Posts tagged The Unnameable
Project Proposal — The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography

My novel, The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, is a retelling of Madame de Villeneuve’s The Story of Beauty and the Beast (published in 1740). Villeneuve and her “original”—about whether Beauty will consent to have sex with the Beast—have been forgotten by history. My novel aims to recover the life story of author-salonnière Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and to restore to her tale her 18th-Century proto-feminist philosophy. My PhD dissertation situates itself between serious literature and mass-market fairy-tale romance, between the folkloric historiography of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 425C and the bestselling genre of historical fiction, between novel and biography and the intersection of these in the mimetic-parodic literary tradition of fictional biographies, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (1947).

In the Author’s Preface to The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, “I” am my novel’s first 1st-person narrator, and I ask if we really need another retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I quote fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar, who claims: “That every culture seems to tell ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in one fashion or another suggests it is part of our DNA. We make the story new so we can think more and think harder about the stakes in partnerships and marriages.”[1] I also refer to critic Jerry Griswold, who believes its “popularity over time suggests its importance. The oldest version [… is Apuleius’s] ‘Cupid and Psyche,’” which appeared around 150 A.D. but drew on Greek versions derived from India’s “The Woman Who Married a Snake,” which “existed in oral form before its appearance in print in 500 A.D.” The story’s “endurance” for “more than two millennia,” Griswold contends, is one reason for its “significance and power” — as well as its “geographical distribution” the world over and its appeal to mainstream and marginalized child and adult audiences.[2]

In the next section, the Introduction, I go on to explain that the goal of my retelling is to re-narrativize our commonly held belief about the historical rise of the novel. I aim to reach Creative Writing, English, Folklore, and Literary History professors who might teach my book. Chapter by chapter, I will chronologically mimic and integrate the traditions of the 18th-Century novel; the 19th-Century’s Gothic, social realist, and Decadent novels; 20th-Century Modernist novels; 21st-Century Postmodernist novels. My retelling of Beauty and the Beast will provide professors, students, book clubs, and casual readers with a step-by-step model that traces the development of the Western novel from the 18th Century to today. From this new context I provide, I hope English majors in particular can further appreciate the objectives of their required “Survey of English Literature” courses. I hope they will enjoy reading my novel, but also that they will discuss and debate the literary, historical, creative, and artistic issues it raises.

In my Prologue, I reveal a new 1st-person narrator (Villeneuve’s biographer) and an editor who points out that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (also about a young beauty imprisoned in a country estate by a beastly “Mr. B”) was also published in 1740. This footnote propels my novel’s first sub-narrative, about Pamela’s spinoff products, “critiques, parodies, translations, plays […], and several sequels.”[3] Our editor will further compare the production of Pamela-inspired ephemera to Beauty and the Beast’s transmedial phenomena. Villeneuve, however, in her Eighteenth-Century Paris salon — our biographer interjects — could not have known the extent to which her story would endure. My Prologue becomes the opening frame of my novel proper, with Villeneuve in her salon the night she begins telling “La Belle et la Bête.”

In chapter one, Villeneuve becomes our third 1st-person narrator (fourth, if we count our editor). She opens with the misfortunes of Beauty’s father, a merchant whose ships have been pillaged by pirates, and tells how he and his children are forced to relocate from a city “not far from here” to their country house that “might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.” Our editor tells us this is significant because Villeneuve’s tale is set neither “far away” nor “long ago,” making it the first of its kind to place its characters in the author’s own space and time. This may reflect Villeneuve’s awareness of her audience’s receptivity, as she satirizes the merchant’s friends who were “so cruel as to attribute [his] misfortunes to his own bad conduct.”[4] Her jab at victim-blamers mirrors Henry Fielding’s contemporaneous notes/manifesto toward the new novel, in which he states the satirist might punch up but never down.

In The Inward Turn of Narrative, Erich Kahler states that in the 18th century, “the ego engaged in monologue and dialogue became the vehicle of the new narrative.”[5] Villeneuve, then, a historical figure recast as character-who-narrates in my own novel, employs the same playful monologuing as Fielding, and, in dialoguing with her salon-audience, she digresses like Laurence Sterne — which our editor identifies as the main reason Villeneuve’s version never stuck (and why Disney adapted instead Madame de Beaumont’s much-abridged 1756 version). Reveling in Cervantes’ and Fielding’s subplots, and Sterne’s anti-plot shenanigans, Villeneuve in my retelling joins the ranks of these men who famously inaugurated the rise of the novel.[6]

In chapter two, when Beauty’s father receives his death sentence, my novel turns Gothic. I will draw from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman so that my editor-character can investigate Diane Long Hoeveler’s claim that Wollstonecraft’s “devices—hyperbole, dramatic self-stagings, repeated presentation of heroines as victims, [… are] very similar to [those] employed by later female Gothic novelists.” I wish to examine the father’s emasculation as well as this chapter’s potential to highlight “the Gothic’s role in reforming class attitudes, in defining appropriate behavior for both sexes, and in codifying literature’s role as an ideological system that operates to shape and enforce what we now call values in society.” [7]

In chapter three, the Gothic turns Romantic when Beast sends his white horse to bring Beauty to the castle, where she is greeted with fireworks, gardens filled with unseasonably fruiting trees, costumed monkeys pantomiming Renaissance dramas (hidden parrots beneath wigs performing the voices), and his library that houses every book ever written and every book yet to be written. In this epistolary chapter, Beauty’s letters are laments about how she has only her imagination for company. Terrorized by Beast’s request to let him sleep with her, she nightly answers, “No,” which prompts our editor to remind us of Beaumont’s revision, “Will you marry me?” I cannot overstate the importance of restoring Villeneuve’s original. Her boar-headed, lion-tailed, lizard-scaled Beast understands the meaning of consent—unlike Richardson’s refined Mr. B., whose repeated attempts to rape Pamela will go neither unmentioned nor unpunished in my dissertation.

Chapter four, in which Beast insists that Beauty go home, is written as 19th-Century social realism with a dash of decadence. The chapter begins with a nod to Madame Bovary, briefly utilizing the 1st-person plural of Beauty’s five sisters who sabotage her return to the castle. Their point of view — their disinterested Des Essientes-style cataloging of the fine clothes and jewels they wear (thanks to Beast’s generosity, owed to Beauty’s self-sacrifice), their lavish living arrangements, their petty amusements and desires for suitors with titles — transforms into a Bleak House-inspired 3rd-person narrator whose judgments are harsh and unfailingly unforgiving, drawing attention to social norms, mores, hierarchies not usually observed.

Chapter five — my modernist episode — is told from Beast’s close 3rd-“person” point of view. Like Gregor Samsa, he wakes in his monstrous form. His stream-of-consciousness is as fragmented as his body: transported into a memory of overtaking and ripping open the throat of a doe, he smells the sweat and fear of prey the way Marcel tastes tea; he speaks, when he speaks, like Gertrude Stein, stuttering interrogatives to determine whether Beauty is satisfied with his castle’s objects, rooms, and food; he thinks like Beckett’s Unnameable, in the ever-present, consumed by his inability to communicate, to comprehend his body; he desires obsessively like Humbert Humbert; yet he observes, always, like the narrator of Jealousy, from the outside looking in; and, finally, like Gregor, he “[hangs] on until […] his last feeble breath,” and dies.[8]

In chapter six, my postmodernist episode, Beauty is in the library — reading every version of her own story she can find. She has perhaps just arrived at the castle, and, having discovered Beast’s library, begun poking around only to encounter a novel, and then another and another, that uncannily features a young heroine resembling herself. Perhaps we too have been reading an assemblage of different texts written in different times. The many Beauties born over the past two millennia are all gathered in my final chapter; and certainly they must differ from one another in ways I imagine will be fun to reshape and recontextualize as I cut and paste from as many variants of the animal bridegroom tale as I can find. For in my own retelling, I wish to defer to these and to the other texts mentioned here. In so doing, I will produce a novel that is itself in a constant state of transformation, a demonstration of my desire to obliterate boundaries between literary time periods, forms, and genres; and a challenge to myself at this point in my career to strive toward a stylistic range I have never dreamed of undertaking—a manuscript indebted to my PhD education at the University of Utah and to those most enduring novels that have so magically and beautifully inspired me while here.


[1] Maria Tatar, Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales about Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World, Penguin Books, 2017, p. ix.

[2] Jerry Griswold, The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast”: A Handbook, Broadview Press, 2004, p. 15.

[3] James Grantham Turner, “Richardson and His Circle,” The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John J. Richetti, Columbia UP, 1994, p. 76.

[4] Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, The Story of Beauty and the Beast, translated by Ernest Christopher Dowson, John Lane Company, 1740, pp. 1, 2-3, 5.

[5] Erich Kahler, The Inward Turn of Narrative, Northwestern UP, 1973, p. 148.

[6] Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Chatto & Windus, 1957.

[7] Diane Long Hoeveler, “Teaching the Early Female Canon,” Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller, MLA, 2003, p. 105.

[8] Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, B&N, 2003, p. 48.

Jealousy, The Unnameable, and Lo-lee-ta

The first time I read Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, I was overwhelmed by the absence of an embodied narrator, the implied but invisible first-person "I." I remember my discomfort, my reaction to being forcibly placed within the jealous husband's physical point of view. His obsessive gaze was (and still is) threatening, dangerous, removed, incredibly close but simultaneously distant and detached. I remember needing clues, anchors, I could latch on to in order to gain (or regain) my bearings, and I attempted to at least pay attention to the details, the objects described, the things. But when those things shift and move and appear and disappear from one telling to the next, the multiplicity of possible outcomes to the same told and retold episode is anything but stabilizing.

This time, though, I knew what I was in for. (And I think it is also possible that because I re-read Jealousy after having just finished Nabokov's Lolita for the first timeI was able to take some strange comfort in the narrator's curiously familiar voice; I barely registered the absence of his psychological interiority. After all of Humbert Humbert's language-crazed, Lolita-loving madman interiority, I suppose it's nice to get some overly objective distance, you know?) Which is not to say that Robbe-Grillet's narrator isn't fixated. He is. And his relentless gaze/stare is directed at his wife and their friend Franck who may or may not be her lover. 

Coincidentally (and, I think, helpfully for the reader), his wife and Franck happen to be reading the same novel, and it seems to me that the narrator's/Robbe-Grillet's description of their reading experience is precisely the kind of reading experience we are supposed to be having ourselves. 

Now both of them have finished the book they have been reading for some time; their remarks can therefore refer to the book as a whole: that is, both to the outcome and to the earlier episodes (subjects of past conversations) to which this outcome gives a new significance, or to which it adds a complementary meaning.

They have never made the slightest judgment as to the novel's value, speaking instead of the scenes, events, and characters as if they were real: a place they might remember (located in Africa, moreover), people they might have known, or whose adventures someone might have told them. Their discussions have never touched on the verisimilitude, the coherence, or the quality of the narrative. On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends. 

They also sometimes deplore the coincidences of the plot, saying that "things don't happen that way," and then they construct a different probable outcome starting from a new supposition, "if it weren't for that." Other possibilities are offered, during the course of the book, which lead to different endings. The variations are extremely numerous; the variations of these, still more so. They seem to be enjoying multiplying these choices, exchanging smiles, carried away by their enthusiasm, probably a little intoxicated by this proliferation. 

Thus Franck sweeps away in a single gesture all the suppositions they had just constructed together. It's no use making up contrary possibilities, since things are the way they are: reality stays the same. 

In the space of a page, Robbe-Grillet tells us to withhold judgment about the novel's value, and to speak instead of the characters (as we do most characters), as if they are real. We need not discuss verisimilitude, coherence, or quality of the narrative. We can, however, judge the jealous husband, A--, and Franck. It's true that the "plot" here is not a realistic representation of the way things really happen, but nonetheless we consider a number of different probable outcomes and different endings. And apparently, we are supposed to be enjoying the proliferation in the novel, even if in our own "reality stays the same." 


Beckett's unnameable narrator is, like Robbe-Grillet's, a disembodied voice who posits multiple possibilities to what may or may not be happening. But this narrator is anguished. He struggles. He sinks deeper and deeper into the unknown. He may or may not be a character. He may or may not be the narrators of Beckett's other books. He has hands and knees, but then he doesn't. He has only one leg and a pair of crutches, but he also at some point had a bicycle. He has no nose, no genitalia. But then many pages later he declares he has a penis. He narrates and de-narrates, offers possibilities but then takes them back, ventures forth and then retreats. He may be lying in the fetal position. He may be neck-deep in mud. He may be a worm. He may be in a bubble. He remembers he had a family, but whether it was his own or one of the other narrators' he doesn't say. Here are some of my favorite lines he does say/narrate/de-narrate: 

p. 335: "I like to think I occupy the centre, but nothing is less certain."

p. 339: "They gave me courses on love, on intelligence, most precious, most precious." 

p. 341: "Perhaps it is time I paid a little attention to myself, for a change. I shall be reduced to it sooner or later. At first sight it seems impossible. Me, utter me, in the same foul breath as my creatures? Say of me that I see this, feel that, fear, hope, know and do not know? Yes, I will say it, and of me alone. Impassive, still and mute." 

p 344: "So there is nothing to be afraid of. And yet I am afraid, afraid of what my words will do to me, to my refuge, yet again. Is there really nothing new to try?"

p. 349: "Let us then assume nothing, neither that I move, nor that I don't, it's safer, since the thing is unimportant, and pass on to those that are." 

p. 367: "They have even killed me off, with the friendly remark that having reached the end of my endurance I had no choice but to disappear. The end of my endurance!"

p. 368: "To tell the truth, let us be honest at least, it is some considerable time now since I last knew what I was talking about."

p. 370: "Dear incomprehension, it's thanks to you I'll be myself, in the end."

p. 377: "Perhaps all they have told me has reference to a single existence, the confusion of identities being merely apparent and due to my inaptitude to assume any." 

p. 423: "When all goes silent, and comes to an end, it will be because the words have been said, those it behoved to say, no need to know which, no means of knowing which, they'll be there somewhere, in the heap, in the torrent, not necessarily the last . . . "

p. 449: ". . . with closed eyes I see the same as with them open, namely, wait, I'll say it, I'll try and say it, I'm curious to know what it can possibly be that I see, with closed eyes, with open eyes, nothing, I see nothing, well that is a disappointment. . . "

p. 458: ". . . if I could be in a forest, caught in a thicket, or wandering round in circles, it would be the end of this blither, I'd describe the leaves, one by one, at the moment of their growing, at the moment of their giving shade, at the moment of their falling, those are good moments, for one who has not to say, But it's not I, it's not I, where am I, what am I doing, all this time, as if that mattered, but there it is, that takes the heart out of you, your heart isn't in it any more, your heart that was, among the brambles, cradled by the shadows, you try the sea, you try the town, you look for yourself in the mountains and the plains, it's only natural, you want yourself, you want yourself in your own little corner, it's not love, not curiosity, it's because you're tired, you want to stop, travel no more, seek no more, lie no more, speak no more, close your eyes. . ."

p. 476: ". . . you must go on, I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'l go on." 

If you've ever been confused, and sad, about anything, anything at all, and especially if you somehow also became a writer to try to make sense of your confusion and sadness, or if you generally just try to find some way to think your way out of problems, Beckett's the guy for you. 


And if you've ever been on the outside of anything, trying to see in, wanting to be let in, going a little bit out of your mind about what might be happening in there, desperately trying to figure out how things happened the way they did and how things could have or should have gone instead, and if you've ever just tried to get your bearings by simply taking stock of your surroundings, your belongings, your home, your family and friends, your daily routine, then Jealousy is a pretty good bet for you. 


(And if you are a someone who considers yourself to be open-minded and pro-art and anti-censorship, then challenge yourself with Lolita. I say this because, during my own recent reading experience, I kept closing the book and thinking: So this is how other people feel when they have to read about things they consider "amoral" and/or "disgusting" and/or whatever. It was a really useful readerly response for me to have, and I tried to really experience my own full and total revulsion, because I think it can only help me better relate to future students who are uncomfortable with any kind of subject matter. And maybe it can help me convince them why I, at least, would never want to live in a world where Lolita hadn't been or wouldn't be published. Because it would be the same world that would ban and burn books like The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and also, I could argue, those standard-fare drugstore paperback romances and murder mysteries, not to mention that sorcery/black magic/devil's work Harry Potter and of course that multi-billion dollar mainstream success story, Fifty Shades of Grey.)