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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Telling Lives

  • Lisa Capps (Author) and Elinor Ochs (Author)
    Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling. Harvard University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Richard Freadman (Author)
    Threads of Life: Autobiography and the Will. University of Chicago Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Joel Baetz

Near the end of The Stone Angel, as Hagar Shipley looks back on her life and her relationships with her husband Bram and her son John, she arrives at a moment of self-realization: "I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched. Oh, my two, my dead. Dead by your hands or by mine?" Like Margaret Laurence’s Hagar, the authors of the books under consideration here are concerned with the revelatory possibilities of life-narratives, what they say about who we are and how we see ourselves. Richard Freadman, in his impressive though sometimes opaque Threads of Life, is specifically concerned with autobiographies and what they say about the human will. Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps, in their less impressive but at times valuable Living Narrative, are interested in the ways in which conversational narratives are constructed and shape our perception of the past and ourselves.

As an interdisciplinary study, Threads of Life offers a philosophically framed account of autobiography and, specifically, how autobiographies speak about the modern condition of the human will. Although Freadman divides his book into eight chapters, it is better to think about it as divided into three parts. First, Freadman defines his terms and reasons that Western autobiography has always been the ideal site for reflection about the will. Second, he argues that the most influential conceptions of the will in the twentieth century are deeply conflicted: those "cultural prophets" who are seen as champions of human freedom (Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx) offer interpretations of the will that are "profoundly deterministic" while those who deny the presence of the will in theory (Althusser, Skinner, and Barthes) inevitably confirm the presence of the human will in their autobiographies. Third, Freadman reads five autobiographies for their conception of the will. While Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, and Diana Trilling offer highly original autobiographies, they are all inflected with the same tensions and conflicts about the will evident in the work of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx.

Freadman’s range of reference to the history of ideas and his careful readings of the autobiographies in relation to each author’s body of work and cultural context make Threads of Life a worthy contribution to the understanding of both autobiography and the modern condition of the will. He is perhaps at his best while refuting the claims of postmodernism, with the implicit aim of loosening its grip on literary and cultural thinking, but his more general insights into autobiography’s preoccupation with the will are just as valuable.

As much as the scope and thoroughness of Freadman’s work make Threads of Life a success, they also limit the study’s accessibility. Halfway through his second chapter, Freadman says that he has avoided the signs and symbols of analytical philosophy and focused mainly on literature because "the nonspecialist reader cannot profit directly from" such "highly technical and specialized" work. What he doesn’t seem to realize or, perhaps, what he realizes all too clearly, with his inclusion of two appendices, end-notes, and a glossary of terms, is that his broad scope and heavy investment in philosophical discourses restrict his audience to a collection of experts familiar with the history of ideas and interested in autobiography. Although Freadman contends that his study is only a philosophically framed account of autobiography, after extended discussions of and passing references to Plato, Althusser, Schopenhauer, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Barthes, Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Kant, and so many more, one can’t help but wonder if the frame looms too large, so large that at times it obscures everything but the broadest brushstrokes of his argument. In the end, Freadman’s argument achieves a tension similar to the one he observes in the autobiographies of Beauvoir, Koestler, Spender, and Trilling, a tension between radical contingency "that baffles understanding" and a desire for individual control as well as rational and observable outcomes.

This tension between the contingent and the controlled is also central to Ochs and Capps’s Living Narrative. "All narrative," Capps and Ochs write in their introduction, "exhibits tension between the desire to construct an over-arching storyline that ties events together in a seamless explanatory framework and the desire to capture the complexities of the events experienced." This is especially true, the authors go on to say, for the focus of their study: conversational narratives. These narratives that we construct when we recount the day’s events or explain our reasons for doing something are exponentially more open than their literary counterparts. Conversational narratives might start out as an attempt to shape events into a straightforward trajectory, but with questions, challenges, and contradictions from the audience these narrative are, in Ochs and Capps’s estimation, open-ended and contingent collaborations. After an introduction that proposes a dimensional approach in lieu of a set of distinctive features that all narratives share, Living Narrative devotes each of the remaining chapters to describing one aspect of a conversational narrative: how a person becomes a narrator, launches a narrative, recounts an unexpected turn of events, uses stereotypes and familiar structures to define and configure events, and probes the moral dimensions of the narrative.

To some degree, then, the benefit of Living Narrative is that it drives a wedge between literary narratives, polished and produced by individual authors, and those socially constructed conversational narratives of everyday life. Though Ochs and Capps’s understanding of what questions a literary narrative can raise about its own coherence seems limited at times, the authors’ tendency to perform what amounts to some logical sleight of hand is more disappointing: as they insist on the difference between conversational and literary narratives and argue that conversational narratives "constitute the prototype of narrative activity," they nevertheless use "[l]iterary critics such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Michael Bernstein, Lawrence Langer, and Gary Morson, and historian Hayden White" to substantiate their claims. Living Narrative also lacks a unifying argument. Ochs and Capps offer brief glimpses of their broad purpose and underpinning assumptions but, unfortunately, the chapters are joined only by loose threads.

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MLA: Baetz, Joel. Telling Lives. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 172 - 174)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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