:: Article

Mapping Space in Fiction: Joseph Frank and the Idea of Spatial Form

By Aashish Kaul.

Let’s begin with a famous statement from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the epic, observes Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus,

The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak . . . the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Joyce was among the first, if not the first, to upend, after the manner espoused by the Russian Formalists, the traditional hierarchy of form and content in the novelistic tradition. But unlike them, and perhaps unaware of them, Joyce here offers a more nuanced understanding of the creative process, which does not hasten to remove the artist entirely from his creation, but allows him to fade into it, becoming an invisible presence, behind or beyond or above his work though still very much there.

As Joseph Frank points out in his early study from 1945, Spatial Form in Modern Literature, Joyce, in Ulysses, works with the assumption that his readers are Dubliners, intimately acquainted with Dublin life and the personal history of his characters, thereby allowing him to refrain from giving any direct information about them; information that, contrary to his intentions, would have betrayed the presence of an omniscient author. What Joyce does, instead, is to present the elements of his narrative in fragments, as they are thrown out unexplained in the course of casual conversations, or as they lie embedded in the various strata of symbolic reference, allusions to Dublin life, history, and the external events of the twenty-four hours during which the novel takes place. The factual background, which otherwise is so conveniently summarized for the reader, must be reconstructed in this case from fragments, sometimes hundreds of pages apart, scattered through the book. As a result, Frank argues, the reader is forced to read Ulysses in the manner he reads modern poetry – continually fitting fragments together and keeping allusions in mind until, by reflexive reference, he can link them to their complements. Indeed Joyce himself, although his model was Aristotle, says as much of Ulysses in a letter to Ezra Pound of 9 April 1917: ‘I am doing it, as Aristotle would say – by different means in different parts.’

In such cases, notes Frank, the synchronic relations within the text take precedence over diachronic referentiality, and it is only after the pattern of synchronic relations has been grasped as a unity that the meaning can be understood. While such synchronic relations can only be worked out within the time-act of reading, the temporality of this act is no longer coordinated with the dominant structural elements of the text, becoming merely a physical limit of apprehension, which conditions but does not determine the work. Taking his cue from Sergei Eisenstein, Frank observes that the juxtaposition of disparate images in a cinematic montage automatically creates a synthesis of meaning between them, which supersedes any sense of temporal discontinuity. This is equally true for the poetry of Mallarmé, Pound, and Eliot, as it is of the modernist novels of Faulkner, Woolf, and Dos Passos. Frank extends this thesis from Joyce and Proust to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, but the same may well be said about a disparate list of works from Nabokov to John Hawkes, Julio Cortázar to Italo Calvino. Indeed the study of spatial form in narrative is ever more relevant today than any time in the past.

Frank’s idea of spatialization, however, should not be confused with the old and widespread techniques of analepsis (an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point in the story) and prolepsis (a figurative device in narrative in which a future event is prefigured) in literature, which belong more to the temporal than the spatial realm of narrative, and occur mostly within the same chapter and at times even within the same sentence. Their beginnings can be traced all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey and the Indian epics. But these are devices more suitable for ordering memory than mapping space, and can be found in both traditional as well as modern narratives. A book is more spatial than temporal in structure if multiple perspectives and narrative threads branch out from the source events, and simultaneously contest, critique, and supplement one another. Sometimes, however, the extensive use of analepsis/prolepsis may by itself result in orienting the narrative spatially.

Frank builds his thesis further with Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Since the selection of detail in Nightwood does not follow the logic of verisimilitude, but is governed by a system of symbolic overtones that express the essence of a character in an image, it is better, writes Frank, to approach the book spatially rather than temporally:

The eight chapters of Nightwood are like searchlights, probing the darkness each from a different direction, yet ultimately focusing on and illuminating the same entanglement of the human spirit . . . And these chapters are knit together, not by the progress of any action . . . but by the continual reference and cross-reference of images and symbols which must be referred to each other spatially throughout the time-act of reading.

Frank’s scrutiny of spatial form in modern novels resembles the attempts of the Russian Formalists at foregrounding form/device over content, and plot (syuzhet) over story (fabula) in their study of the literariness or artistic quality of a given work. Frank considers this distinction to be of fundamental importance to his thesis. Acknowledging that it was Shklovsky who first stressed the importance of this distinction, he writes that ‘story’ refers to events of a narrative arranged in the strict sequence of causal-chronological, whereas ‘plot’ refers to the structure of these events as they actually appear in any particular work. Important, too, was the later distinction made by Boris Tomashevsky between bound motifs and free motifs; the former were essential to the causal-chronological sequence and could not be eliminated without also destroying the text, while the latter were independent of this sequence and could be combined in whatever order the writer desired. Therefore, a work was artistic to the extent the free motifs present in it diversified the constraints of bound motifs.

Thus, Frank concludes, ‘every narrative work of art necessarily includes elements that may be called spatial since the relations of significance between such elements must be constructed across gaps in the strict causal-chronological order of the text.’ It was a significant contribution of the Russian Formalists, he adds, to provide a focused attention on the existence of elements of spatial form in all narratives.

Werner Heisenberg, following Plato, once observed that ‘the smallest parts of matter are not the fundamental Beings, as in the philosophy of Democritus, but are mathematical forms: the form is more important than the substance of which it is the form.’ The formal rules in art, continues Heisenberg, are closely related to the essential elements of mathematics. Equality and inequality, repetition and symmetry are the group structures common to both art and mathematics.

Even before the modernist/Formalist revolution in the arts, Gérard de Nerval composed his astonishing novella Sylvie using the same method of foregrounding spatial form over the causal-chronological order of the text, as Frank describes above. Umberto Eco performs an incredibly close analysis in his essay, “The Mists of the Valois”, laying bare the inner workings of Nerval’s method of composition. Nerval was one of Proust’s favourite writers and it is telling that Proust, in what can be read as a validation of Frank’s thesis, compares Sylvie to the dream of a dream, stating that ‘we are constantly compelled to go back to the preceding pages, to see where we are.’ It is difficult to provide a detailed description of Eco’s process without substantially reproducing the essay, and I can do no better than to point the reader to it, but it should suffice to list a few of his important observations about Nerval’s method.

Sylvie, states Eco, ‘is constructed with astonishing care, with a play of internal textual symmetries, oppositions, and echoes’. The story is gradually revealed to us through the complex structure of its telling, that is to say, its plot: a young man leaves a theatre and decides to go to a ball at Loisy. During his journey there he recalls a previous journey, arrives at the ball, sees Sylvie again, spends a day with her, goes back to Paris, has an affair with an actress, and finally decides to tell his own story, by which time Sylvie is married. But in the course of these events previous times are recalled. Because of these flashbacks one can reconstruct the story only ‘by fits and starts’, which is to say spatially. For reasons that will be obvious to any reader of Sylvie, the very structure of the plot makes the story feel like the narration of a narration (or, per Proust, the dream of a dream). Although the plot is before us, the story is not so obvious, partly because one is never quite certain of the time the narrating voice is referring to. Nor is there any certainty as to the homogeneity of the narrating voice – the ‘I’ – which is now of the author, and now of the protagonist. Thus even the first-person pronoun reads like an other. And it is here that Eco makes a startling discovery: ‘Story and plot coincide, but only because they are communicated to us through a discourse’, and the author appears not in the story or the plot, but in the discourse. Over the course of fourteen chapters we never know whether the person who is speaking is saying things or is simply representing another who is saying things, nor is it clear whether this someone is experiencing these things or simply recalling them. The story, by way of its plot, mixes the two worlds of illusion and reality.

The reader goes round and round in a labyrinth which, however, is built with a delicate symmetry. As if one was moving in a hall of mirrors, disparate themes are remembered and forgotten, objects and motifs arise and fade into the text at precise intervals that hint at a narrative design barely grasped yet deeply felt. Nerval is as much concerned as Proust with the notions of memory and regaining pure time, and a reader of Sylvie cannot fail to see the properties it shares with Proust’s vast novel in its overall design, particularly how, like the snake of myth, ouroboros, or like Coleridge’s serpent that is also wisdom and the universe forever varying and forever flowing into itself, the narrative in either case ends up by swallowing its own tail.

I happen to share what I can only call an elective affinity with Nerval’s short novel. I read it before I read Frank’s thesis on spatial form, but much after I had composed my own first work with very nearly the same process and structure, the same number of chapters, the same echo (or reflection) of motifs as if a mirror had been inserted right in the centre of the story, so that the latter half resolved and completed the former. That I was unaware at the time of both Sylvie and the notions of spatial construction (and de-construction) only validates Frank’s thesis.

While the modernists and their successors have shown a greater preference for the spatial over the causal-chronological method of narration vis-à-vis their precursors, as is the case with, say, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, or John Hawkes’s Whistlejacket, one may equally subject Cervantes, Diderot, and Sterne to a similar reading.

The pleasure of reading Hawkes’s Whistlejacket, for instance, comes from the appreciation of how subtly the language is meshed into the novel’s themes and structure. At the centre of the book, in terms both of the physical reach of the narrative and of the fictional world it creates, is the painting of a horse called Whistlejacket by the English artist George Stubbs, who was famous for the great accuracy of his paintings, achieved through dissecting and studying the horses he had himself slaughtered.

The painting of the riderless, rearing horse on a pea-green background hangs in the grand salon of the Steepleton manor, home to the wealthy Van Fleet family. The narrator for the most part is a fashion photographer named Michael (Mike) who, calling himself the protégé of the master of the family, Harold (Hal), has enjoyed since his adolescence a complex relationship with its members, particularly the women Alex, Buse, and Virgie (wife, mistress, and daughter, respectively, of Harold). All of them are seasoned riders with their own horses in the stables. Harold’s horse, however, bears an uncanny resemblance to Whistlejacket, and it is under this horse that Harold is ultimately crushed to death. The opening segment hints at what has to come later, in the third and final segment of the book, and sets the scene of the Steepleton manor and surrounding estates, the tenor of the speaking voice building the relations, dramatic as they are bound to be among such a peculiar ensemble of characters, their motivations a mysterious mix of horses, hunts, photography, death, passion, and jealousy.

The slim middle section is biographical and relates the life and working method of George Stubbs, in particular the events surrounding the commissioning and painting of Whistlejacket. Now we are with Stubbs in a barn as he works with his rudimentary apparatus to dissect the flesh of the dead horse, to peel away layer upon layer of horseflesh, observing and recording everything, the congealed blood, bones, and tissues, until either nothing is left to examine or the corpse is too rotten to be of use. This unimaginably mutilated corpse would subsequently be transformed into the famous portraiture when Stubbs exchanges his scalpel for a paintbrush. Latent in the flow and structure of the narrative is the theme of seizing the core of reality by gradually pealing one layer from another, whether of flesh or of appearance. For in a fashion similar to Stubbs, Michael, who is an ace photographer, subjects various old family photos to his sustained scrutiny to establish motive and connections for Harold’s death. It is here that the novel’s themes finally become one with its structure and the reader must comprehend the narrative spatially to uncover its secrets and significance.

Like Djuna Barnes, like Nerval, Hawkes’s work is a stunning example of Frank’s thesis. Spatial construction is a concern with form, the foregrounding of form, of narrative device over narrative events: a natural development from the works of the preceding period, just as the novels of nineteenth century were an improvement over those of the eighteenth. ‘The novel must suffice to create what it tells us,’ argues Michel Butor:

That is why it is the phenomenological realm par excellence, the best possible place to study how reality appears to us or might appear; that is why the novel is the laboratory of narrative. Work on the form of the novel therefore assumes a major importance . . . It is obvious that since form is a principle of choice . . . new forms will reveal new things in reality, new connections . . . The world around us is being transformed with great rapidity, and traditional narrative techniques are insufficient to integrate all the new relations so created. There results a perpetual uneasiness as our consciousness is unable to organize all the information that assails it. The search of new novelistic forms with a greater power of integration thus plays an important role in our consciousness of reality. Formal invention in the novel, far from being opposed to realism, is the sine qua non of greater realism.

The artistic lens that Joyce fractured with and in his work makes the world it creates, miraculously, more not less real. Form, first and foremost, is what forces a reader to absorb a work both temporally and spatially, and to obtain from it a clearer and deeper view of the world. This is why, despite its periodic diversions and parodic detours, Sterne’s world feels nearer to us over the atrophied one of most eighteenth century fiction; this is why the truth of Quixote, the reflexivity of its various parts, the novel’s uncertainty in its own reality, its open refusal to take a simple, uniform view of life in the face of its plurality of readings and visions, is perhaps closer to our time than that of Cervantes. And having once seen and felt this plurivocal reality, its intensity and conflict, its debris (and there is much debris in Joyce or Sterne or Cervantes) but also its muted wonder, having once resolved the structure of these works and felt in her depths their harmony, the reader is forever conscious of the fiction-ness of most fiction.

The order of events in time, however, is not independent of their order in space, as discoveries in New Physics had increasingly demonstrated through the theories of special relativity and quantum mechanics. The autonomy between the categories of time and space, as Heisenberg saw it, was an underlying assumption in thinking that had crystallized in the Western psyche and language with Descartes and Newton. But, he noted, the common language was already adjusting itself to the new situation. Although not precise and logical, it was a language that tended to produce pictures in the mind that had only a vague connection with reality, and represented not reality itself but only a tendency toward reality.

With this space-time unity percolating into our understanding of the natural world, Frank is able to show how even the most temporal of novelists, Proust, uses spatialization as ‘a structural scaffolding of [his] labyrinthine masterpiece’:

Proust gives us what might be called pure views of his characters – views of them – “motionless in a moment of vision” in various phases of their lives – and allows the sensibility of the reader to fuse these views into a unity. Each view must be apprehended by the reader as a unit; and Proust’s purpose is only achieved when these units of meaning are referred to each other reflexively in a moment of time.

Each novel provides its own recipe for reading. Novels that are obviously spatial in structure with multiple threads and perspectives make special demands on the reader. But there is one practical advantage too: the actual or real time spent by the reader in negotiating a different intervening plot component makes the shift to an earlier (and subsequent) narrative time smoother, since the time elapsed in the act of reading the intervening narrative is instinctively accepted as the unaccounted time shifts between the events in the previous (and later) surrounding narrative threads. The reader, therefore, has more involvement in the development and resolution of the story than in a traditionally causal-chronological telling, and, consequently, more intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction.

Barnes, D 2006 Nightwood, New Directions, New York
Bradbury, M 1977 The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, Manchester University Press, Manchester
Eco, U 2006 On Literature, M McLaughlin (trans), Vintage, London
Frank, J 1991 The Idea of Spatial Form, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey
Hawkes, J 1997 Whistlejacket, Dalkey Archive Press, Normal, IL
Heisenberg, W 2000 Physics and Philosophy, Penguin, London
Joyce, J 1966 Letters of James Joyce, Vol. I, S Gilbert (ed), Viking, New York
Joyce, J 2012 [1916] A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Transatlantic Press, Amersham
Nerval, G de 1999 ‘Sylvie’ Selected Writings, R Sieburth (trans), Penguin, Harmondsworth

Aashish Kaul is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories (2014) andThe Queen’s Play (2015).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 11th, 2014.