Monika Otter

title.none: Bruckner, Shaping Romance

identifier.other: baj9928.9409.007 94.09.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Monika Otter, Dartmouth College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. Shaping Romance: Interpretation, Truth, and Closure in Twelfth-Century French Fictions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Pp. ix + 292. $39.95.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.09.07

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. Shaping Romance: Interpretation, Truth, and Closure in Twelfth-Century French Fictions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Pp. ix + 292. $39.95.

Reviewed by:

Monika Otter
Dartmouth College

In this elegant and thought-provoking study, Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner explores the poetics of French vernacular romance in the second half of the twelfth century. "Explore" is the appropriate verb: even though Bruckner's aim is to delineate the "shape" of romance, she eschews rigid definition, preferring to stress the genre's fluidity, openness, and love of experiment. Five chapters offer readings of selected works, loosely organized around two major critical categories: closure, in all its senses, and "the interplay between the diegetic and extradiegetic worlds," i.e., the ways in which relations all around the "triangle linking . . . author/narrator, story, and public" intersect and mirror each other (9). Far from being problematic, this loose organization strikes me as one of the book's main strengths; it permits Bruckner to pay close individual attention to her chosen texts ( Folie Tristan d'Oxford, Thomas' Tristan, Chretien's Charrete, Partonopeu de Blois, and Marie's Lais), unconstrained by any rigid schema, while allowing her critical observations to echo and reinforce each other—much like the poetics of Marie's Lais, as Bruckner describes it. In fact, the book's main value lies perhaps not so much in any new theorizing as in its intelligent readings, presented with skill and great verbal felicity, that draw judiciously but lightly on already current theoretical instruments. The most satisfying chapters, in my view, are the two Tristan chapters, and particularly the beautifully written first chapter on the Folie Tristan, which correlates the problems of "voice," "presence," and the interpretation of signs, both on the diegetic and the extradiegetic plane, in a tightly structured, elegant essay of great cogency. The final chapter, on Marie's Lais, is also very well achieved: it implicitly recapitulates several concerns of the earlier chapters (e.g., voice, "presence," intertextuality and rewriting), while exploring the questions of closure peculiar to the Lais as a self-conscious collection of interrelated, echoing short narratives. (But a sentence like,"the Gordian knot of complexity has not been cut" to end a discussion of a difficult and intriguing point [197] is bound to be a bit of a let-down.) The two long central chapters ("A case for mise en abyme: Chretiens Chevalier de la Charrete," and "The Interplay of Gender and Genres in Partonopeu de Blois") are less compact, less coherent in their argument, and might have benefitted from a few judicious cuts; but they, too, have plenty of rewarding insights, striking, quotable points, and fine critical prose.

I said earlier that Bruckner invokes current (and older) theories "lightly." This, for the most part, is a virtue rather than a defect in the kind of book this is; but occasionally her references become too light. For instance, Bruckner remarks in a footnote that her twin terms, "selection and substitution" are reminiscent of Jakobson's celebrated essay on metaphor and metonymy; but what she has in mind is only obliquely related to Jakobson's categories, and I found myself wondering whether the terms "selection and substitution" really serve Bruckner's purpose. For one thing, the words would seem to be roughly synonymous rather than contrasted if one thinks in terms of Jakobson's axes; and at any rate, "repetition and variation," a pair she often uses in close conjunction with "selection and substitution," seems more nearly on the mark. Bruckner also associates "selection and substitution" with "doubling," a concept she explores very compellingly in the chapter on Thomas and elsewhere; the terms are cross-referenced in the index. But the association remains elliptical; one wishes she had taken the time to spell it out in more detail.

There is a similar throw-away footnote reference to Abelard, in conjunction with concepts of truth, auctoritas, and doubt (p. 250, n. 51). I hesitate to pronounce on Abelard, being by no means an expert, but I am not immediately convinced that his Sic et Non is a precise fit with the deconstructive reading mechanisms Bruckner sees at work in Partonopeu. Once again, I wish Bruckner had paused to discuss the oblique (or perhaps not-so-oblique) connection, which surely would have proved to be fascinating.

Apart from these rather minor points, there is one glaring "absence" in Bruckner's book—though perhaps an unavoidable one: the terms "fiction" and "fictionality," although central to her argument, are never satisfactorily discussed. We are left to infer what they mean to Bruckner, and we can—in part from our knowledge of the critics she cites (notably Haidu, Baeuml, Warning, and Riffaterre), and in part from her readings. This is a stimulating exercise in some ways, a nice mise-en-abyme of the intellectual operations Bruckner says are required for reading romances. But in the end I felt short-changed. The problem of "fiction" in a medieval context is of course a familiar and stubborn one, stemming in part from an irreconcilable difference in our terminological systems: there is simply no term in the medieval critical vocabulary that corresponds to our term "fiction"; whether in the absence of such a term we can legitimately expect our understanding of fictionality in medieval audiences, is a controversial point. The final two pages come as close as anything in the book to providing such an explanation of "fiction"; they are stimulating and suggestive, but they come very late. Another crucial bit of explanation (pp. 104-108) comes at the very end of the long third chapter, throughout which I was longing for such a clarification. And even then, a definition is side-stepped; the question of what fictionality might mean to twelfth-century readers is begged. Whenever Bruckner appears to be approaching a clarification, she uses the word "fiction" in a sentence as though its meaning were already established. Thus, when Bruckner declares, in an otherwise very sensible and convincing passage, that "the medieval public undoubtedly viewed Partonopeu as a blend of fiction and fact" (115), the reader is left wondering: between fact and—what exactly? In passages like this, Bruckner appears to be defining "fiction" in opposition to "truth" or "history"—which would be close to medieval usage ("fabula" as opposed to "historia"), but, if I understand her correctly, emphatically not the understanding of fiction she has in mind, where "fiction" is defined precisely as the suspension, the "bracketing" of the truth/falsehood opposition. (Cf. Peter Haidu, "Repetition: Modern Reflections on Medieval Aesthetics," MLN 92 [1977]).

Perhaps, though, I am asking too much; perhaps there is no solution to this problem, at least no neat one, and Bruckner is to be commended for avoiding the illusion of neatness where there isn't any. Despite some terminological vaguenesses, I found Bruckner's book impressive, stimulating, and pleasurable to read. She has thrown light on many important aspects of twelfth-century vernacular poetics; she has offered fresh, insightful readings; she has helped us refine our understanding of medieval romance and—despite my strictures above—of medieval "fictionality." I am sure that I will return to her book frequently, and that I will find myself quoting it often.