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Stories about stories

After a long work week, I’m having a day reading fiction for pleasure before I go back to reading drafts of thesis chapters again. My justification for reading popular fiction is usually that it is in a second language, so I’m reading José Carlos Somoza‘s La caverna de las ideas (published in English as The Athenian Murders). It’s a crime story set in Classical Greece, intertwined with a meta-narrative of a literary critic’s translation and interpretation of the story, and it has me thinking about why we find stories about stories so compelling.

There are lots of examples of this narrative nesting across popular fiction, as well as in TV and film (like Inception or Synecdoche, New York). It tends to be literature that is most involved with stories of literary interpretation, though, just as Synecdoche, New York is involved with filmmaking. Novels like The Marlowe PapersThe Tragedy of Arthur, or the ergodic S invite us into the world of reading and interpreting texts. La Caverna is particularly interesting because it invents a rhetorical figure around which the meta-narrative of literary interpretation centres: eidesis (which has its own—French—Wikipedia article). 

At one point, the footnotes through which our translator communicates include a narrated rant to a colleague about the frustrations of diverging literary interpretations. What he sees as eidesis, others see as merely extended metaphor. It is the presentation of the contingency of meaning that I find so interesting in this novel. Many novels leave reader with frustrating ambiguities, but few stage such explicitly the problems at the heart of apparently successful interpretation by a critic who cannot persuade others of their reading.

I think what fascinates readers in stories about stories is the way in which our own actions are mimicked. ‘Relatable’ characters are one thing, but a shared reading experience is compelling precisely because it is so hard to come by. Unlike watching film or TV, reading is inherently solitary. Even book groups do not involve simultaneous, shared immersive experiences. Stories about reading and interpreting stories are the closest we get to sharing those experiences. Novels like La Caverna or S not only tempt us into feeling this connection, but also invite us to care more deeply about the narrative than we might otherwise by showing us the fascination of others. Somoza’s narrator becomes obsessed with the possibilities of the text, with extracting its meaning. In calling our attention to certain details with their footnotes, we are invited to engage critically, rather than passively, to challenge or agree with narratorial interpretations as well as enjoying the simple content of the narrative.

I haven’t finished the book yet, although I have a certain suspicion as to how it will end for Somoza’s narrator! I am finding the illustration of a too-absorbed, too-earnest, too-meaning-starved literary critic fascinating to read for its romanticised academicism!

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