Fiction without Narrative

by Mark Wallace

Probably the most exhaustive attempt to provide a structuralist account of narrative is Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse, trans. by Jane E. Lewin (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1980). As the name doesn’t suggest, the subject of this book is Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, but the intent of the book is to a large extent methodological. Genette is careful, though, to make in his preface the “liberal humanist” point that A la recherche has its own “specificity”, but adds “that specificity is not undecomposable, and each of its analyzable features lends itself to some connection, comparison, or putting into perspective” (22-23). Thus he’s much less militant than some of his structuralist predecessors. He is by no means at war with Liberal Humanism/ New Criticism, or even notions of canonicity, offering them a sort of rapprochement with theoretical approaches.

Given that Genette is developing his entire theory almost exclusively out of one book, the general applicability of it is not likely to be demonstrated with Narrative Discourse itself. But let’s look at his chapter on duration. As usual, he’s helpfully schematic here. Narrative has basically four options with regard to duration of related events: summary, descriptive pause, ellipsis, and scene. Unlike many of Genette’s technical terms, these four are more or less self-explanatory. Ellipsis is the most questionable, as by its nature it has no narrative duration at all, so, narratively, one could argue it doesn’t actually exist. This is certainly true of his third type of ellipsis: hypothetical ellipsis (the others are characterized ellipsis and implicit ellipsis). This type is “impossible to localize,even sometimes impossible to place in any spot at all, and revealed after the event” (109). What I think Genette is doing here is mapping empirical reality onto a fictional text. If in real life a certain period has elapsed, we know any given person was somewhere, doing something, in that time. If we don’t know what, we have an ellipsis in their history. But there is no reason for fiction to work like that. “Time” in a narrative doesn’t go by the gregorian or any other calender, nor does it go at all. But this mapping of reality onto narrative is common in Narrative Discourse, though Genette never acknowledges that that’s what he’s doing when he invents an abstract schema based on realistic time- and event-sequences from which the plot of the book emerges. The fact he doesn’t even seem to notice it is perhaps proof that it is impossible not to read a narrative as being in some sense representational, as having some relationship to empirical reality, even if a different one to a “true” story.

But Genette’s categories are also incomplete, at least when we try them against a narrative, even a short one. Maybe they worked for A la recherche, I don’t know it well enough to say. But a problem is perhaps signalled when Genetter refers without explanation to “extranarrative elements” (95), meaning that his list of narrative elements doesn’t cover all the elements of a narrative. And he’s right. It doesn’t. I’ll go again to my go-to: Sherlock Holmes. The opening of the first of the short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia“:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

Now, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is a narrative, a succession of fictitious events causally connected. But what is this paragraph? It’s not an ellipsis, obviously, because if it was it wouldn’t exist. It’s not a scene, either, because it isn’t given a setting or any action or dialogue; it’s not a descriptive pause for the same reason. It is a summary, in a sense, Genette’s fourth mode, but it’s not a summary in the Gennettian sense, because it cannot be temporally placed. For Genette, all narrative events have duration, so what does not have duration must be “extranarrative”. These elements, it would appear, are often of the nature of reflections, reflections on a time past, on a character, on a mood, on a setting. Here it is a reflection on a character. Temporally, this reflection is obviously taking place after the events that are about to be narrated. But when is this after, when is the moment of narration? This we don’t know. But even then, we can’t allow the moment of narration to be the moment when any given thing narrated takes place, or all the narrative would take place when it is narrated, but narratologists like Genette don’t accept that. But while the time of the events is necessarily past, the time of the reflection – the time of the narration – is not simply past, not coterminous with the narrative. Rather, it stands outside of diegetic time.

The narrator, Watson, in the example shown is basing his reflection on a lifetime’s acquaintance with Holmes, with special (but certainly not exclusive) reference to the time Holmes met and engaged in a battle of wills and intelligences with Miss Irene Adler. This reflection is as canonical, as important in readings of Holmes, as anything within the narration proper. It is inflected subsequent depictions of the character such that, even now, the idea of a Holmes  who permits the “softer passions” is near unthinkable. Just watch Sherlock (2010- ) and Elementary (2012- ), and the character’s aromantic, asexual and unemotional sides are constantly foregrounded. Narrative without post-facto reflection on the part of the narrator is rare, and the task of narrative theory should surely be to incorporate such reflection. How much of the pleasure of reading comes from this voice, recounting not events, but wisdom, the fruits of thought and engagement.

Fiction always has a narrative in there, but it is something more as well, and can dispense with narrative temporarily to engage readers in another way, as Doyle does. He offers both a warm, relatable voice (Watson’s) and a compelling subject (Holmes). This hooks us before the narrative even enters. And the compelling nature of Holmes brings us to another element curiously absent in Genette and many structuralist/ narratologist theorists: character. Genette makes no allowance for character except as voice, and this only covers the narrator. So how would he analyze the Holmes stories? He would find it difficult to bring in Holmes, as a non-narrating character, using his methodology. But it is clear from the historical and current reception of the Holmes stories that it is precisely the character who fascinates. The character and the dynamic with John Watson: admiring and perplexed by his genius friend. This admiration and perplexity is not diegetically temporal. It is right through the stories, weaving in and out, and creating a timeless (in two senses) effect.