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On the Valuing of Narratives

ISSUE:  Spring 1997

In Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, Félicité, the perfect servant wending her naive devotion through a fallen world, accompanies Virginie, the beloved daughter of the house, to her first communion. “When it was Virginie’s turn, Félicité leaned forward to see her; and, with the imagination that gives true tenderness, it seemed to her that she herself was the child. The girl’s face became hers, she was clothed in her dress, her heart beat in her breast. At the moment when the mouth opened, shutting her eyes, she almost fainted. Early the next day, she presented herself in the sacristy so that Monsieur the cur´e might give her communion. She received it devoutly, but didn’t taste the same delight.” In our own youths we may read stories the way Félicités enters Virginie’s communion. Later, we stand rather aside: devotion remains, but must keep company with comparison, analysis, and judgment. Our loves now instruct as well as charm. There is not quite the same thrill. Our taste and our valuing are subject to the stages of our lives. We view the process somewhat as Clemenceau is said to have viewed his son’s young communism: were he not a communist at 20 I would disown him; if he is still one at 30 I shall disown him then. This putting away of childish empathy and taking on of mature understanding is sanctioned by Western culture’s belief in the progress of moral growth. We may say: I disliked Middlemarch when I first read it: too much talk, not enough going on, always pointing lessons. Now I love it. Now I know it is literature. Or, adolescent and in the throes of love’s first hopes, I read Sherwood Anderson’s “Sophistication” in Winesburg, Ohio as if the young man’s aspiring intimacy were my own. Now, I know it is a flawed story: a bit easy, sentimental, even flat. Valuing changes; narrative endures our changes.

But in our time the culture along which the various gestures of narrative are strung like genes has fallen into disarray. Once upon a time romance and realism, moral and fantastic drama, had their home in an established curriculum of meaning and evaluation. Literature had its worthy place: a cultural position so sure as to be proof against the vagaries and stages of taste. Because literature expressed, not just one set of acts, ideas, and feelings, but a body of examples of how imagined worlds could serve real life, individual narratives could win favor, be discarded, and be revalued. The relativism of personal reactions could be acknowledged without prejudice to the great general service literary culture performed. But now that all tradition is subject to dissenting scrutiny we become unsure of all justifications. Is there any value beyond a passing empathy or delight? What does it say about literature that narratives become “texts” or that texts are finally neutral shapes like the lines and blots on a Rorschach test? What is meaning if an author can intend one thing and we read something else? Clearly, despite the questioning, literature in general and narrative in particular remain resources. But how does it happen; do both narrative and value alter to fit our present case?

The subject is vast and ungainly. Culture—a word one was once so comfortable with there was no need to define strongly—is declining, or metamorphosing, or dying. Not only the valuing of narrative at large, but the specific significance of such narrative acts as those expressed in voice, time frames, mimesis, conceits, and character are uncertain. If there is no specific agreement, there is surely a loose agreement that the culture of literature is bombarded with what linguists term “noise”: interferences that alter or drown meaning and intentions. A parallel with chaos theories is suggestive. The new science says that the nature of things is not order, not linear, not at all easy to schematize or relate. We are to look anew: to reconsider and reestimate the complex evidence—the individual flaws and local exceptions—that tradition dismissed as simply incidental to cosmic law. Such evidence is now of truth’s essence. We must immerse ourselves in its almost, but never wholly, ungraspable extravagance of information. As N, Katherine Hayles in Chaos Bound and growing numbers of others argue, much recent narrative responds to this evidence. We can, to be sure, point to the tidal influences of modern self-reflexive irony, of surrealism, of science alchemized by artifice, and to the role played by distrust or suspicion. Like variability of response, the manifold reflexes of tradition are standard cultural fare, dismissible variations within a knowable order. But the variations are no longer to be set aside; something about the evidence they provide is crucial. A Calvino, a Pynchon, a magic realist crafts narrative to reflect and respond to the chaos literary culture has become. In extreme form, postmodernism insists that what was once accepted as order now be played out as noise. Randomness, parody, crosscuttings, and games are the realities of telling.


If we are to make some sense of how the noise of telling regroups the values of telling, the idea of translation is a good place to begin. Once we believed that the tones, connotations, uses, and delights of the language we were born to were essential to full communication. Foreign works must be dressed in our language if they were to be accepted in our midst. Accuracy to the tongue that expresses our understanding was more important than a precise rendition of a Plutarch, Cervantes, or Goethe. Precise faithfulness to the letter, were it possible, would be a scholar’s subject, not an imperative of our culture. But when, as now, culture often devolves into cultural studies, the strictest accuracy is needed. And indeed such accuracy as is possible is of no final avail. For the modern study of language tells us that even native words are muffled translations: of observations, of ideas, and of feelings. We live in a perpetual state of translation. Our loves, hopes, stages, and despairs are foreign tongues even to our intimates. As for literature, not only do we not read the same Great Expectations at, say, 18 that we read at 28; no one of us reads the same Great Expectations.The faith that disparate works and readings could merge in a shared culture is taken to be misguided, or worse. So the elusiveness of translation becomes an instance of our condition and a cruel obstacle to our hope of bridging the abyss of difference.

Take Madame Bovary. And pass over our present sense that any work written almost a century and a half ago is, given changes in usage and dispositions, inevitably a translation. Let us dismiss the changes as beside the point and take Flaubert’s French as a living text. Emma, just at the beginning of her relation with Charles, offers him a drink in the farm kitchen. Charles’s wife has died; he is still young; Emma is pretty; the scene is inviting.

Elle alla done chercher dans 1’ armoire une bouteille de curagao, atteignit deux petits verres, emplit 1’ un jusqu’ au bord, versa a peine dans 1’ autre et, après avoir trinqué, le porta à sa bouche. Comme il était presque vide, elle se renversait pour boire; et la tête en arrière, les lèvres avancées, le cou tendu, elle riait de ne rien sentir, tandis que le bout de sa langue, passant entre ses dents fines, léchait à petits coups le fond de verre.

The atmosphere is charged. Is this representation, or is representation serving other intentions, or are both interwound? The cadences, syntax, simplicity, and something else besides shape the scene. How do we translate, how do we receive the content? There are hosts of responses, shelves of commentaries. Both questions and responses assume the value of the cultural enterprise Flaubert, the novel, and the reader engage in.

But now questions are raised about the enterprise and about its true seriousness. There is a fear of slippage that leads us to read the passage with the kind of clenched attention demanded by a Kafka or a Beckett. We turn to translation, not for its gift to those who need it, but for interpretation. We are grateful indeed to Francis Steegmuller for his elegant translation, which tries both to render Flaubert’s tensely ironic evocativeness and to dress the text in our verbal fashions. Yet because a version is an interpretation, our pleasure is touched by suspicion.

She brought a bottle of curaçao from the cupboard, reached to a high shelf for two liqueur glasses, filled one to the brim and poured a few drops in the other. She touched her glass to his and raised it to her mouth. Because it was almost empty she had to bend backwards to be able to drink; and with her head tilted back, her neck and lips outstretched, she began to laugh at tasting nothing; and then the tip of her tongue came out from between her small teeth and began daintily to lick the bottom of the glass. The style is wonderfully simple and sensual. But even a cursory comparison with the original seeds discomfort. Paul de Man, extensively revising Eleanor Marx Aveling’s translation, tries to be more faithful, attempts to minimize the loss involved in translation as interpretation.

So she went to fetch a bottle of curaçao from the cupboard, reached down two small glasses, filled one to the brim, poured scarcely anything into the other, and after having clinked glasses, carried hers to her mouth. As it was almost empty she bent back to drink, her head thrown back, her lips pouting, her neck straining. She laughed at getting none, while with the tip of her tongue passing between her small teeth she licked drop by drop the bottom of the glass.

This may be more precise, but it is inaccurately flat. Certainly, however, both Englishings are worthy and neither is—neither can be—faithful. What Flaubert wrote is held hostage by noise. If the culture through which we value even a noisy Madame Bovary isstrong, we can resist the awareness of deficiency. But present culture is not strong.

And translation—be it from ourselves to others, from one epoch to another, from one language to another—is simply the most obvious interference. What are complex narratives doing, what are they about? What are we reading when we read the curaçao scene? We know by now that the process of narrative has no necessary shape, no once and future truth. Intention and direction are suspicious categories. Style, in both its limited and its expansive application, can be what it can be: a cunning or an artificial frame. Not just chaos theories, but the vehemence of our relativism, would divorce meaning from information. Late surrealism dovetails with a kind of apocalyptic randomness in narratives such as Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which begins with a “Table of Instructions” telling us of the quite different orders that the chapters might follow. Later narrators go even further to cut us off. Traditional reading is left like an addiction being remedied. We profess, “We were slaves to meaning,” and we dearly require help.

So we subject the curaçao scene to our guilty needs. There is a solid ground of description and placing: she goes, she does; there is this armoire, that glass; she tilts, laughs, licks. But then we find the clarity so clear as to be transparent: a purity unable to sustain purpose. Pellucid mimesis opens beyond itself. The simple sensuality of Emma’s licking offers her, and the scene along with her, as a talisman of amatory, arousing dreams. The style becomes a romantic expressionism. Emma serves a platonic idea of tumescent attention. We remember Flaubert’s assertion—an insistence, of course, involved in and sometimes contradicted by other insistences—that he wanted to convey, not Emma’s sad, foreshortened selfhood, but an atmosphere, a tonality: “the dun brown color of a wood louse.” Details and configurations, and feelings too, resonate beyond themselves. But then the data, times, places, and characters defeat any specific representation, defeat empathy. The passage employs its powerful reality to impose eternal shape upon the fluidity of human life and its circumstancings. Emma stands in for the pluperfect benison the Queen of Sheba offers Saint Anthony in Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony: “all the imaginings of desire.” The local occasion falls away. We are in the heavens of romantic essentialism.

Such readings, to be sure, are translations too. My version can be played off against others. Perhaps Flaubert sought the sexual suggestiveness of a nubile everywoman. Perhaps, since the section is loosely held to Charles’s view, we read what he experiences. Perhaps manners, perhaps character, perhaps the platitudes of things, perhaps gender issues, perhaps history in the raw. The text speaks. And for a long time, culture itself in its most flexible sense and value provided interpretations. But we are “against interpretation”; we deny the function. The passage becomes an overload of information. Information streams in. The one scene, after all, must be taken along with the description of the farm in the previous paragraph and the sight of Emma darning and dusting in the next. The narrative begins to take on the nature of noisy complexity. And our intensive analyses come to parallel the phenomenon at the heart of the “uncertainty principle”: we cannot arrive at “truth” because we alter truths by our efforts to extract truth. We enforce irony by our efforts, and our irony entangles Flaubert’s. Multiplicities, confoundings, and mysteries come to preside over, to haunt even, the project of reading. And how then can Madame Bovary be an instrument fit to play cultural value? Certainly, to these questions too, there are responses. But the clamor of questioning sometimes outsounds the answering.


That narrative is in some way or ways essential remains largely unquestioned. But the practice floats free of any shaping cultural necessity. Ironic disjunctions have always both freed and moored novelistic narrative: what is ironizes what can be and is ironized in turn; romance monologues intersect the dialogues of realism; the data of things can turn imagination’s plots to sod. But when these disjunctions are stripped of cultural function, they foster enigma, not within, but alongside narration. The great globe of tellings becomes an arbitrary place in an expanding universe. Doubts about the ability, or the very right, of art to tell create new indeterminacies. A Kafka’s puzzles have unmistakable epistemological weight; the high gaming of a Nabokov or a Cortázar has almost doctrinaire connection with late modernism. But by contrast, much postmodern narrative casts itself as self-generated and contained: as having no purpose, which is to be sure a purpose of a kind.

A new, changeling irony is born. The dilemmas of translation and comprehension, and the issues of evaluation they entail, transform narratives into wonderlands: into games with arbitrary rules and boundaries. There are numbers of examples. A good, if quite moderate one would be the opening of He Who Searches by Luisa Valenzuela, a quite celebrated writer born in Buenos Aires, living in New York, and author of Como en la guerra (As in War), which we read in English as He Who Searches.

Page zero “I wasn’t there. I don’t know anything, I swear I had nothing to do with her.”

“You were seen entering her house late at night. In Barcelona. Twice a week for several months. What were you looking for? Talk!”

“What I know about her can’t be of any interest to you.”

“Shut up, you fag priest, you fruit, you little egghead. Don’t waste our time. Talk.”

An enormous hand approaches his face, about to explode. No, not in a blow, but in a caress on his forehead. When he was little, not today, no.

Nature doesn’t have any giant closeups, so the individual has to choose the perspective that best suits his mood. The individual looks for the big closeup (infinite isolation); he can use mechanical devices or focus his eyes carefully.

Over the course of her short novel Valenzuela’s focus, and the action that moves in and out of it, become clearer. But indeterminacy is fundamental, and the kaleidoscopic revisioning of both subject and telling supplants any relation to a stable, or stably valuable, external structure. There is a goal, a pursuit, a reward. But the fluidity of these alters the nature of the narrative.


Valenzuela’s opening provides a fair sample of postmodern, postcultural telling. Such ventures challenge in often compelling ways. But the largesse of narrative is even more rigidly circumscribed than it has been in the modernist falling out of serious and popular fiction. And much recent narrative would try to avoid this direction. Indeed, there may even be a way to reposition and revalue the art that culture appears to have betrayed. To return to Flaubert. In Madame Bovarythe local and the essential, defective instruments and platonic music, mimesis and pure fabulation are made to converge ironically in a text that is both a novel and the myth of a novel. Flaubert orchestrates Emma’s tunes into the kind of grandeur a Berlioz might attempt. After being jilted by Rodolphe, the vulgar roue she has cast as the truth of love, Emma falls sick, then, transferring her desirings to religion or her sense of it, begins to recover.

As for the memory of Rodolphe, she had placed it in the very depths of her heart; and there it remained, more solemn and motionless than the mummy of a king in an underground vault. A fragrance rose up from this great embalmed love that, permeating everything, perfumed with tenderness the immaculate atmosphere in which she wished to live. When she went on her knees upon her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed the Lord with the same suave words she had once murmured to her lover in the outpourings of adultery.

Flaubert imposes several perspectives: Emma’s own realism, its stylization, and the fragments of a possible romantic myth of perfect homage that play around and off from her. The provincial action hints at an essential telling, a full-throated romance. Realistic metonymy— real details opening the way to greater realities—wraps itself in metaphor—real details of the here and now as vehicles to take us to imagination’s there and then.

When Flaubert uses Emma’s commonplace romances, the fables she lives by, as the botched text of a true essence, he predicts the hopes behind our current valuing of story. The data of dailiness serve a magic that may loft life above prosaic contingencies. Surrounded as we are by platitude, inauthenticity, and disorder—by noise—we may be prone to react to the world as the tone-deaf Rodolphe reacts to the song buried in Emma’s effusions. He hears only clichèd infatuation. But a seemingly reliable narrative voice whispers through the irony that “the fullness of our souls sometimes issues in the emptiest metaphors, since no one of us can give the true measure of our needs, fancies, or pains, and since human speech is like a cracked keyboard on which we beat tunes for bears to dance to instead of melodies that would move the stars.” For numbers of recent writers, story offers the melody that merely actual experience jangles and reduces to a drone.

So we must ask what story in this sense, in this function, can be. Flaubert believed in his art as a process of metaphor. The miserable shortcomings of what is can be redeemed as vehicles of a poetic tenor, just as later, and more radically, Proust’s Marcel discovers in something akin to metaphor the stilts that can lift him above contingent time and the ravaged domain of consciousness. But story in the role I am suggesting does more: it supplies the value once performed by culture. Story is close to myth, but is immanent in our works and days, not transcendent.”There is another world,” Paul Eluard comments somewhere, “but it is in this one.” Like the halo of higher purpose, of a solicitation to non-contingent truth, that surrealists often saw surrounding their common circumstances, story can perform meaning upon, or extract it from, the overloaded data we live in.

In a way, story provides an alternative to the culture of the West as it develops out of Christian reason and the Enlightenment. One strand of our multiculturalism quests for such an alternative. We seek “primitive” medicine to allay sophisticated ills. No wonder then that Ben Okri should receive the Booker Prize, a token of culture as of old, for a work that employs story as its culture. In The Famished Road stories are woven in and out of the pains, deprivations, and bewilderments of the Nigerian boy whose youth Okri tells. Terrible realities become parts of an antiphon and are taken up responsively by the transfigurations of timeless tales. The road entering and exiting the boy’s district becomes like Emma’s lovers both stark fact and the stuff of dream. But unlike Emma’s cheap men, the road is as rich in imagination as it is grueling to live along. The fact enravels and is enraveled by story. Once, the father says, there was the King of the Road.

“For a long time people gave him sacrifices and he allowed them to travel on the roads. The people did not grumble because they found him there when they came into the world. No one knew if he had a wife or not. No one even knew whether he was a man or a woman. He had no children. People believed he had lived for thousands of years and that nothing could kill him and he could never die. And so human beings, because they were afraid of him, fed him for a long time. And because of him, and partly because of other things, a famine started in the world.”

The account, which extends for several pages, counterpoints the story’s resonance and the boy’s experience. Despite the “so” and the “becauses,” this is no myth of origins or of explanation. There is no lesson or paraphrasable meaning. The road in fact and in story occupy the same space, the latter completing the former. Instead of Flaubert’s artificing we are given a value resistant to irony and artfulness: the nature of experience is paradox and dilemma, and the truth is that story can somehow transfigure dilemma and ease paradox.


Culture was expressed through parable. Postmodern tellings refuse the limitation. Story, as such writers as García Márquez, Kundera, Calvino, and Rushdie narrate it, tries to encompass that strange principle, shape, or attraction that chaos theory posits behind the non-linear, non-integral, and non-conformable data that it takes as the nature of life. Hence a work such as García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its coupling of events and sorceries, becomes a compelling model. No matter that the solitude, the butterflies, wars, exploitations, and lives, are far more closely bound to Columbia’s facts than they might seem. The magic outstrips the realism and calls forth from persons, places, and motives a density not unlike that we value in 19th-century multidimensionality. Playing on the shifting fields of selfhood and history, García Márques magic story nurtures intangible exemptions through its stability of telling.

Of the many narratives that join in the celebration of story as value Graham Swift’s Waterland is perhaps the most illuminating. For Swift both tells and shows. The narrative advertises story. The narrator, a history teacher dismissed after decades because his headmaster has no faith in history, because the teacher’s wife has strayed from reality to madness, because even to him history seems a crazy maze, tells stories to his class. His focus is his own life and ancestry, but there is much of history—of the French revolution, of the family beer industry, of the mysterious sex life and spawning patterns of eels, of fires, floods, dikes, and reclamations—and no points to be made, no lessons. The stories are to be their narrator: his facts, his complex and meandering selfhood, and his impasse, richness, and dilemma, which are those of postmodernism. The work begins with a remembered passage from his father’s instructions about life: “whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, [don’t forget that] each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk.” Such platitude, cowled in sentiment, is a strange opening: the lowest, commonest denominator of teaching. Instead of sophistication, we have bare folk wisdom. Which is in part the point, and the theme. Traditional, cultural, narrative has been stripped to this minimum. Fairy-tale words; fairy-tale advice. But we lived in a fairy-tale place. In a lock-keeper’s cottage, by a river, in the middle of the Fens. Far away from the wide world. And my father, who was a superstitious man, liked to do things in such a way as would make them seem magical and occult. . . .[He] had a knack for telling stories. Made-up stories, true stories; soothing stories, warning stories; stories with a moral or with no point at all; believable stories and unbelievable stories; stories which were neither one thing nor the other.

The narrator’s stories about stories will resemble the Fens: lowland covered with chaotic water, drained by human purposes and ingenuities, flooded once more. Water is the reality of things: “Reality’s not strange, not unexpected. . . . Reality is uneventfulness, vacancy, flatness. Reality is that nothing happens.” Reality opposes History, which is a “yarn” told out of our “desire to make things happen. . . . History, the fabrication, the diversion, the reality-obscuring drama.” The narrator, out of the confusions and mischances and hopes of his early life, has cast his lot with “History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of the dark.” He has spent decades teaching this narrative. But now, dismissed and in his fifties, he regales his senior history class with his life’s tales of murder, incest, abortion, madness, extravagances, and melodramas. His stories tell the limits of history as a science, even as a mode. For now he and his class—and particularly the anarchistical nay-saying student Price, founder of a “Holocaust club”—are adrift in history’s wake, bereft survivors of its culture. So, he finds, there is nothing for it but to tell “if only to himself, if only to an audience he is forced to imagine—a story.”

This insistence on story is complexly premeditated. It responds to centuries of challenges to order beginning with the French revolution and ending with the madness of the narrator’s wife and his loss of occupation. Story is to reclaim a value from the chaos and disbelief out of which the rebel Price emerges and for which his nihilism speaks. Price, to be sure, is really a nice boy, a bit in the tradition of Clemenceau’s son who was to outgrow his youthful radicalism. But behind Price the challenge is of the blackness of darkness. The narrative is strong in its ambitions to refute the conclusion to which this blackness—in philosophy, history, science, and all that constitutes traditional meaning—often leads. The stories that compose Waterland may be read as an antidote to the kind of worldview that Jean-Paul Sartre dramatizes in Nausea.The sick state Sartre’s diarist experiences and generalizes from results from the wrenching away of order and purpose: from the denuding discovery that there is no necessity anywhere, that there is only aimless, oceanic being. The diarist has been working on a biography: a project of research and explanation. Suddenly he perceives that data, dates, and the intersecting moods and rationales of letters and journals prove nothing; there is no sum to the random parts. He abandons the work that had provided his days with a focus. There is reality, much as Swift’s narrator will define it. But only reality.

I looked anxiously around me: the present, nothing but the present. Furniture light and solid, rooted in the present, a table, a bed, a closet with a mirror—and me. The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was what exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist. Not at all. Not in things, not even in thoughts.

To insist on the past when there is no past, when history is just information without order or meaning, is to embrace a criminal inauthenticity. History falsifies the human condition. And even falser than history is story, what Sartre’s diarist terms adventure (“I’aventure”). We tell ourselves and our world as stories with beginnings, middles, and purposeful ends. Our tellings are to create islands of order.”But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense.” Stories invent a past and direct it to a future. We feel that those we tell about— ourselves or our heroes—live the details of experience “like annunciations, promises . . .blind and deaf to all that did not herald adventure. . . . I wanted the moments of my life to follow and order themselves like those of a life remembered.” Story-telling is worse than delusion; it is the essence of bad faith. And stories string together the lies that inhere in our attempts to give a kind of structure to continency by naming its components. “Things are divorced from their names.” “I am in the midst of things, nameless things. Alone, without words, defenseless, they surround me, are beneath me, behind me, above me. They demand nothing, they don’t impose themselves: they are there.”

After such knowledge there is nothing but nausea. The terrain of such knowing is the bleakest heart of darkness. It is the reduction of all to a leveling deadness. Yet I would argue that upon this grim ground Swift and the other tellers I have named attempt to erect story. History provides an insufficient, indeed a purblind account of what once was. But there is a past that flows, or to pun upon the name of Swift’s river Ouse, oozes through our present. Story is to build locks upon the flow, to reclaim the land. By sophisticating the old model of stories that keep us alive to tell another tale, to survive another night, story can rescue our past from the impostures of our misspent understanding.”But when the world is about to end,” Swift’s teacher tells us, “there’ll be no more reality, only stories. All there’ll be left to us will be stories. Stories will be our only reality. We’ll sit down, in our shelter, and tell stories to some imaginary Prince Shahriyar, hoping it will never . . .” (Swift’s ellipsis).

From simple story to the grand narrative adventure that a García Màrquez and a Rushdie attempt is a vast and tricky step. Magic after all is sleight-of hand: surely only a seeming antidote to nausea.Waterland, to return to the one example, at times reminds us of the adolescent challenges of the student Price, with his delight in extremity and shock. Yet alongside the callow extravagances are moments of a firm narrative act, of a magic that turns past, present, and future into a real fable: a truth. Flaubert creates poetic amplitude out of shoddy limitations through a kind of metaphor: a leap from here to there. Swift tries to enact story as realistic metonymy once broadened from detail to culture. The value of story is a true dimension of the turbid complexity of our experience. A main strand of Swift’s plot follows from the murder of a boy named Freddie Parr. The boy’s father, a heavy drinking keeper of a railroad crossing, believes his son has drowned when drunk, when following his father’s model. The father goes to sit in suicidal guilt upon the tracks. His wife, seeing him, alerts the dispatcher who reroutes the trains. But Jack Parr doesn’t know.

Thus Jack Parr spent a whole night under the stars—which, according to my father, hang in perpetual suspension because of our sins—stupid with alcohol, waiting for iron-wheeled death which never came. Thus he sat—lay—snored—dreamed. Till he awoke, amidst the twittering of skylarks, to discover that he was not dead but alive and that by his calculation (for Flora Parr said nothing) two passenger trains and three goods had roared over him without leaving a single mark. And thus Jack Parr, who was a superstitious man and that very morning swore to foresake drink, came to believe that God, who sometimes brings about by way of punishment inexplicable cruelties and drowns a man’s own son, also performs inexplicable wonders.

Because, despite everything, despite emptiness, monotony, this Fenland, this palpable earth raised out of the flood by centuries of toil, is a magical, a miraculous land.

It is a good story. Such telling is certainly not unprecedented, indeed is the kind of adventure we often spin out. The motions of feeling alter fact. Data and sentiment compound, collude, and create. But a reclaimed keynote governs the orchestration. Not moral realism of culture and character, not the kind of education through narrative that the Arnoldian tradition believed in, but the magic of story prevails. The specific instance supports the magic. The strange value of telling estranging facets of actuality as story presses beyond words to an authentic music without the falsities of our naming. There is a purpose, but not an end or conclusion that gives arbitrary shape. Story almost becomes a new kin to Schopenhauer’s “Idea,” the pure artifice lofted above the entropic contingencies of mere presentness. Both our realities and our readings may be alienating translations. But the very unlikeliness of story does duty for—and gives value to—our seeming chaos. The culture of story can defy disorder because it is beyond order.”Despite everything,” it is a brave faith.

Works Cited

  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Paris: Editions Garnier, 1955).
  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans, Paul de Man (New York: W.W.Norton, 1965).
  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. , Francis Steegmuller (New York: Random House, 1957).
  • Gustave Flaubert, Trois Contes (Paris: Editions Gamier, 1965).
  • N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990).
  • Ben Okri, The Famished Road (London, Vintage, 1992).
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New Directions, 1959).
  • Graham Swift, Waterland (New York: Poseidon Press, 1983).
  • Luisa Valenzuela, He Who Searches, trans. Helen Lane (Elmwood Park: The Dalkey Archive Press, 1988).

NOTE: Except as noted, all translations from Flaubert are mine.


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