Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Jonas Grethlein, Antonios Rengakos (ed.), Narratology and Interpretation: The Content of Narrative Form in Ancient Literature. Trends in Classics - Supplementary Volumes 4. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. vii, 630. ISBN 9783110214529. $140.00.
Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge

[Authors and titles of chapters are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a very long book, but its frustrations are not connected to its length. It will come as no surprise, even to the editors, I suspect, that the volume contains work of very different levels of methodological sophistication and insight of reading--but its frustrations do not stem from this unevenness. In as much as the editors articulate an agenda for the project, a surprising number of the chapters simply ignore the agenda--but even this is not the source of my frustration. Rather, the frustration comes from the systematic unwillingness of so many of the authors to engage with the fundamental questions that the title of the book promises--and which the editors and some of the chapters at least begin to articulate.

Narratology as a field was outlined by some ground-breaking work by Gerard Genette in the 1970s, taken up and extended by Mieke Bal in Amsterdam, and then by a string of American theorists, especially after Genette was translated into English in the 1980s. As a technique, it is best seen as a characteristic strand of the drive, led by structuralism, towards a science of literary analysis. Irene de Jong, Mieke Bal's student and the best-known exponent of the technique in classical literary studies (though the earlier work of Massimo Fusillo is to my mind certainly as instructive), restates in this book the claims for narratology in characteristic style: narratology "allow[s] us to analyze literary texts in clear and unequivocal terms, much as linguists are wont to proceed, or heuristically to open up new roads of interpretation" (87). The promise is clarity, precision and an analysis that avoids the mess of affective, ideological, subjective interpretation. It is a heuristic tool to open new roads of interpretation. Jonas Grethlein, one of the most theoretically smart scholars working in classics at the moment, and one of the editors of the book, puts it slightly more pointedly: for him, narratology is a "taxonomy that lends itself to sober analysis of texts without offering much interpretation of the data"; thus "one of the greatest challenges for narratological readings of particular texts [is] to make the technical analysis fruitful for interpretation" (158). The critical challenges to narratology--from the 1980s onward--have indeed focused first on whether the data is indeed collected soberly, unequivocally and clearly, and second, on how one might or might not be able to move between such linguistically inflected analysis to anything that might look like the interpretation of a poem, a play or a novel. The title of the book Narratology and Interpretation and the explicit remarks of Grethlein in his chapter and in the introduction lead one to think that this fundamental issue of narratology will be the subject of the book.

It is not. What we have instead is a series of chapters most of which take a particular text, and, more or less loosely, use some narratological vocabulary or techniques to offer a reading of that text. The standard reference point throughout is Genette, and the editors are clear that this is deliberate. They do not want to consider the multiple narratologies that now stalk the academy, nor the critiques of narratology from deconstruction, say, nor the challenge of a more politicized discourse of criticism to narratology. They insist on "narratology in the singular" and as a "heuristic tool" (3). So--they conclude disarmingly--"Narratology thus defined will not deliver fully developed interpretations" (3). But, lest you think that Narratology But Not Interpretation would have been a fairer title for such a project, they add that by combining narratology with other approaches, its usefulness can be released--and interpretation can after all emerge. So narratology in this account seems to be at best a useful catalyst in the critical test-tube, adding its sobriety to the headier brews where interpretation bubbles away: a formalist handmaiden to other approaches.

One surprising and regrettable result of this delimitation, however, is that many chapters use narratological vocabulary and argumentation uncritically, as if the last thirty years of questioning simply hadn't happened. It is typical that Michael Lynn-George's superb Epos: Word and Narrative in the Iliad, whose first chapter is a paradigm of how narratology was itself transformed by other approaches, precisely through rethinking the role of interpretation, passes unnoticed in the articles on Homer. Worse still, despite Irene de Jong's predictable frustration in this area, several chapters use narratological vocabulary in a way which makes it hard to believe that Genette himself has been read at all. Take this sentence as an analysis of Odyssey 3. 234-5: "Athene focalizes the death of Agamemnon who died at the hearth by the guile of Aigisthos and his own wife" (197). I can understand this remark if "focalizes" means "narrates", "specifically narrates". But "focalize" doesn't mean "narrate" in any narratological scheme I know, and I can find no normal use of the word "focalize" that makes sense of the sentence. If the author wishes to say "Athene emphasizes that Agamemnon died at the hearth and by a trick of Aigisthus and his own wife", it is not clear that we need any narratological scheme to make such a self-evident point. One danger is that narratology will offer nothing more than taxonomy (and classicists have always loved formalist taxonomies); another threat is that the technical vocabulary offers no more than restatement of the obvious. Both dangers are on show in this volume.

The editors may well be right that the potential of narratology, even as defined in the 1970s, may not have been exhausted. They are certainly right that a reconsideration of the dynamic between narratology's formal linguistic analyses and the broader work of interpretation is overdue and important. But I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated as chapter after chapter shied away from these central questions, and offered another familiar trip through "focalization", "text and story and fabula", "Genette has shown...".

The men to the opening de--which should indicate that I am conscious of a certain lack of generosity prompted by my frustration--is that there are some super chapters in the book. The opening section, entitled "Ancient Predecessors of Narratology", is tightly organized and insightful. Stephen Halliwell argues trenchantly (as he always does) that Plato actually has no theory of narrative and the gaps and tensions between his explicit statements about narrative and his practice of narrative are complex sites of interpretative anxiety. Richard Hunter explores the place of ancient Homeric criticism in Dio's Trojan Oration: what, again, is the connection between the theory of criticism and practise of composition, here in a rhetorical set-piece? René Nünlist discusses how a concept of narrative may be observed in scholia, where Aristotle provides the theory and the commentary the practice of criticism (a theme explored more broadly in his recent monograph). In each case, there is a sophisticated, intelligent and fascinating account of how theory (philosophical, rhetorical, critical) relates to practice (dialogue, speech, commentary) with regard to narrative. This section could easily be expanded into a book of its own, and the cross-references between the chapters are already especially stimulating. But only Nünlist even refers to Genette, and it is only by a generous reading that these can be seen as a contribution to narratology as defined by the editors and most other chapters.

The second section, "Narratology--New Concepts", is not replete with new concepts, though it has some good work. Irene de Jong's study of Metalepsis (a term adumbrated by Genette in 1972, so not exactly new) surprisingly takes all its examples from Homer, despite its claim in the title to look at "Greek Literature". One would have thought that the Second Sophistic (Lucian, say) would have been prime territory for such work. Taxonomy here dominates over any interpretive gestures, though de Jong does at least use taxonomy creatively to explore the Homeric narrator's voice. Egbert Bakker offers some interesting criticisms of traditional narratology's difficulties in capturing the narrative and performative complexity of the Odyssey--one of the few pieces in the volume which attempts such a critique, and which could well have been extended. Perhaps best in this section, however, is Grethlein himself, who tries to bring together Genette's notion of time with Ricoeur's, in order to analyze different narrative approaches of Herodotus and Thucydides: this chapter is also quite short for such a big topic, but could well stimulate further reflection on how narratology's and history's interests in time overlap and mirror each other. It shows exactly how narratology in combination with other approaches can lead towards refined questions and new perspectives.

The remaining three sections look at epic and lyric, at tragedy, and at historiography, and it is in these sections where the weakest work surrounds some more telling essays. It was perhaps not a wholly prudent decision to include work from seven members of the same one department, also the department of one of the editors. Ruth Scodel's essay on ignorant narrators in Greek Tragedy, however, is a fine piece of Scodel: she knows her way round the critical material, but her take on narratology here is robustly her own. She insists on bringing narratology and interpretation closer together by moving the idea of focalization towards the subject positioning of the speaker: le sujet qui sait as another theoretical discourse would have it. Again, this was a stimulating essay that played in the arena of narratology without slavishly reproducing Genettian categories, and that could be expanded in several directions--towards the role of knowledge in tragic irony; towards the rhetoric of knowledge in tragedy; towards the relation between the plays and fifth-century epistemological concerns. Similarly, Athanassaki produces some smart insights by bringing the idea of deixis to bear on the narrative of Pindar, which lead outwards to ideas of performance of lyric. Christopher Pelling's elegant account of focalization in narratives of Caesar also leads inevitably towards issues of interpretation: who can tell the story of the autocrat after civil war? His topic is an excellent case of showing how difficult it is to keep interpretation out of the linguistic analysis. It is, no doubt, only to stay in line with the book's agenda that he does not refer to John Henderson's Fighting for Rome, the most (teasingly/intelligently/politically) sophisticated account of speaker position and Roman narratives of Caesar. The complexity of the positionality of the speaking subject--which Bakker, Grethlein, Scodel allude to--is exactly where narratology most needs to engage with the politics of criticism if it is to escape from the charge of a trivial rather than a heuristically valuable formalism. Philip Hardie concludes the volume with further thoughts on fama, which will be part of his forthcoming book on the subject. The density and care of his close readings show up the rather less convincing work elsewhere in these sections.

Only 3 of the 23 chapters take on Latin material. After Hunter on Dio, there is barely a nod to imperial Greek, and there are only a couple of pieces on Hellenistic poetry. The "ancient literature" of the subtitle is a drastically circumscribed and wholly canonical affair. Irene de Jong has produced two massive volumes, with a third to come, offering a full history of Greek literature according to narratological principles. Does this book add to that project? In as much as it broadens some of the questions, adds some criticisms, and encourages some further thoughts, I suppose it does. Afficionados of narratology will want to read it, or at least some of it, with care. Will it repay a graduate student to read through all 630 pages as an introduction to Narratology and Interpretation? Not really, in my view. There are too many pieces which are either rather thin on great subjects, or simply inadequately conceptualized. One or two only should have been edited out entirely. But too many pieces are too flimsily related to narratology as a theoretical system or to interpretation as a problem. Scholars working directly on particular authors will inevitably cherry pick the relevant chapters, with varying satisfactions. In the end, the lack of focus results in the book remaining frustratingly diffuse, and the volume struggles to become more than the sum of its uneven parts.


Jonas Grethlein and

Antonios Rengakos "Introduction"

Stephen Halliwell "The Theory and Practice of Narrative in Plato"

Richard Hunter "The Trojan Oration of Dio Chrysostom and Ancient Homeric Criticism"

René Nünlist "Narratological Concepts in Greek Scholia"

Irene de Jong "Metalepsis in Ancient Greek Literature"

Egbert Bakker "Homer, Odysseus and the Narratology of Performance"

Deborah Beck "Speech Act Types, Conversational Exchange, and the Speech Representational Spectrum in Homer"

Jonas Grethlein "Philosophical and Structuralist Narratologies--A World Apart?"

Evanthia Tsitsibakou-Vasalos "Chance or Design? Language and Plot Management in the Odyssey. Klytemnestra ἄλοχος μνηστη ἐμήσατο"

Marios Skempis and

Ioannis Ziogas "Arete's Words: Etymology, Ehoie-Poetry and Gendered Narrative in the Odyssey"

Lucia Athanassaki "Narratology, Deixis and the Performance of Choral Lyric. On Pindar's First Pythian Ode"

Georg Danek "Apollonius Rhodius as an (anti-)Homeric Narrator: Time and Space in the Argonautica"

Evina Sistakou "'Snapshots' of Myth: the Notion of Time in Hellenistic Epyllion"

Theodore Papanghelis "Aeneid 5. 362-482: Time, Epic, and the Analeptic Gauntlets"

Francis Dunn "Sophocles and the Narratology of Drama"

Marianne Hopman "Layered Stories in Aeschylus' Persians"

Seth Schein "Narrative Technique in the Parodos of Aeschylus' Agamemnon"

Anna Lamari "Knowing a Story's End: Future Reflexive in the Tragic Narrative of the Argive Expedition against Thebes"

Ruth Scodel "Ignorant Narrators in Greek Tragedy"

Christos Tsagalis "Names and Narrative Techniques in Xenophon's Anabasis"

Nikos Miltsios "The Perils of Expectations: Perceptions, Suspense and Surprise in Polybius' Histories"

Christopher Pelling "Seeing Through Caesar's Eyes: Focalization and Interpretation"

Chrysanthe Tsitsiou-Chelidoni "History Beyond Literature: Interpreting the 'Internally Focalized' Narrative in Livy's Ab urbe condita"

Philip Hardie "Fame's Narratives. Epic and Historiography"

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