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Metafictional Aspects

Metafictional Aspects of Muriel Spark’s The Comforters, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant Woman, and William Golding’s The Paper Men”

"Metafiction [is] fiction about fiction; or more especially a kind of fiction that openly comments on its own fictional status..., the term is normally used for works that involve a significant degree of self-consciousness... ." (Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms)

"For me, the only fiction that still means something today is that kind of fiction that tries to explore the possibilities of fiction; the kind of fiction that challenges the tradition that governs it; the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in man's imagination and not in man's distorted vision of reality- that reveals man's irrationality rather than man's rationality. This I call SURFICTION". (Raymond Federman in Surfiction)

In his essay "Postmodernism and Contemporary Fiction in Britain", Randall Stevenson expounds the main features of modernism and postmodernism so as to clarify whether postmodernism is an extension of modernism or whether it is a break from it. One of the main features of modernism according to Stevenson is the use of the stream of consciousness technique "to transcribe an inner mental world at the expense of the external social experience most often favoured in the conventional, realistic forms of earlier fiction" (Stevenson "Postmodernism" 19). Another feature of modernism that evolves out of the first is abandoning chronological order, thus "time itself becomes inconceivable in terms of clocks and calendars" (Stevenson "Postmodernism" 20). The third feature according to Stevenson is "an interest in the nature and form of art which occasionally extends, self-reflexively, towards the novel's scrutiny of its own strategies" ("Postmodernism" 20). He argues, however, that it is this third feature that extends into postmodernist fiction and becomes one of its distinguishing hallmarks.

In an attempt to answer the question: "What is postmodern about postmodenist fiction?", John Mephan points out that there could be four kinds of answer. The first is historical, the second philosophical, the third ideological, while the fourth could be defined in terms of textual strategies which it employs (138). He explains:

These strategies are designed to foreground the textuality of the fiction ( 'metafictional' strategies), to force constant reinterpretation by 'reframing', or to generate multiple ontologies, a plurality of worlds. Such strategies and their variants have a long history in both literary and philosophical fictions, and it is difficult to sustain the idea that they are characteristically 'postmodern'. ( 139)

In his essay "Scheherezade runs out of plots, goes on talking; the King, puzzled, listens", in Bradbury's The Novel Today (1977), Philip Stevick expresses his dislike of the new term and concludes his essay with the following assumption:

New fiction can be differentiated from old on the basis of its fabulation, its willingness to allow the compositional act a self-conscious prominence and to invest that act with love, a sense of game, invention for its own sake, joy. (216)

Stevick here is talking about "metafiction", i.e. fiction about the process of fictionalising (Clayton 770).

The term 'metaficion' refers to fiction that manifest a reflexive tendency, such as Vladimir Nabokov'sPale Fire (1962) and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant Woman (1969). The emphasis is on the loosening of the work's illusion of reality to expose the reality of its illusion. Such terms as 'irrealism', 'postmodernist fiction', 'antifiction', and 'surfiction' are also used to refer to this type of fiction ( Magill 2811).

As Stevenson argues, it is the self-reflexive attitude of the novelist that extends from modernism to postmodernism. One may hasten to add that this feature had its roots in the traditional novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Joseph Andrews (1742), for example, Henry Fielding pauses in the middle of the narrative and gives three prefatory essays to explain his technique. In Chapter 1 of Book III he announces: " I describe not men, but manners, not an individual, but a species" (185). More than a century later, George Eliot interrupted her narration in Adam Bede (1859) to explain her moral attitude, her sense of realism, and her search for truth. She declares in Chapter 17: "I aspire to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind" (221). This reflexive attitude of the novelist is elaborated in modernist and epecially in postmodernist literature and has become one of the features of metafiction, a term invented to describe the new fiction. In his book A Concise Glossary, J. Hawthorne explains that the term literally means "fiction about fiction" (104).

In her first novel, The Comforters (1957), Muriel Spark (1918- ) employs a new technique to present her story. One of her characters, Caroline, was feeling depressed because, like her author, she had lately been converted to Catholicism:

She lay on her divan staring out at the night sky beyond her balcony, too tired to draw the curtains. She was warmed by the knowledge that Laurence was near to hand, wanting to speak to her. She could rely on him to take her side, should there be any difficulty with Helena over her rapid departure from St. Philumena’s. on the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.

Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. (41-2).

Caroline Rose, the protagonist of the novel, is not aware that she is herself a character in a novel. Only later do we understand, at the moment she herself realises this fact, that she is also a novelist or thenovelist and she is writing a novel about a novelist... etc. Three strands are woven together here, Spark-cum-character hallucination due to religious conversion finds means of expression in a work of art which serves as a catharsis for pent up emotions. The second strand involves the art of writing a novel and how a novelist can turn real experiences into fiction and consequently the writer has used third person narration instead of first person, even when Caroline hears the voices that denote the composition of the novel about herself turning her impressions into third person. She expresses her astonishment to her boyfriend when she hears "Caroline wondered" (433), instead of "I wonder". The third strand woven here is the self-reflexive attitude of both Muriel Spark herself and Caroline Rose.

This is a good example of 'metafiction'. The novelist is self-reflexive since she is writing about a character who represents her in a way; moreover, the character herself, i.e. Caroline, is aware that she is a character in a novel. In an interview with Frank Kermode, Muriel Spark talks about her first novel:

I was asked to write a novel, and I didn't think much of novels- I thought it was an inferior way of writing. So I wrote a novel to work out the technique first, to sort of make it all right with myself to write a novel at all- a novel about writing a novel, about writing a novel sort of thing... . (132)

The Comforters was written soon after Spark's conversion to Catholicism, and perhaps because of it. Like her created protagonist, Spark used to experience phases of hallucination and was greatly confused and miserable because of the new faith. At the very beginning of the novel, Caroline feels miserable and so she is sent to "some religious place" by Helena, her boyfriend's mother who is a staunch Catholic. Caroline is unconsoled and rejects the quiet asylum at St. Philumena. Back home while expecting a phone call from her boyfriend, she hears voices:

Tap-tappity-tap; the typewriter. And again, the voices... The chanting reached her as she returned to her room, with these words exactly:

What on earth are they up to at this time of night? Caroline wondered. But what worried her were the words they had used, coinciding so exactly with her own thoughts. (43)

Caroline's hallucinations continue and her friends think she is insane before she discovers she is a character in a novel and decides "to stand aside and see if the novel has any real form apart from this artificial plot. I happen to be a Christian" (117).

Apart from the irony involved in the statement "I happen to be a Christian", Caroline reflects the self-conscious attitude of authors of metafiction and echoes Muriel Spark when she interrupts the narrative to declare:

At this poin in the narrative, it might be well to state that the characters in this novel are all fictitious, and do not refer to any living persons whatsoever. (74)

This is an instance which show how Muriel Spark, intentionally perhaps, abandons or confuse the roles of diegesis and mimesis in her fiction. Hawthorne explains that traditionally "diegesis stands for those cases where the poet himself is the speaker and does not wish to suggest otherwise, and mimesis stands for those cases in which the poet attempts to create the illusion that it is not he who is speaking" (41). In metafiction, Hawthorne points out that "metafiction typically involves games in which levels of narrative reality (and the reader's perception of them) are confused, or in which traditional realist conventions governing the separation of mimetic and diegetic elements are fouted and thwarted" (104).

Does Spark simply narrate the events of the novel herself? In such case it would be a form of diegesis. Or are the events dramatised through Caroline's eyes? In this case it would be a form of mimesis or representation. As a matter of fact, the events are given through both Spark and Caroline Rose, the fact which causes confusion. Such a confusion is expected and even accepted in meta-narratives, as Federman points out in his article "Fiction Today" where he maintains that one of the controversial issues arising out "about new (innovative) fiction, versus old (traditional) fiction is the problem ofREPRESENTATION- the relationship of fiction to reality and life: MIMESIS" ( in Surfiction 292). In another article, "Surfiction", Federman justifies and defends the confusion by arguing that:

If life and fiction are no longer distinuishable one from the other, nor complementary to one another, and if we agree that life is never linear, that, infact, life is chaos because is never experience in a straight, chronological line, the, similarly, linear and orderly narration is no longer possible. ( In Surfiction 10)

Spark is experimenting with the form of the novel: she accepts her new faith and decides to write a novel "about characters in a novel" (231). Caroline, then, is a projection of Muriel Spark herself who wanted to reach the truth, as she tells Kermode:

I don't claim that my novels are truth- I claim that they are fiction, out of which a kind of truth emerges. And I keep in my mind specifically that what I am writing is fiction because I am interested in truth- absolute truth- and I don't pretend that what I'm writing is more than an imaginative extension of the truth- something inventive. (133)

One tends to agree with Kermode when he comments on what Spark means with 'absolute truth' here. He says "For Mrs Spark the novel is true because it happens in the author's mind as he writes; in this sense it is a completely accurate transcript of events, and as an account of character not to be faulted" (134). In this she owes a great debt to her ancestor, George Eliot, who wanted to achieve truth, though hard, and told her readers:

Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings- much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth. (Adam Bede 223)

Commenting on Muriel Spark's assertion that she is writing fiction because she is intereste in truth, Norman Page (in his book Muriel Spark) poses the question: "how can fiction, which is by definition a kind of lying, tell truths?" (11). He immediately suggests an answer: "One of the ways is by making no secret of its own fictionality, and this is one of the respects in which The Comforters both presage many of its successors and differs from most English novels of its period" (11).

On the other hand, David Lodge in his essay "The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience" believes that "the prophetic glimpses of the future fate of her characters which are one of the distinctive features of Mrs Spark's narrative method do not serve the purposes of a pat moralism or a reassuring providential pattern" (122). Furthermore, he blames Spark because she "uses the privilege of authorial omniscience to 'give away' in advance the surprises and reversals of her plots, and admits into the latter a degree of what ... looks like calculated irrelevance" (123). Lodge's accusation refers mainly to Spark's interest in abandoning chronological order and revealing the end of the novel at the beginning which puts an end to the sense of suspense required in a traditional novel. In fact, this "privilege of authorial omniscience" is very slight in a good number of her novels, (hardly in The Comforters at all), and indeed when she resorts to it, she does not "give away" the surprises of her plots. The truth of the matter is that in postmodernist fiction the emphasis has shifted from the story as such to the technique employed, to word play and to "games" of narration.

When Caroline Rose was away in Worcestershire writing her novel, her boyfriend Laurence Manders, BBC sports commentator, went to her flat at Crewe in London to collect some books for her. There, he found an enormous amount of notes she has written for her novel, in addition to other personal assorted possessions. He sat down at her desk and wrote her a long letter intending to send it to her, but, on second thoughts, he changed his mind:

His letter [he thought] had failed to express his objections. He took it out of his pocket and tore it up into small pieces, scattering them over the Heath where the wind bore them away. He saw the bits of paper come to rest, some on the scrubby ground, some among the deep march weeds, and one piece on a thorn-bush; and he did not then foreseehis later wonder with a curious rejoicing, how the letter had got into the book. (233)

In the novel which is supposed to be written by Caroline Rose, the letter of Laurence Manders is reconstructe- out of what? Caroline has never seen such a letter, and her boyfriend expresses his great surprise which confirms that he has not told her about it. Spark gives an example here of the kind of "truth" she is concerned with, i.e. fictional truth based on a writer's imagination or fantasy. Commenting on this situation, Alan Bold says: "This ultimate twist completes the teasing of the reader who has been seduced into believing a story eventually exposed as a structure supporting a fictional fantasy" (Muriel Spark 34). yet, Bold agrees that the fiction has an epistemological validity in conveying a kind of truth, as Spark claims. The reflection of pure unadulterated facts is difficult to achieve. Caroline find great difficulty when she starts writing her chapter on realism. The novelist is not a reporter but a creative writer whose revelations are not verbatim. They follow a figment of his/her own imagination or the flight of his/her fancy. In this regard, Federman points out the difference between the traditional novel and the new fiction:

If the traditional novel wanted the reader to believe in the credibility of its story, its reality, and its people, the new fiction denounces the fraudulence of the mechanism which permitted the reader to suspend disbelief. The new fiction points to its own fictionality- it calls its people what they are: WORD/BEINGS. It calls itself a book. ("Fiction Today" inSurfiction 308)

Spark's early sense that the novel is inferior leads her to innovate and she breaks out of the establised conventions of realism. John Fowles (1926- ) did the same thing when he wrote his first novel, TheCollector (1963), which can be considered a study in psychology. The novel deals with the "theme of possession and enchantment, the obscure object of desire and the enigmatic symbol" (Bradbury in The Modern British Novel 335). Like Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet (1957- 1960), the incidents in the Collector are narrated by more than one person from different perspective. Again, Fowles depends more on mimesis than diegesis as each of the two protagonists expresses his or her point of view. It could be describe as a journey within the self, where on the surface only few things actually happen, whereas the whole world changes within. A young clerk, Frederich Clegg, turns out to be and entomologist who is obsessivel intereste in differen species of butterflies. His best time.