Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Thomas Pavel reviews Civic Storytelling

Florian Fuchs. Civic Storytelling: The Rise of Short Forms and the Agency of Literature. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Zone Books, 2023. 319 pp.

Review by Thomas Pavel

5 October 2023

This excellent book reflects on the success of proverbs, fairy tales, novellas and epiphanies in early nineteenth-century German literature. According to Florian Fuchs, these prose genres signaled an important change in the relationship between literature and reality. Why did these short genres take longer to emerge than the modern novel whose beginnings Fuchs, in agreement with György Lukács’s theory of the novel, sets in the late eighteenth century? To answer, Fuchs appeals to a development concerning all forms of civic discourse, which in the classical world included the rhetorical art, based on persuasive public monologues, and the topical art that governed “the discourse practice of participants in a political argument or conversation” (p. 14). Inspired by Hannah Arendt’s observation that in the eighteenth century the ancient ars topica declined and disappeared, Fuchs argues that in recent times the topical function of civic discourse was and still is fulfilled by the short forms of prose literature.

To support this hypothesis, Fuchs shows how from Aristotle to modern times ars topica was close to everyday life and the commonplaces that capture its practices. Brief narratives, Fuchs argues, also portray the individual aspects of this life, “the granularity of the everyday,” thus contributing to “the life-guiding, life-stimulating capabilities of literature” (pp. 64, 66). The life-guiding power of literary short forms is a result of their aidos, an Ancient Greek term that designates the capacities of a message to praise, instruct, warn, or serve as a parable. As ways of meditating about the products of literary imagination, Hans Blumenberg, respectfully cited, reflected on “nonunderstanding” and “pensiveness,” thus suggesting literature’s potential to become a “semantic agent” that lights up the world (pp. 94, 95).

For Fuchs, the novella is the best example of a literary genre that operates this way. Relatively short, narrating a significant incident that hints at something important about the world, it is presented by a narrator who wants readers to appreciate the literary quality of the piece. Commenting on Friedrich von Schlegel’s and André Jolles’s descriptions of novella, Fuchs emphasizes this genre’s double purpose, both casuistic insofar as it singles out a significant moral / social incident and artistic thanks to its ability to emphasize the various ways in which literature attracts its public. As Walter Benjamin noticed, one or more novellas are often inserted within a longer novel to invert the latter’s message. Miguel de Cervantes may thus have included the novella El curioso impertinente (The Ill-advised Curiosity) in the first part of Don Quixote (1605) to suggest that although the main narrative’s protagonist relentlessly faces ridiculous, imaginary challenges, actual human life is often threatened by truly strange passions that lead to tragedy.

The major features of modern novellas according to Schlegel are the double attention to the inner life of the narrator and its environment, the strong desire to make a point and act on the reader’s mind, and the need to be recognized as literature, as art. These features account not only for the early and mid-nineteenth-century German novellas by Heinrich von Kleist or Annette von Droste-Hülshoff but also for those published later in the nineteenth century by Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Storm. The latter’s Aquis Submersus (1877) and The Rider on the White Horse (1888) illustrate the expansion of this genre to longer narratives which, as Lukács noticed, “transcend the possibilities of the novella,” thus getting closer to that period’s novels, for instance Theodor Fontane’s Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich, 1891) (p. 147).

Concerning the other short genres’ emphasis on argumentation, Fuchs examines Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues (posthumously published in 1910), a collection of common places that parodically portray the middle-class worldview, as well as Gottfried Keller’s novella Clothes Make the Man (1874), whose action faithfully illustrates its proverb title. The genre of fairy tales speaks to children, Fuchs argues following Benjamin, and “reverse” adult cognition (p. 197). As for epiphanies, a term proposed by James Joyce, they are narrative moments that offer readers sudden illuminations. The book’s coda convincingly emphasizes the present-day writer and critics’ interest in the topical function of literature as a place where crucial contemporary issues are depicted and debated. Civic storytelling, Fuchs concludes his persuasive book, shapes “the very makeup of the human world” (p. 250).

In future reflections, Florian Fuchs might want to pay additional attention to the place of private, interpersonal exchanges in literary fiction, for example confessions among friends, gossip, and psychological counseling. It is the tone of a personal confession that makes Storm’s Aquis Submersus (1877) deeply moving. More recently, the French auto-fiction novel relates the author’s personal life, sounding like a set of meetings with a silent psychologist. Beyond generic requirements, literary trends have their own impact on the story worlds evoked by fiction. The rediscovery of fairy tales might thus be linked with the more general interest in fantastic literature, visible in so many nineteenth-century works and in twentieth-century magical realism. Fuchs was certainly right to limit his field of interest to short forms, yet in the future it might be worth exploring the interactions between these forms and other literary genres and trends.