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The Intermediality of Narrative Literature

by Jørgen Bruhn
Palgrave Macmillan, Ashgate/Pivot Series, London, UK, 2016
134 pp. Trade, $54.99; eBook, $39.99
ISBN: 978–1–137–57840–2; ISBN: 978–1–137–57841–9.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

A handbook as well as a collection of essays on new ways of reading, The Intermediality in Narrative Fiction is born from a didactic necessity. The author, a well–known specialist in the twin field of literary and intermedial studies, has been confronted with the difficulty of having to teach students who are excellent in either discipline but have serious problems in combining both at a theoretical and methodological level. The book aims at offering practical answers to this issue, which has become a key issue in most literary departments and programs all over the world. The book tries to do this in two ways: first by sketching a theoretical and methodological toolkit, second by implementing this toolkits in four close–readings of very different modern narratives. The latter part of the project, which contains often brilliant and innovative readings of texts that we do not necessarily associate with the domain of intermediality, is generally more convincing than the former one. However, Jørgen Bruhn is smart and elegant enough to repeatedly stress the open character of his methodology and the inevitable gap between theory (the elaboration of an abstract toolkit) and practice (the actual use of the methodology, the success of which depends not only on the overall skills and competences of the reader but also on the degree of resistance to intermedial scholarship– and in this regard one can only admire the courage and the honesty of the author to have selected a corpus that is sometimes very difficult to interpret in this perspective).

In the Introduction and the first chapter of the book, Bruhn briefly addresses the notions of "mediality" and "intermediality", which he studies in a very dynamic way (not as fixed items or objects but as a kind of a culturally constructed interface between writers and readers on the one hand and the fictional or nonfictional word on the other hand). He then presents in more detail a three step methodology that has the ambition to help read the presence and importance of other, that is nonverbal media in literary, that is (at least in this context) written texts. Step 1 refers to the localization and identification of these media within the text: which media are mentioned or described, where do they appear, how are they made present within the verbal layers of the text? Step 2 tries to bring together the sometimes heterogeneous observations made during the first step of the process and to recognize the structure that keeps all these elements together while inserting them in the global structure of the text. Step 3 introduces an element of interpretation, which aims to disclose the hidden meaning of the intermediality in the work under scrutiny (here, Bruhn rightly underlines the huge impact of contextual, historical, intertextual and other accompanying elements and dimensions, that will inevitably force the reader to reframe the material laid bare in Steps 1 and 2).

This method–for it is rather a method than a real theory–remains somewhat vague, however, and its actual value seems to depend much more on the hermeneutical skills of the reader (which are very great in the case of Bruhn, who reads remarkably well) than on the inherent merits of the toolkit itself (which is clear, but rather narrowly descriptive, hence the almost metaphysical gap between the first two steps –available to any student, even the less motivated ones– and the last step –which seems to remain the privilege of the professional reader, and where the methodological dimension rapidly fades away: in Step 3, it's every man or every woman for himself or herself). Non Anglo–Saxon readers may also be surprised, if not slightly shocked, by the complete absence of any reference to non–Anglo–Saxon scholarship, as if there had never been any serious research on intermediality in, for instance, French, Spanish, or Italian (to give just some examples of European languages). Bruhn quotes one French source, Genette (yet Genette is definitely not an intermediality scholar, to say the least), but one will look in vain for references to authors such as Louis Marin, Bernard Vouilloux, Alain Montandon, Georges Didi–Huberman or Anne–Marie Christin (among many others). Moreover, the debate on (inter)mediality leaves aside some of the most cutting–edge research on this topic, such as the rereading of Stanley Cavell's medium theory (still, I think, the most important work that has been done in the field) by authors such as Diarmuid Costello. The theoretical upgrade of the three steps model by a comparison with Panofsky's iconology (also a three steps methodology) does not convince either–first of all, because Panofsky's work is not really on intermediality, even if he systematically combines the verbal and the visual: The horizon of Panofsky's iconology remains intramedial and his use of literary and nonvisual sources and material is always instrumentalized in an art–historical, that is visual perspective. Second, because, Bruhn does not take into account the many flaws and problems of Panofsky's iconology that have been raised in modern and postmodern thinking on word and image studies, which tend to rely much more on Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne. It is somewhat strange to notice that an innovative and ambitious study such as The Intermediality of Narrative Literature does not address these issues (perhaps for pedagogical reasons?).

Nevertheless, the four close readings that follow (on Nabokov's "Spring in Fialta", Carver's "Cathedral", Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" and Egan's A Visit form the Goon Squad) are excellent, if not brilliant. Yet one is allowed to wonder whether the qualities of Bruhn's interpretations are due to his method or to his intellectual and stylistic sharpness. To put it more bluntly: Is the close reading of these texts the culmination of a method that first discloses and then invites to the interpretation of intermedial connections within monomedial texts, or is the capacity of opening monomedial texts to different aspects of intermediality simply the result of good and sound close reading that inevitably produces such a multilayeredness of the text? It's up to the reader of this book to answer this question, but even if one is skeptical of the method defended in the book, one can only praise the hermeneutic and interpretative skills of his author.

Last Updated 2nd January 2017

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