Monthly Archives: August 2013

Life is not a narrative, but

the only means we have of describing and understanding life is through narrative. The same is true of history, scientific theory (and studies), and basically everything, no?

Here is a similar statement, expressed rather differently, from Martin Page’s recent novel L’apiculture selon Samuel Beckett (Apiculture according to Samuel Beckett. Editions de l’Olivier, 2013), in which the writer Samuel Beckett is a character. In this novel, “Beckett” says

It’s thanks to an attack that I met Suzanne [Beckett’s real-life life partner], before the war. On the Avenue de la Porte d’Orleans, a man stuck a knife in my breast and Suzanne, who was just getting out of a concert, came to my aid. It made me think about chance and necessary meetings. A knife strike nearly killed me and did, in fact, completely overturn my life. I then understood that Art is also a crime, but a crime against reality. With its incessant transformations, Art recreates the world’s and society’s constitution, just as murder recreates a person’s body. A work of art puts you out of breath, increases your heart rate, changes your relations with forms, colour and sound. It doesn’t change us to the point of killing us. But reality as we knew it hitherto dies, to be replaced by a new reality–more complex, stranger. And more beautiful, too. (Martin Page. L’apiculture selon Samuel Beckett. Paris: L’Olivier, 2013. 85-86. [Passage translated by Daniel Aureliano Newman.)

In this passage, Page’s character Beckett takes up a cause we normally associate with another Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, whose essay “The Decay of Lying” made essentially the same point. Between the lines of Beckett’s words here, though, is a warning that art’s crime against reality is not necessarily a positive protest against the way things are. His phrasing allows us to read the passage also as a warning against the artfully reconstituted “realities” of political or personal opportunism and hatefulness (indeed, he has, in the previous pages, been railing against Fascism). It is, I think, a call to arms about the power of art, including narrative in its manifold forms, both an invitation to use it and a caution against its abuses. In other words, he seems to suggest that art, including the stories (fiction and nonfiction) we tell have consequences in this world, and that we must be careful and responsible storytellers and careful and attentive readers of stories–again, fictional and not.

On that note, I will say goodbye. If you’re so inclined, check out my my new course blog, on literature and film. I have greatly enjoyed our course, intense as it has been, and hope that even if you don’t go on to be a literature student, that the ways that we’ve encountered narratives will serve you in your future studies and lives.

Best of luck on tomorrow’s exam!



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What do you absolutely have to know?

No, this isn’t one of those deep philosophic questions; I’m referring very pragmatically to the upcoming exam. We’ll go over this in detail on Monday, but here are a few things that you must know (and by “know” I mean that you should not only understand the terms, but that you can explain them and use them to make your answers stronger: it’s one thing to know what “third-person narration” is, but a much better thing to be able to talk about some of the implications of third-person versus, say, first-person narration). For definitions, see the Glossary.

Also, best to mention here that I won’t be in the office on Tuesday morning.

Here’s what you absolutely need to know:

– the difference between “story” and “discourse”

– the basic constituent elements of Narrative–the short list of elements that make a text a narrative

-the fact that a narrator is not exactly the same thing as the author, even in autobiographical narratives

– the five or so most common narrative voices. You also have some ability to talk about how a particular voice influences the meaning of a passage/text (it isn’t enough to claim that “voice influences meaning”– this is an empty statement, a truism; you must be able to explain what kind of influence, depending, of course, on the particular passage at hand). Being able to tell apart first- from third-person narration is a basic expectation, as is being able to tell apart very different types of third-person narrators (particularly objective vs omniscient).

– the most used technical terms in the glossary. The more certain technical terms and concepts came up in the lectures and blog-posts, the more likely it is that you will find them useful to know and understand for the exam. To give a quick hypothetical example, you’re far more likely to benefit from understanding what an “intertext” is (it’s a term that’s frequently arisen in class) than a “paratext” (which has never come up in lecture).

Obviously, these are not the only things you need to know, but they are the basic essentials. There are also something things you don’t necessarily have to know. I’m not saying knowing these things can’t be useful; I’m just saying it’s not necessary. You don’t need to know

– any quotations by heart. You can and in some cases must refer to specific instances in a book, story or film, but obviously you’re not expected to be able to quote it exactly. A paraphrase should suffice, or a specific word if that particular word is relevant.

– details like authors’ birth/death dates, place of birth, other works, scandals they were involved in, etc…

– anything about the many texts that I may have mentioned but that weren’t on the syllabus (“Books and Schedule”). Though I often referred to Lolita, for example, you aren’t expected to know anything about it for the exam. As a freebie, you can rest easy that there is nothing on the exam related to the David Eagleman and other time-perception articles, or one the scholarly articles we discussed last week.

– full names or exact spellings. For the passage identifications, you will have to name the author and the title of the work, but as long as these are unambiguously specific and correct, it’s okay if you give only the last name (e.g., “Hemingway” instead of “Ernest Hemingway”), though first name only is a bit more problematic. It’s also okay if you misspell the name or title  somewhat (e.g., “Ondatche” is close enough to “Ondaatje” to be unambiguous, or “Alexi” instead of “Alexie”). Do be careful with the spelling of technical terms, for some misspellings can be confusing or even misleading. For example, writing “vocalization” when you mean “focalization” is likely to be read as a mistake, because “vocalization” seems to refer to the activity of “verbalizing,” which is what the narrator (the “verbalizer”) does, not the “focalizer.”

Best of luck with your studying. Remember that you are encouraged, for Monday, to submit answers to the mock exam questions I posted last week.

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IMPORTANT message concerning the Final Report

If you haven’t yet submitted the Final Report, and if you hadn’t spoken yet to me about it, please contact me by email now.

See you all in the class (regular location) for the exam review on Monday.

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The 10,000 Real Lives of Billy the Kid

So, many of you are probably thinking “what the hell is Michael Ondaatje up to in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid“? In fact, the question might be “what the hell is Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid?” Is it a novel, a book of poems, a biography, or what? The obvious answer is that it’s a bit of all of ’em. Like many other postmodern texts, it’s a self-conscious hybrid of many genres.

The question might now be “why?” Why would someone approach a biography in this way? (For a similar but much more entertaining take on the same problem, you might read Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), which is a novel but also a very unconventional biography of Gustave Flaubert, and a very different side of Barnes.)

To get you started on this question, I’ll quote from one of the two epigraphs from Ondaatje’s later and excellent novel In the Skin of a Lion (1988)–by far my favourite novel about Toronto. Here is the epigraph: “Never again shall a single story be told as if it were the only one.” (John Berger).

This takes us back to one of the fundamental issues that this course has been toying with all along: the fact that our lives are not narratives, but the only way we can understand them is through narrative. It follows that each of us will use different narratives depending on our perspectives, our biases and our proximity to the events we recount. Not only that, we’ll each tell different narratives at different times of our own lives, depending on our changing experience base, on our mood this or that day, on the person to whom we tell our story. Given this perspective, how else could you write a fair biography of Billy the Kid?

Once again, we butt up against the problem at the heart of Thinks…: that pesky issue of subjective experience and objective event, which the novel recounted in various ways. How can we tell the story of a life based only on the unambiguous events of the biographee’s life? And that assumes the events are not in question–which, in the case of Billy the Kid, is a pretty unfair assumption. How can a true biography pass over what makes a person feel like who he or she is–largely subjective states, memories, feelings, impressions, etc? This is, as you’ll recall, the problem Virginia Woolf tried to tackle in so many of her essays, in the short story we read, “An Unwritten Novel” and in her manic novel Orlando: A Biography. Would you think a biography about you would be fair if all it narrated were the events and deeds that make up the actions and happenings of your life?

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I hope you’ve all spent a good, safe long weekend, and that you’re ready for our last week of Narrative.

Remember that Wednesday’s class will be in the Media Commons Theatre once again. It is also the due date for the Final Report.

I’ll be in office hours tomorrow, as will Tom (he’ll be in Rm 711 from 11:00 – 1:00.)

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What the heck do profs and TAs mean when they say “develop your argument” or “delve deeper”?

By far the most common theme in both TAs’ comments on the reports and in my own grading went something like this: “you have good ideas but you need to explain/develop/back up your claims.” What does this mean?

Usually, it means that a good, plausible or intriguing general claim has been made, but that there is little more. Often, after making such a claim, the student moves on to the next point. This is equivalent to a lawyer saying “There’s no way my client is guilty” and saying nothing more about it. In one sense, the most important thing has been said. But obviously it’s not enough to convince a jury.

So the first way to follow a statement, especially an argument like the example above, is to add an initial causal explanation: “There is no way my client is guilty because he was nowhere near the scene of the crime,” for example. This is better, but still not quite enough. The jury will want to see evidence. In court this could be video footage showing the defendant going to an adult movie theatre miles away from the crime-scene (or whatever). In an English paper, the evidence is more usually quoted passages from the text you’re analyzing.

If your claim is a description rather than an argument (for example, “the tone of the passage changes when the first-person narrator becomes a third-person narrator), you can probably skip straight to the evidence. But my specific example here brings me to another point: what does it even mean to say “the tone changes”? Actually, what do I even mean by “tone”? The quotations you choose to back up your claim should be chosen to help you illustrate what you mean by “tone,” which should then allow you to show how different it is in the two versions.

Let’s look briefly at the excerpt from Daisy Miller that we went over in class:

“Take care you don’t hurt your teeth,” he said, paternally.

    “I haven’t got any teeth to hurt. They have all come out. I have only got seven teeth. My mother counted them last night, and one came out right afterward. She said she’d slap me if any more came out. I can’t help it. It’s this old Europe. It’s the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn’t come out. It’s these hotels.” (Henry James. Daisy Miller. New York: Dover, 1995.)


The hypothetical question I asked about this was something like “How does this passage act as a microcosm of the novella as a whole?” Or, more basically, I might ask for a close-reading of this passage and its significance to Daisy Miller generally. If you remember the lecture on Daisy Miller, you’ll remember that one of the main conflicts in the story is the culture clash between Old Europe (who’s mentioned in the excerpt) and Young America. With this general knowledge about the novella, and this specific passage from it, you can begin to build an analysis. (It doesn’t have to be the Young-America/Old-Europe theme; it could be any other aspect of the text.)

Now, this is a good time to remember what I said about narrative in opposition to real life. In narrative, everything means. We might not always know what the meaning of a specific word or allusion is; or we may not care. But everything is always potentially there to aid us in our analysis. This should be welcome news. It means that you get to choose what will serve your argument, and ignore what doesn’t.

Okay, back to the Henry James passage. If we focus on the Young-America/Old-Europe conflict, there are already several avenues we might take: the age difference between Winterbourne and Randolph permits Henry James to rehearse some of the character dynamics we’ll later find between Winterbourne and Daisy. I’m thinking particularly of Winterbourne’s interested but aloof and superior attitude towards Daisy. We see it anticipated in the fact that he speaks “paternally” to Randolph (though he’s hardly old enough to be the boy’s father, and, furthermore, does not know him). And then there’s the issue of losing teeth–a developmental milestone for many children, in many ways the first physical sign of becoming a grown up (it precedes puberty by several years). As Randolph sees it, losing teeth is an effect of leaving America–the land of youth, if we follow the story’s governing allegory; in other words, it’s a traumatic symptom brought about by being in Old Europe. This is effectively what Christine was arguing, most persuasively I think.

Let’s keep pushing on it, though. Now the fact that Mrs. Miller (i.e., Randolph and Daisy’s mother) threatens to slap Randolph if he loses more teeth hints at her naivety. It is a completely powerless threat, but it reveals the extent of her cluelessness about the dangers of the expatriate social scene in Europe. Rather than preparing Randolph for the realities behind his tooth-loss (his growing up, his over-indulging in rock-candy)–that is, rather than helping him cope with the changes of leaving childhood–Mrs. Miller impotently tries to force him to remain a child. This is obviously an overreading of the dialogue with Randolph, but it does seem reasonable to me once we see how well it illuminates not Randolph but Daisy’s situation.

More generally, here’s a reliable trick for testing out whether you might need to say more about your individual claims. It’s reliable, but it only works if you’re ruthless about it. It involves trying out two questions on every claim you make. The first question is “so what?” In the example above, if your claim is that the passage from Daisy Miller is significant because it illustrates the Young America/Old Europe theme, you’d read that claim and then say “so what?” If you find that you haven’t answered that question in the sentence(s) that follows, then you should. This question won’t always make sense, depending on the context, so the alternative question is to ask “what do you mean by that?” The next steps are the same as above. If what follows doesn’t clarify what you meant by your claim, then that is a gap in need of filling. Students often assume that their TAs or profs can follow every step they worked through in the minds as they were writing; but this is a rather unsafe assumption, and it is better to be over-clear than unclear.

This technique is not easy, of course. But it’s relatively straightforward, and if you actually force yourself to do it, it can be very successful. The Final Report is a perfect assignment for putting this technique in practice, and chances are the practice will help with the exam.

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Mock exam questions for practice

As promised in class, here are a few questions of the kind you might encounter in Part III of the exam (Short answer). If you like, answer the question(s) and email me your answer(s) by August 10; and we will discuss it (anonymously) during our exam review on August 12.

I have no particular answer in mind for these, but some of them are obviously more narrow in focus than others. Make sure that your answer engages specifically with the passages provided; that is, make sure to use the text of the passage to back up your claims, either through quotations or through paraphrases.

Length-wise, these short answers should be about a page to a page and a half long handwritten (or, say, half- to three-quarters of a page long typed, single spaced). In your answer, aim to be as relevant to the question and, if applicable, to the passage in question, rather than try to incorporate every possible terms or concept we learned in class.

Question 1. Discuss the following passage from David Lodge’s Thinks… as an exercise in metafiction. What is Lodge saying about his own novel and its goals through his description of Helen’s novel?

“In the first year of the new millennium Helen published a novel which one reviewer described as ‘so old-fashioned in form as to be almost experimental’. It was written in the third person, past tense, which an omniscient and sometimes intrusive narrator. It was set in a not-so-new greenfields university, and entitled Crying is a Puzzler.” (David Lodge. Thinks… Toronto: Penguin, 2002. 340).


Question 2. How do the specific qualities of this narrator affect how we read the following passage?

“He could hardly have said why, but she seemed to him a girl who would never be jealous. At the risk of exciting a somewhat derisive smile on the reader’s part, I may affirm that with regard to the women who had hitherto interested him, it very often seemed to Winterbourne among the possibilities that, given certain contingencies, he should be afraid–literally afraid–of these ladies; he had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller. It must be added that this sentiment was not altogether flattering to Daisy; it was part of his conviction, or rather of his apprehension, that she would prove a very light young person. (Henry James. Daisy Miller. New York: Dover, 1995. 47.)


Question 3. Explain how irony is used in the following passage. Take care to explain both the irony itself, and the technical means by which it is produced.

“Now despite years of steady disarmament they’re all talking about nuclear war again, and more intensely than ever before. I wish I could put their minds at rest. It isn’t going to happen. Come on: imagine the preparations that would be needed. No one’s even started. No one’s ready.” (Martin Amis. Time’s Arrow: or, the Nature of the Offence. Toronto: Penguin, 1991. 90.)


Question 4. Discuss the use and function of anti-plots (plots that undermine masterplots) in either Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”, or Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings”, or the monster’s tale in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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