Author: Brand, Philippe
Date published: December 1, 2010
Françoise Revaz. Introduction à la narratologie: Action et narration. Brussels: Groupe De Boeck, 2009. 224 pp. ISBN 978-2-8011-1601-2.
In this introductory work, Françoise Revaz approaches the field of narratology from the dual perspectives of theories of action and of narration, elaborating a framework of narrative categories defined in terms of degrees of narrativity. She then applies that framework to two contemporary examples of narrative production: the novels of the Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint and serialized news reports. Revaz examines how those texts both exploit and subvert traditional narrative strategies, nominating Toussaint's works as an exemplar of the French postmodern novel's "return to narrative" (141), and exploring how serialized news stories narrativize factual news accounts in the desire to capture and sustain their readers' attention.
The book begins with a definition of the concepts of action and event. Revaz notes that from a traditional narratological perspective, narrative is defined as the representation of actions or events, yet the distinction between the two is frequently not considered. In the field of analytic philosophy, on the other hand, action and event are considered to be distinct, with action characterized as a motivated, intentional act performed by a human agent, while event is considered to be an uncontrolled phenomenon subject only to a process of cause and effect. Immediately after positing that tidy definition, however, Revaz points out that matters are frequently more complicated. Many human actions are unintentional or simply the result of an external cause. As Revaz observes, discussions of intentionality and premeditation occur regularly in judicial proceedings, where degrees of motivation are central to the interpretation of guilt. She concludes that rather than conceiving of action and event as dichotomous terms, a more useful model would be a continuum with the terms at opposite poles, so that any given human act could fall somewhere on the horizon between action and event.
In her second chapter, Revaz reminds us that just as descriptions of action can be nuanced by intentionality and thus become closer to event, so can events be described in ways that bring them closer to action. That occurs frequently in myth and in folktales, and Revaz illustrates her argument with a series of four Swiss folktales in which clouds, storms, and other natural phenomena are described as acting with human-like agency. That process is not limited to the realm of literature, however, and Revaz demonstrates with abundant examples how contemporary journalistic accounts of dramatic natural phenomena often allude to "irrational, even supernatural" explanations, as for example when "Mother Nature" is described as "taking vengeance" in retaliation for human-caused climate change (65).
Revaz then turns her attention to the theory of narrative, noting that while narrative is omnipresent, there is no single consensus as to what exactly can be defined as such. She rehearses a variety of debates over the question of what is and what is not narrative, ultimately concluding that while there are no linguistic markers specific to narrative, there are certain semantic properties commonly accepted as indicative of narrative status, namely, a chronological and causally linked representation of actions with an unexpected or atypical development and a transformation between the initial and the final state (100).
Just as the dichotomy between action and event can be resolved through the introduction of degrees of intentionality, Revaz suggests leaving behind the binary definitions of narrative posited by classical narratology in favor of a discussion of degrees of narrati vity. Illustrating her points with a variety of examples, she formulates a framework of three narrative categories - chronicle [chronique], account [relation], and narrative [récit] - arranged in terms of increasing levels of narrativity (104-105). The chronicle, which Revaz describes as a "sort of degree zero of narrativity" (105), is a strictly chronological representation of actions or events. The account builds upon the chronicle, adding an element of causality. Finally, the narrative comprises all the elements of the other two categories, with the addition of a plot consisting of a complication and a denouement.
Revaz selects two domains - one literary and one journalistic - on which to test her theories. The definition of narrative that she has elaborated thus far is fairly canonical, which makes her choice of Jean-Philippe Toussaint rather intriguing. She describes Toussaint as a "postmodern" novelist and a member of a literary avantgarde participating in "the return of narrative" (141). That return is a reaction to the legacy of the French New Novel of the 1950s and 1960s, a literary movement that radically challenged traditional discursive strategies, interrogating conventional notions of plot, character, chronology, and coherence in what Revaz categorizes as an "eclipse of the narrative" (142-43). Toussaint has frequently been characterized as a "minimalist" writer (142), and Revaz examines how that minimalist impulse plays out on the levels of character and plot in Toussaint's novels.
While narrative does make a return in Toussaint's works, Revaz is careful to point out that the nineteenth-century novel - as enshrined by Balzac and critiqued by the New Novel - is no longer the dominant model. Toussaint's first-person narrators are characterized by their indeterminacy, as Toussaint eschews traditional descriptions of the characters' physical qualities and motives. The indeterminate motivation of Toussaint's narrators challenges Revaz's definition of action. She traces the ways in which characters systematically avoid acting, or act without reason or justification, or submit to external events throughout Toussaint's novels. The rare occasions on which the narrators seem to find their motivation occur in settings when they are engaged in play, which takes on a seemingly incommensurate importance. That ludic impulse in turn pervades the level of plot in Toussaint's more recent novels, manifesting itself in parodie, incomplete plots with perpetually deferred denouements. Systematically subverting almost all criteria that Revaz has defined as characteristic of narrative, Toussaint is an engaging test case for her study, as his works suggest that for the avant-garde novel, narrative interest lies elsewhere than in what Revaz has designated as narrativity.
Interestingly, it is in a nonfictional source, the serial news report [feuilleton médiatique], that traditional narrative strategies seem to hold the most sway. While Toussaint's novels refuse to "tell the whole story," challenging the reader's expectations and forcing him or her to look elsewhere for satisfaction, the serial news report struggles mightily to create a coherent, cohesive narrative from what may be a limited assemblage of facts. Serial news reports are crafted in fragments, often in something close to real-time, and typically in ignorance as to how the story will play out. Although those characteristics challenge traditional narratological notions of closure and coherence, that intrinsic incompleteness of action provides a powerful narrative motor, provoking the reader's desire to find out what happens next. The serial news report is simultaneously retrospective and prospective as it seeks to explain what has already happened and to propose various possibilities for how things may progress. Revaz illustrates her discussion of those narrative techniques with copious examples from various Swiss newspapers' coverage of the 2007 America's Cup.
Revaz concludes that the postmodern novel and the serial news report represent "a transformation in the art of storytelling" ( 1 94) . As such, they offer fertile territory for narratological analysis; however, Revaz argues that narratology must expand its purview in order to account for the ways in which those narrative productions challenge traditional narratological assumptions. This text is a valuable contribution to the field of narratology, particularly in the thoroughly illustrated sections on action, narrativity, and the serial news report. The section on Toussaint, however, begins strongly but then ends quite abruptly. While Revaz convincingly demonstrates that Toussaint challenges traditional models of narrativity, her analysis stops there, rather than proposing an alternative model that could account for the narrative appeal of Toussaint's novels. The final section on the serial news report is more compelling, and Revaz makes a strong case for the effectiveness of the narratological framework that she elaborates in the earlier chapters.
University of Colorado
Philippe Brand (email@example.com) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is currently completing his dissertation, entitled "Moving Targets: French Fiction in the Twenty-First Century." His research interests include narratology, experimental fiction, and the return to narrative in the contemporary French novel.