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Reorientation in Narratology

Monika Fludernik elucidates her research in the Reinhart Koselleck project “Di-achronic Narratology”

Freiburg, Mar 13, 2023

Prof. Dr. Monika Fludernik from the University of Freiburg’s Department of English aims to expand the prevailing narrative model in “Diachronic Narratology,” a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG): In place of a traditional synchronic analysis concentrated on a single time level, she wants to establish a diachronic analysis spanning multiple epochs. Previous narratology in the tradition of the French literary scholar Gérard Genette is at its core a synchronic discipline with a claim to universal categories, such as the relationship between narrative time and narrated time or narrative perspective, so-called focalization. Fludernik’s project, on the other hand, establishes a narratology that does not only introduce findings from historical studies to the common model but also analyzes and critically reflects on the continuities and changes in form and function in the transformation of narrative forms from the Late Middle Ages on.

Schwarzer Text auf weißer SeiteA project in English studies establishes a narratology that analyzes continuities and changes in form and function in the transformation of narrative forms from the Late Middle Ages on. Photo: fidelio/Adobe Stock

Narratology has a strong tradition in the German-speaking world, a tradition associated with the name Franz Karl Stanzel (1923-), emeritus professor of the University of Graz. Research that has stood out in Germany in more recent times includes that of Ansgar Nünning (formerly Cologne, now Gießen) and his students, as well as that of the Interdisciplinary Center for Narratology in Hamburg and the Zentrum für Erzählforschung in Wuppertal, which are associated with the Slavicist Wolf Schmid (author of Elemente der Narratologie, translated as Narratology: An Introduction) and the Germanists Matías Martínez and Michael Scheffel (Einführung in die Erzähltheorie) – both of them works that distance themselves from Stanzel and draw on the influential tradition of the French narratologist Gérard Genette as a model. Prof. Dr. Monika Fludernik, who received approval from the DFG for the project “Diachronic Narratology” within the framework of the Reinhart Koselleck Projects funding line, is a student of F. K. Stanzel and has sought in her narratological research to achieve a synthesis between Stanzel and Genette. Her studies on narrative theory are characterized above all by three aspects: they focus on the surface structure of narrative works, in other words, the linguistic – syntactic, lexical – level of the texts; they therefore use the instruments of modern linguistics to describe narratives; and they integrate not only literary narratives but also oral narratives from everyday life into their theoretical models, as well as the full spectrum of medieval to postcolonial texts, also taking into account factual narratives (i.e., historical and legal texts, letters, and other genres). Fludernik has thus always been a proponent of the language-and-literature approach, that is, the linguistic analysis of literary texts; and within the framework of this approach, she has used mainly linguistic discourse and conversation analysis, which examines everyday narratives, as well as linguistic pragmatics. Pragmatics in this sense involves studying language, or in this case literature, not only from the perspective of the language system but above all in the context of its use, what Saussure calls parole.

Cognitive science perspectives

Fludernik studied texts from different centuries from the start. In her habilitation thesis, The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction (1993), for example, she already analyzed the modes of representing speech and thought in English from the Late Middle Ages to the present day, also including spoken language. Her aim in doing so was primarily to demonstrate that a mode of representation like free indirect discourse, for example, can already be found in Middle English texts, albeit only in rudimentary form, although this technique was otherwise always attested since the late nineteenth century. Then, in her theory of narrative Towards a 'Natural' Narratology (1996), Fludernik took up cognitive science perspectives and advanced the hypothesis that oral narrative structures – episodic narrative in particular – may be found as residua or substrata in the English narrative literature of the Late Middle Ages, when English began to be used instead of Latin or Anglo-Norman French, and that they then change into new narrative structures more closely resembling the blockier narrative style of the novel in Early Modern English literature. This hypothesis was developed on the basis of just a few selected textual examples. It thus propounds a development of narrative structure that is expressed at the textual surface of narratives and is subject between the thirteenth and the seventeenth century to developments that alter the valid narrative structure, although these transformations may not follow a uniform course.

Validating or refuting developments in more extensive textual material

This is where the Koselleck project comes in. The DFG’s “Koselleck Project” funding line supports research that takes longstanding research orientations to a new level and addresses them within the context of an original research question. In this particular case, it is now a matter of validating or refuting the developments outlined in Towards a 'Natural' Narratology on the basis of more extensive textual material, above all from the perspective of different genres. One of the key issues is therefore whether particular narrative elements that accompany episodic narrative structure, such as the use of so-called discourse markers like tho, than, so, or thus, are subject to particular changes in different genres at the same time – it can be seen, for example, that discourse markers are quite numerous in the fourteenth century, then tend to be limited to just a few in the fifteenth century, and become more diverse again in the sixteenth century – or whether the developments occur with a delay, or whether completely different courses may be observed in individual genres. In addition, the project will scrutinize the teleological tendency of the original hypothesis, that is, the assumption that the developments move purposefully toward the novel.

Monika Fludernik is planning two major publication projects in her Koselleck project. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

Two large-scale publication projects

The Koselleck project will include two large-scale publication projects. The first will be the study described above in two thick volumes, which will analyze genre by genre transformations in narrative structure on the basis of a representative selection of texts and then evaluate which parallelisms or divergent developments can be observed. Numerous elements of narratives will be examined, not only discourse markers but also syntactic elements, functions of narrative voice, handling of dialogue, and more. The genres to be studied include the Middle English romances in their verse and prose variants, the fabliau, the verse saint’s legend, the prose legend, and other Early Modern controversial texts, historiography, epistolary and diary narratives, and other Early Modern genres. Other project collaborators besides Monika Fludernik will contribute to this study: Dr. Carlotta Posth, who investigates influences from French literature and parallels with medieval German; Sonia García de Alba, who will write the chapter on the prose romance of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; and Sebastian Straßburg, who will work on the genre of the romance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Additional expertise in Middle English and Medieval Latin will be provided by junior professor Dr. Eva von Contzen and Prof. Dr. Stefan Tilg. Some of the chapters will be written by associated scholars.

The second publication project, to be started upon completion of the two volumes on the development of individual genres, will be written by Fludernik alone and will consist of a monograph tracing the diachronic change theoretically and methodologically on the basis of several case studies. The main point here is to examine the systematic impact of changes in individual elements, for example the need to textualize individual aspects of the narrative by completely different means, or how some elements become applicable to new functions. For example, it can be shown that strategies that formerly marked the center of a narrative episode are now used as a prelude to a change of place and therefore often appear at the beginning of a chapter. One of the challenges of the planned monograph will be to mediate between methodological insights from historical linguistics, especially so-called historical pragmatics, and developmental models regarding the history of culture and ideas from literary studies and to find a model that can describe the observed phenomena in their transformations both formally and in terms of their literary context. Finally, the project will also make a fundamental contribution to historical narratology, which involves the study of narratives in individual historical epochs.