Five Fictions in Search of Truth

Five Fictions in Search of Truth

Myra Jehlen
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 182
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sj5x
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  • Book Info
    Five Fictions in Search of Truth
    Book Description:

    Fiction, far from being the opposite of truth, is wholly bent on finding it out, and writing novels is a way to know the real world as objectively as possible. InFive Fictions in Search of Truth, Myra Jehlen develops this idea through readings of works by Flaubert, James, and Nabokov. She invokes Proust's famous search for lost memory as the exemplary literary process, which strives, whatever its materials, for a true knowledge. InSalammbô, Flaubert digs up Carthage; inThe Ambassadors, James plumbs the examined life and touches at its limits; while inLolita, Nabokov traces a search for truth that becomes a trespass.

    In these readings, form and style emerge as fiction's means for taking hold of reality, which is to say that they are as epistemological as they are aesthetic, each one emerging by way of the other. The aesthetic aspects of a literary work are just so many instruments for exploring a subject, and the beauty and pleasure of a work confirm the validity of its account of the world. For Flaubert, famously, a beautiful sentence was proven true by its beauty. James and Nabokov wrote on the same assumption--that form and style were at once the origin and the confirmation of a work's truth.

    InFive Fictions in Search of Truth, Jehlen shows, moreover, that fiction's findings are not only about the world but immanent within it. Literature works concretely, through this form, that style, this image, that word, seeking a truth that is equally concrete. Writers write--and readers read--to discover an incarnate, secular knowledge, and in doing so they enact a basic concurrence between literature and science.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2891-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xii])
  3. Prologue A Real Madeleine Is a Work of Art
    (pp. 1-12)

    A croissant dipped in a café-au-lait would not have worked the trick of recovering the past for Marcel Proust, only a morsel of madeleine half-dissolved in a teaspoon of linden-tea. Proust’s memory of Sunday mornings in Combray might have been lost forever had a confection made of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, delicately flavored with lemon and vanilla, and then baked in a ridged mold, not intervened one day as he was having tea with his mother. Remembrance of the past needed study of the present: Marcel, the narrator ofIn Search of Lost Time,sends a madeleine to catch...

  4. One Salammbô: Three Rough Stones beneath a Rainy Sky
    (pp. 13-46)

    Salammbôis not widely read, and so I begin with a plot summary.

    The heroine who lends the novel her name is the daughter of Hamilcar, Carthage’s greatest general in that city’s days of imperial glory. As the story opens, Carthage has just emerged more or less triumphant from the first Punic War. However, for that war, the Carthaginians hired an army of Mercenaries, or Barbarians, gathered from all over Africa, and these soldiers now await their pay. The rich merchants of Carthage renege, and the enraged Mercenaries turn on their former employers. The new war proceeds indecisively until a...

  5. Two The Sacred Fount: The Case of the Man Who Suddenly Grew Smart
    (pp. 47-70)

    I ended the last chapter saying that what there is of failure inSalammbôandThe Sacred Fountis of the stuff of success. Nonetheless, whileSalammbôis brilliant Flaubert,The Sacred Fountis not brilliant James. What it comes to is that, as a theme, the pursuit of truth beyond the ordinary reach of even extraordinary people did not work very well for James. What there is of failure inThe Sacred Fountis the stuff of success in his next novel,The Ambassadors.I will suggest eventually that, inThe Sacred Fount,James went awry in the search...

  6. Three The Ambassadors: What He Saw Was Exactly the Right Thing
    (pp. 71-102)

    The Ambassadorssang true for Henry James from its first intimation, and he recalled the happy event in the preface to the New York edition. One day, his friend Jonathan Sturges repeated “with great appreciation, a thing or two said to him by a man of distinction.” The man of distinction (it was William Dean Howells) had offered avuncular advice, urging his young friend, “Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.” The exchange had taken place at a garden party at James Whistler’s elegant house in St.-Germain-des-Prés. Two Americans in Paris, the elder reflecting wistfully, if a little...

  7. Four Lolita: A Beautiful, Banal, Eden-Red Apple
    (pp. 103-132)

    Humbert Humbert, narrator and protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s novelLolita(1955), is an amoral and demoralized Strether. Like Strether, H.H. arrives in a new world whose physical and cultural landscape he is eager to explore, and he proves as apt a student. But where Strether declined “to have got anything for myself” through his new knowledge, Humbert intends to get himself everything, including something forbidden. For H.H. lusts after a child, a delectable girl, Lolita, her very name an occasion for lubricious indulgence, “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap,...

  8. Five A Simple Heart: Félicité and the Holy Parrot
    (pp. 133-144)

    Salammbô,the first of this book’s five fictions, is a work of sublime beauty, but one would probably not read it for the story. In the previous chapter, onLolita,the aesthetic pursuit of truth finds itself in conflict with the ethical truth and waxes sentimental instead. But this final chapter is about a work in which story and beauty, morality and irony are all supremely fulfilled.

    Every word ofSalammbôreflected prodigies of archival research into matters long ago and far away. Indeed, the first chapter of this book was animated by the defiant paradox of Flaubert’s claiming every...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 145-146)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 147-166)
  11. Index
    (pp. 167-170)