November 08, 2005


Postmodern Identity-work and Historiography: The ‘Facts’ in the Strange Case of Monsieur Federman

By: Bent Sørensen
French born writer and critic Raymond Federman is best known as a practitioner and theorist of experimental fiction and as the inventor of terms such as ‘surfiction’ and ‘critifiction’, both denoting a type of literature where literary theory and practice meet in an acutely self-aware form of metafiction. The thesis introduced here is an innovative and theoretically acute reading of Federman’s two early novels Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse (1971) and Take It or Leave It: An Exaggerated Second-Hand Tale To Be Read Aloud Either Standing or Sitting (1976) which both conventionally are seen as radical experiments in fictional and narrative practices, but which rarely are seen as having a strong representational, let alone historiographic content. There are at least three difficulties which must be overcome before one can speak sensibly about what type of literature these novels are, and more generally the genres Federman’s oeuvre inscribes itself in. Lisbeth R. Pedersen’s contribution to solving these difficulties is substantial and welcome in a field of study where there is both too little work done overall (Federman is only the topic of approximately 60 entries in the MLA database, despite the fact that he has written fiction and theory for 35 years) and where there has been a recent draught in new contributions (most Federman criticism and all book-length work on him dates back to the 1990s).

The first problem of interpreting and labelling Federman’s work stems from his own apparently self-contradictory practice of labelling and categorising his own works – a practice which simultaneously underscores and undermines the role of history and autobiography in his fiction. “History is bankrupt”, Raymond Federman declares in his novel The Twofold Vibration, suggesting that history, like money, is a liability in the hands of investors who can lose it, regain it, invest in it, sell it, buy it, conceal it, reveal it, make it available. Not only is history a fluctuating currency in Federman’s hands, but history is the key that opens a whole world of narrative potentiality. As a subject in a historical context, one relates to history’s potential by exhibiting what Federman calls a “sense of historical possibilities”. All Federman’s works are saturated with making history, and particularly personal history, an active part of memory which never settles with ‘solid’ or ‘simple’ facts, but rather develops possibilities and potentialities around factual certainties. The tension between individual and collective memory is highly operative in Federman’s work. In all memory work he advocates for the place of invention as an empowering tool for both the aesthetic practice of the novelist and the ethical project of the historian. Yet he is acutely aware of the impossibility and necessity of trying to tell stories of history. “I am often asked”, Federman writes, “as a survivor of the Holocaust and as a writer: ‘Federman tell us the story of your survival’. And I can only answer: ‘There is no story. My life is the story. Or rather, the story is my life.’”

Federman’s fictional work is concerned with construing variations on statements such as these, which mark a demand for distinguishing history from story, reality from fiction. Yet it is paradigmatic within Federman’s understanding of writing that it is always “real fictitious” as witnessed by the use of this phrase as the subtitle of his novel Double or Nothing. Federman’s capacity to think historically is enforced in the idea of remembrance as narrative strategy: one writes in order to remember, and one remembers in order to be able to reveal. “It is necessary to speak”, he furthermore says, “to write, and keep on speaking and writing (lest we forget) about the Jewish Holocaust during the Nazi period even if words cannot express this monstrous event. It is impossible to speak or write about the Holocaust because words cannot express this monstrous event.” For Federman therefore, history is a dialectical bind, which involves a both necessary and impossible transmission of these haunting memories. Federman’s notion of history is not defined by a rejection of it as an ideology but by creating a mode of discourse in which history is open to possibilities.

The second problem with categorising Federman as more than just an abstract practitioner of revisionist and relativist postmodern fiction without an ethical edge pertains to the state of the available theories on the varieties of metafiction. Standard works such as Patricia Waugh’s book Metafiction. The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984), and Linda Hutcheon’s extremely influential theorising of the role of historiography in a postmodern fiction poetics (in A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, 1988) help furnish categories one can test out on Federman’s slippery texts, but ultimately one is left with corrective and supplemental work to do in order to find/create a suitable category. Even taking into account more recent work on metafiction, such as Mark Currie’s selection of and introduction to seminal pieces in the field (Metafiction, 1995) which at least takes into account the status of surfiction á la Federman as performing the movement typical of metafiction in situating itself between fiction and theory, one is left wanting both a more specific mark or spectrum of metafiction, and yet also a more spacious field for metafictional practices to play in.

The third and final ‘problem’ with Federman is exactly that: a problem only in the sense of misguided academic scare-quoting of hard-to-deal-with phenomena: Federman is just too funny for his own good. A writer who speaks the unspeakable in a humoristic way and openly commits himself to a celebration of pla(y)giarism is simply asking for trouble, asking to be bracketed off in some obscure category or other. As a playful master of the tragicomic, Federman juggles his 4 Xs, his lampshades and the other signifiers he operates with to represent the family he lost in the Holocaust with virtuoso performances, using calculated effects to strike a balance in the reader’s emotional response between laughter, grief, guilt, remorse and relief – stylistically rivalling the degree of control desired by an earlier practitioner of the horror of the mundane, Edgar Allan Poe, whose short story of a man vocalising from beyond his death I am evoking in the title of this introduction. Federman in a sense also speaks as such a surplus entity from beyond the pale, blue event horizon the Holocaust forms in Western thought, yet he is in no way, shape or form for the heavy of heart and mind, as also more recently witnessed by his delightful intervention into the currently most explosive genre of life writing, the blog, where one of Federman’s alter egos, Moinous, is currently setting new standards of excellence almost every day ( This blog, by the way, is also a site where one can meet the author of the present thesis, Lisbeth R. Pedersen in some of her more informal guises…

What, then, is it exactly this new study of Federman offers that we have not had access to before? First of all we are gifted with an extremely thorough and sober account of the dominant theories concerning the aesthetic and political aspects of literary postmodernism with a special view to charting the development of the American postmodern novel. These theories are critiqued, supplemented and corrected in many ways in the course of the work, none more so than Waugh’s spectrum of metafictional practices which is extended and reshaped to properly accommodate Federman’s work. Thus the thesis has realised its dual aim: Both to revise the work done in the 1980s and 90s on the poetics of postmodern narrative fiction (long overdue, as also witnessed by the revision currently being done by Patricia Waugh herself to her original book) and in the process resituate Federman as a crucial contributor to the subgenre of historiographic metafiction, and to seriously subject Federman’s novels to a close reading of, among other things, his innovative use of concrete prose and prose iconography to enrich his semiotic and significatory practice.

This thesis has found its inception in conference papers and other works Lisbeth R. Pedersen has produced in the course of her studies at Aalborg University’s English programme (notably her contribution to a workshop run by Dr. Camelia Elias and myself at the Karlstad conference on Memory, Haunting and Discourse, entitled “Memory and potentiality as narrative strategies in the work of Raymond Federman”). Lisbeth R. Pedersen’s paper on that occasion, “Frame-breaking and concrete prose in the works of Raymond Federman” pioneered some of the ideas she presents in more fully developed form in the thesis at hand.

The obvious strengths of this thesis do not only pertain to the scope and originality of the work, but also to the clarity of the style employed. The reader always feels in the presence of a competent guide and language user as we are taken through the jungle of poststructuralist theories and poetics. Lisbeth R. Pedersen’s charting of Federman as a hybrid figure in more ways than one (fiction writer and academic, gambler and control freak, French and American, playful and serious, Jewish and profane: ‘Moinous’, ‘Namredef’, ‘The old man’ and ‘Federman’ all rolled into one – ‘double or nothing’, indeed) is as convincing as any work on Federman done internationally, and on top we get a much needed supplement to the incipient insights within progressive literary scholarship that postmodern literature need not be stigmatised as a-political or lacking in ethical impact just because it appears in the guise of experimental prose. This thesis urges us to look again, and to look deeper.

Bent Sørensen
Aalborg University
November 2005

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