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The Distinction of Fiction.

Dorrit Cohn. The Distinction of Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. ix + 197 pp. $42.00 cloth.

In The Distinction of Fiction Dorrit Cohn argues that fiction includes signposts that identify it as fiction. Drawing upon theoretical models developed primarily by Kate Hamburger (for third-person narratives) and Philippe Lejeune (for first-person narratives), Cohn offers often brilliant analyses of canonical narratives by Proust, Mann, Tolstoy, and Freud, and of more recent narratives by Wolfgang Hildesheimer, J. M. Coetzee, and others. Never oversimplifying either her categories or her tools for differentiating among them, Cohn often chooses to examine borderline cases: narratives positioned at the boundary between the referential and the nonreferential.

Cohn is professor emerita of German and Comparative Literature at Harvard University and the author of Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (1978). In this earlier book, which is an essential text in the field of narrative studies, Cohn analyzes and categorizes the techniques for representing consciousness that fiction writers used and developed during the nineteenth century and into the second half of the twentieth century. In her new book, which is a collection of ten related essays, she distinguishes the techniques for representing consciousness (along with other primarily linguistic phenomena) that are generally seen only in fictional narratives from those that are commonly Found in referential discourse. Her aim is "to show that fictional narrative is unique in its potential for crafting a self-enclosed universe ruled by formal patterns that are ruled out in all other orders of discourse. This singularity ... depends on differences that can be precisely identified a nd systematically examined" (vii).

To demonstrate her theoretical approach and to present a sample of the detailed readings of specific passages that in this book as in her other work are one of Cohn's great strengths, I summarize at some length chapter 2, "Fictional versus Historical Lives," which presents the most systematic model the book offers. Cohn limits the topic in this chapter to narratives that center on individual lives, and then subdivides the field by distinguishing between historical and fictional, and between first- and third-person narratives, thereby establishing four categories:(1) autobiography and (2) its fictional counterpart (e.g., a first-person autodiegetic account of a fictional life), (3) biography, and (4) its fictional counterpart (e.g., a third-person heterodiegetic account of a fictional life). (The numbers are mine and do not indicate hierarchy.) The methods by which Cohn distinguishes between historical and fictional accounts are different for third-person and for first-person narratives--necessarily different , she claims, probably correctly.

For third-person narratives Cohn relies heavily on Hamburger's idea, which Cohn introduced already in Transparent Minds, that the representation of consciousness is an identifying sign of a fictional narrative. Theorists prior to Hamburger understood that fiction can represent a character's subjective perspective (think, for example, of James's "central consciousness"). But Hamburger, according to Cohn, was the first to recognize, in Cohn's words, that "psychic omniscience [a narrator's knowledge of a character's consciousness] is not a narrative type or mode or device or technique, but the pivotal structural norm that rules the realm of third-person fiction and that is logically ruled out in all other discursive realms" (25, Cohn's italics). A description of the contents of a character's consciousness is the signpost of fictionality that Cohn differentiates most clearly, and probably the one she considers that readers most readily perceive. Citing an example of psychic omniscience (a passage from Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyitch in which the protagonist's thoughts and feelings as he is dying are revealed), Cohn comments: "A competent reader of fiction ... understands the author to be communicating to his reader a fictional narrative about the death of an imaginary person" (21).

But Cohn also distinguishes other, more subtle signposts. Temporal disjunctures, she notes, become possible whenever a discourse represents the perspective of a character who is referred to as "she" or "he"; verbs in a past tense in the reporting discourse may contradict adverbs that represent time in relation to the character's temporal position. Cohn gives as an example: "Now was his last chance to see her; his plane left tomorrow" (24). Here too Cohn credits Hamburger for recognizing the distinction: "a sentence of this type epitomizes for Hamburger the deviance of a language that creates the reality of unreal, imaginary beings" (25). Cohn continues, "When we read such sentences in a novel, they strike us as perfectly logical--or better, they don't strike us at all." Although I agree both that the construction is amazing and that readers of novels easily pass over it, the idea of a signpost that is not seen exemplifies a recurring problem for this reviewer. Without meaning to carp about what kind of reade r Cohn envisions, I wish that she had more clearly specified, here and throughout the book, whether--and to what degree--she assumes that the signposts she so brilliantly perceives herself are visible to other readers.

Cohn demonstrates in convincing detail, however, her thesis (and Hamburger's) that third-person "fiction is recognized as fiction only if and when it actualizes its focalizing potential [its potential to represent a character's consciousness]" (25). She is careful to admit that signposts of fictionality are not to be found in every sentence of every novel. Moreover she knows where they are apt to be, and tells us where to look for them. Often the beginnings of traditional novels, she perceives, "read like various types of nonfictional discourse, including biography, of course, so that their move in and into the subjectivity of the protagonist is variously deferred" (25-26, her italics). In some instances, she discerns, "the open mind of a character is suddenly closed off at critical junctures of his life"; her example in this instance is Dostoevsky, who, "in striking contrast to Tolstoy, never depicts his characters' deaths from within" (26).

In distinguishing third-person fiction from biography, Cohn makes us understand that biographers too are "concerned with [their] subject's mental actions and reactions. The question is not whether but how [they] will express these concerns" (26, her italics). She recognizes that "[t]he line that separates historiographically legitimate from 'illicit' (fictionlike) practices ... hinges on subtle technical differentiations" (26). Analyzing biographers' use of "conjectural and inferential syntax" (27)--e.g., passages introduced by the word "perhaps"; use of the "must-have" construction--she discerns that because a scrupulous biographer will "resist, above all, lapsing into free indirect style [t]he result is usually a highly heterogeneous textual surface that cannot readily be mistaken for the homogeneously omniscient inside views ruling third-person novels" (27-28). In summation, when distinguishing between third-person accounts of fictional versus historical lives, while Cohn relies largely on Hamburger's mod el she validates its significance through her own extraordinary skill in perceiving correlations between the syntax of a given passage and its epistemological implications.

Turning to first-person accounts of lives, Cohn follows Lejeune in basing her distinction between an autobiography and a first-person autodiegetic account of a fictional life "on the ontological status of its speaker--by which I mean his identity or nonidentity with the author in whose name the narrative has been published" (31-32). Like Lejeune, she adopts as the sign of autobiography the identity of the name of the author, the narrator, and the protagonist; in Lejeune's words, "[t]he autobiographical pact is the affirmation in the text of this identity" (14). For fiction told in the first person, Cohn sees as the essential feature "the creation of an imaginary speaker" (32). Then Cohn makes a crucial new theoretical move, proposing that "all fictional autobiographies offer a telescoped double pact: an autobiographical pact impacted within a fictional pact" (33, her italics).

This "literally equivocal origin" (33) of the discourse shapes readers' experience, as she demonstrates by comparing Rousseau's autobiographical Confessions to the fictional Michel's confessions in Gide's The Immoralist. When reading Rousseau's autobiography, a reader "has no choice but to refer all the telltale evidence of self-deception to Rousseau himself, thereby subverting his explicit authorial intentions, his authority as self-narrator" (33). Readers of The Immoralist, on the other hand, who see in Michel's confessions "incongruities, gaps, over- and under-emphases [that] reveal the speaker's self-delusion [have] every right to assume they are clues intentionally planted there by the author. Gide's recit in other words, tells a different story from the one his narrator tells" (33). In distinguishing autobiography from autodiegetic fiction, Cohn's own theoretical move is enhanced and supported by her astute interpretive skills.

Throughout the book Cohn's readings are always informative, but the book is uneven; some chapters are more rewarding than others. The conjunction she explores between fictionality and the representation of consciousness provides a connecting thread that runs through the entire volume. But her findings, in each of the parameters she addresses, are never assembled where they can be seen together, which would permit one to gauge their value in combination as a set of strategies for readers to use to distinguish fictional from nonfictional narratives. Perhaps a list, for instance, of differentiating features would imply a firmer line of demarcation than Cohn perceives, or that can yet be described, and she is wise not to give it to us. But the lack is all the more regrettable because her individual findings are so very convincing. Or perhaps one should not expect a higher-level organization, in a book in which eight of the ten chapters were initially published as self-contained articles, between 1983 and 1996, a nd in which just over thirty pages of new text has been added.

In chapter 1, which is new, Cohn addresses the many meanings of the term "fiction." Chapter 2, which is the first of two primarily theoretical chapters, is followed by illustrative studies of representations of lives: Freud's case histories (chapter 3), the "life" of Proust's Marcel (chapter 4, my favorite chapter), Hildesheimer's "biography" of the fictional character Marbot (chapter 5), firstperson fiction narrated in the present tense--where the apparently synchronous language and event produce an epistemological uneasiness (chapter 6).

In chapter 7, which is the second of the theoretical chapters, Cohn studies narratives, without restricting her field to representations of an individual life, concentrating on three issues (my summaries are very brief and necessarily incomplete). (I) She shows that the centrality to fiction of the representation of consciousness produces global identifying features, among them "the prevalence of summary over scene in historical narration" (121), and, in contrast, a lingering over scene in some fictional narratives. "No history of early twentieth-century Dublin swells discourse time over story time in the manner of Ulysses" (116), she says. (2) The distinction she makes in chapter 2 between the single speaker in an autobiography and the equivocal origin of the voice in first-person autodiegetic fiction, with the different readings that the two patterns authorize, has a parallel in the broader schema: "the severance of normatively vocal narrators from their authors ... is one of the factors that makes the rea ding of fictional narratives a qualitatively different experience from the reading of univocally authored narratives[;] it burdens its performance with a uniquely stressful interpretive freedom" (130). (3) In the only theoretical move she makes with which I strongly disagree, Cohn debates the relevance of a story-discourse model to accounts of events in our world (110-17, 130), seemingly without realizing that story and discourse are the inseparable parts of a sign which, like the verbal sign created by the union of signifier and signified, may or may not refer to objects or events in our world.

Some of these ideas are illustrated in chapter 8, where she considers Mann's Death in Venice, and in chapter 9, which is previously unpublished, where she offers an analysis of Tolstoy's famous representation of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace. In chapter 10 she argues against critics who have equated the power Michel Foucault discerns in panoptic vision (the power of the perceiver over the perceived, where both exist--she emphasizes--at the same ontological level) to the power of the "omniscient" narrator over characters (where either an author or a heterodiegetic narrator who is nominally creating the story he is telling necessarily exists at a different ontological level than the characters).

The constellation of theorists whom Cohn cites most often and credits as having "nourished [her] own thinking" (viii), includes, in addition to Hamburger and Lejeune, Gerard Genette, whose work is upon occasion closely interrelated with Cohn's. Hamburger's The Logic of Literature, published in German in 1957 and in a revised edition in 1968, appeared in English translation in 1973, in French translation with a preface by Genette in 1986, and again in English translation in 1993, this time with Genette's preface added, translated into English by Cohn. In his article "Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative," Genette follows the pattern he used in narrative Discourse, where he successively addresses questions of order, speed, frequency, mood, and voice, to provide an account--a more systematic account than Cohn's--of the parameters in narrative where differences between fictional and factual narratives can appear.

But the strength of Cohn's work lies less in the models she offers than in the details, to which she teaches us to pay attention. In his review of Transparent Minds, Brian MeHale says that Cohn is "throughout more attentive to the messy contingency of actual phenomena than to the elegance of her model; as a result her practical analyses of passages are uniformly excellent" (190). His comments apply to this book as well. If the signposts she identifies do not occur on every page of every narrative, and thus do not enable us to ascertain with assurance in every case whether we are reading a representation of historical or fictional lives, Cohn's tutelage undoubtedly heightens a reader's sensitivity to the issue. No one who has read this intelligent book can thereafter blithely assume that there are no differences in the words and syntax writers use to represent historical and fictional lives. These essays are necessary reading for anyone who is interested in narrative studies, in representations of consciousne ss, or in the relations between representations of fictional events and of events in our world.

Emma Kafalenos, who teaches comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, has published articles on narrative theory in journals including Narrative, Poetics Today, and Comparative Literature.

Other Works Cited

Genette, Gerard. "Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative." Trans. Nitsa Ben-An, with Brian McHale. Poetics Today 11(1990): 755-74.

Lejeune, Philippe. "The Autobiographical Pact." 1975. Trans. Katherine Leary. On Autobiography. By Lejeune. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. 3-30.

McHale, Brian. "Islands in the Stream of Consciousness: Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds." Poetics Today 2 (1981): 183-91.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kafalenos, Emma
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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