest in a single sentence that Chaereas had told his story to those who were present. But instead of this, the story is related in full a second time (although rather briefly). In other words, the novel has a profound need to duplicate the story by delegating it to the hero, turning the hero into the narrator. In my opinion, this is the same thing that happens in The Golden Ass: convergence of the hero and the author after the symbolic death of the hero (represented by the potentially lethal series of events) and rebirth to a new life for having found his wife and his country again.

There is yet another important function of this final transfer from the status of hero to that of narrator: his narration is indispensable in order to complete the novel. Immediately after Chaereas’ narration, the people of Syracuse make a number of sacred decisions, and Callirhoe goes to the temple of Aphrodite to thank her for finding her lover again. The narrative becomes the sacrifice placed on the altar to end the events narrated in the novel. As pointed out by Freidenberg with regard to the Greek novel of Antiquity, “In its conclusion the hero comes to the temple and recounts before the god everything that he ‘did and suffered’ […] Here the ‘narration’ has a subjective-objective character; it does not distinguish between who narrates and what is told, and to whom” (Freidenberg 1997: 51).

This ancient foundation is most obvious in Aethiopica by Heliodorus (3rd century A.D.), where in the last book the heroes, Theagenes and Chariclea, are destined to be sacrificed to Helios. Chariclea’s narrative turns out to be the ransom for their lives: the act of narration itself becomes the ransom of substitution for the gods. Rationally speaking, this is explained in the novel by the fact that Chariclea is recognized as the lost daughter of the king of Ethiopia. However, the semantics of the “ransom narrative” (cf. The Thousand and One Nights) is very clear here, all the more so in that after the heroine’s narrative the gods renounce the sacrifice of ten girls and young men who were destined to be sacrificed with Chariclea and Theagenes. Theagenes performs the exploits of the solar hero: he claims victory over the bull (both the incarnation of the Sun god and the sacrifice to him) and the giant. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that the name (or perhaps the pseudonym) of the author of the novel is Heliodorus, meaning the “gift of the Sun” (and that Chariclea belongs to the lineage of Helios). Thus the initial semantic identity of the god and the bull, of the priest and the sacrifice, of the author, the hero, the listener and the narrative is restored. Their mutual conversions are reconstituted and form the deep level of meaning of the story.

Like Chariton, Heliodorus clearly states his paternity in the last lines of the novel, as though this were his signature: “Here endeth the Ethiopian history of Theagenes and Chariclea the author whereof is Heliodorus of Emesus, a city of Phoenicia, son of Theodosius who fetched his pedigree from the Sun” (Heliodorus 1923: 323). The story is told from the beginning by a same author in the first person. It is quite curious that the novel is full of references to the theater and comparisons between the narrative events and drama, theatrical action. Thus one of the secondary characters, Cnemon, demonstrates a knowledge of Aristotle’s Poetics when he criticizes an excessive number of episodes: “‘Peace, I pray you’ quoth he ‘and ask me that question no more’. Let us leave that to such as write tragedies. I would not wish at this time to increase your sorrows by repeating mine)” (ibid.: 16). All of the unforeseen events are compared to the device of deus ex machina, and at the end of the novel this very conventional device becomes the truth of life:

[…] the gods liked not the sacrifice you prepared them, who have now at the very altars declared that happy Chariclea is your daughter, and brought him who reared her, as of set intent [in original text: “ταὐτης (…) μηχανῆς” – ex machina (Heliodorus 1856: 411) – V. Z.-Ö.], from the midst of Greece hither. (Heliodorus 1923: 322)

This appears to be a meta-reflection comparing life and art. Not only is art perceived as the reflection of life, but, reciprocally, life is regarded as resembling art.

The Byzantine novel, which borrowed the outlines of story and a number of other structural elements from the Greek novel, also inherited authorial interventions. For example, the novel Hysmine and Hysminias by Eumathios Makrembolites (12th century), as well as the Greek novel Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius (2nd century) from which it is inspired, is written in the first person: the main hero, Hysminias, tells the story of his love to a certain Chariduc who is mentioned only once, at the beginning of the novel. Intrusions from the metanarrative level seek to justify the absence of detail, while a number of them, just as the intrusions by Heliodorus, bring together the story of the hero and the genre of tragedy. As is often the case, meta-reflection increases toward the end of the novel. In the last book it is openly stated that the hero’s narration is sacrifice to the divine: “the good priest says: ‘Maiden, my child, here Apollo grants you freedom and joins you with this beautiful Hysminias, and you do not even want to sacrifice to the god the story of the adversity you’ve overcome so that this tale survives eternity […]?’” (Eustathius Makrembolites 1856: 593–94, my translation – V. Z.-Ö.).

At the end of the novel there occurs a curious meta-reflective paradox. On the one hand, the superiority of life and love over art and narrative having them as subject, is affirmed: “[…] my nuptial festivities were beyond Homer’s eloquence, beyond any Muse, beyond any rhetorically sophisticated oration” (ibid., my translation – V. Z.-Ö.). On the other hand, the necessity of verbal memorial for experience lived by the hero is discussed. In this way, the central question of the metafictional texts is sketched out: the relation between life and art. A purely narrative paradox is also created in the final sentences of the novel. The story is told from the beginning by the hero, Hysminias, but at the end it is said that his story (the one we are reading at this very moment) was supposedly written by “those who come after.” Also manifested there is the instability of the sjužets, which is characteristic of early novels.

Numerous and various authorial intrusions can be found in later Byzantine novels that borrow heavily from folklore sources and are typologically close to the novel of chivalry of Western Europe. This is the case of The Novel of Callimachus and Chrysorrhoas, attributed to Andronikos Komnenos (14th century). Here, the narrator expresses his sentiments explicitly, the story being interrupted over and over again by his agitated exclamations. As in the previous novelistic tradition, the narrator uses the terms of the literary metatext to structure his narrative. He addresses the readers frequently, entirely rejecting the convention of the reader included in the frame of the inner world of the novel, with the extradiegetic reader becoming a constant companion of the narrator. It is to the reader that not only the words of the narrator are addressed in the essential text, but also the titles of the chapters, which are thus metatextualized.

The novel of chivalry in Western Europe, similar to the later Byzantine novel from the typological (and sometimes also genetic) point of view, uses the same devices. The highest degree of authorial presence is achieved in Perceval by Wolfram von Eschenbach (13th century). The narrator paints an image of the supposed reader, reflects on how to conduct his narrative, expresses his opinion on the narrated events and proposes to the reader a supposed translation from another language. Digressions in which the image of the author is portrayed can also be found, and his situation is revealed. Moreover, the narrator evokes other texts and authors, and his attitude is generally ironic with regard to his predecessors. These authorial interventions appear to be much closer to those of modern literature: the former syncretism of the author and the hero practically disappears while the hero is separated from the author and objectified.

On the other hand, there exists in these works an essential difference in relation to metanarration which, in later times, occurs in the context of the three narrative situations identified by Franz K. Stanzel: authorial, first-person and figural. Metafiction in the twentieth century is a phenomenon which, to a large extent, developed in reaction to the predominance of figural narration, where the narrator is apparently eliminated from the inner world of the narrative and the event of narration. However, eidetic poetics has no knowledge of this narrative situation! In this poetics, the narrator’s activity is a constant: the parallelism between author and hero remains and is significant. For example, in Perceval the episode of the hero’s folly of love is accompanied by the following lines:


…und ouch diu strenge minne,

diu mir dicke nimt sinne

unt mir daz herze unsanfte regt.

ach nôt ein wîp an mich legt :

wil si mich alsus twingen

unt selten hilfe bringen,

ich sol sis underziehen

und von ir trôste vliehen.

…und eine strenge Dame, die Liebe nämlich, die oft auch mir die Sinne raubt und mein Herz unruhig pochen läßt.

Ach, mir tut eine Frau Gewalt an! Wenn sie mich immer nur in ihren Fesseln halten will und so wenig Anstalten macht, mich zu erlösen, dann werde ich’s ihr aber zeigen: Ich drehe der Hoffnung den Rücken zu.


(Wolfram von Eschenbach 2003 [1998]: VI. Book, 287, ll. 11–18, p. 291)

[… and a harsh lady who often robs me of my wits and leaves my heart pounding.

Oh, a woman has power over me! If only she would hold me in her shackles and so little do to let me free, then will I show her: I turn my back on hope. (translation – J. Pier)]

It turns out that authorial presence in the inner world of the novel, metanarrative intrusions and the “permeability” of the boundaries between reality and fiction were at this time natural phenomena and not “artificial,” that is to say, played with deliberately in the name of some artistic objective.

The genre of meta-novel (or self-referential novel, self-reflexive novel, novel within the novel, etc.) appears only at the end of the eidetic epoch when the urge to play arises and the relation between art and reality is perceived as problematic and controversial (as in Don Quixote). In other words, metanarration is transformed into metafiction. Up to then, only individual metanarrative devices were possible. Consequently, the meaning and functioning of various narrative phenomena (in this case, metanarration and authorial intrusions) are not the same at different epochs of poetics. The major changes undergone by these phenomena are closely linked to changes in major narrative strategy: they determine this strategy and in turn are determined by it.

Translated from the French by John Pier


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Veronika Zousseva-Özkan 

Doctor of Philology (Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, 2013) and senior fellow with the Department of Modern European and American Literatures at the Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Member of the European Narratology Network (ENN). Research interests: theory of literature, historical poetics, narratology, comparative studies, self-reflexive literature, metanarration and metafiction, genre theory and the meta-novel. Author of two monographs – Poetics of the Meta-novel (“The Gift” by V. Nabokov and “The Counterfeiters” by A. Gide in the Context of Literary Tradition) (2012, in Russian) and Historical Poetics of the Meta-novel (2014, in Russian) – as well as of seventy scientific and critical publications.