Metafiction and the Modern German Novel

Many critics have noted that the modern novel exhibits a number of peculiar characteristics which set it apart from its predecessors. Already by the late 1950's, a shift away from the standard 'realistic' strategies -- those common throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century -- towards a more autonomous and at the same time less mimetic style of composition had made itself apparent, especially among French and American authors of the Avant-Garde. These modern novels, seen as they were to be categorically "new" and different, were designated accordingly: American and British critics found the term 'New Fiction' to be an adequate classification, while many Continental writers preferred the French 'nouveau roman.' The latter seems to have established itself among nearly all contemporary critics, as the titles of many recent works attest.

The term is vague, however; merely stating that a genre is 'new' says very little about its innovative character, and a more precise definition is needed. Early on, the unusually reflexive nature of many of these works was noted: the nouveau roman, it seems, did not stop at breaking from the 'realistic' tradition and setting itself apart as fiction; indeed, it actively thematized this separation and sought to discuss the very nature of its fictionality. Sartre noted the new novel's peculiar preoccupation with the themes of fiction, writing, and mimesis, and attempted in 1956 to explain the reasons for the new interest:

 These strange works are hard to classify but they are not a sign of the weakness of the novel as a genre, they simply show that we are living in an era of reflection and that the novel is in the process of reflecting on itself. [1]

Undoubtedly this is so, and one has ample evidence that the post-war generation was very much attuned to the search for understanding -- but were earlier ages then not "eras of reflection," somehow less concerned with examining their own nature? To clarify Sartre's position, Ann Jefferson postulates that the surge, dating from around 1950, in the number and quality of reflexive novels is due in fact to a literary crisis, a newfound scrutiny of form as well as content. New Criticism had reached its heyday, and critics began to feel the need to examine and test the validity of older systems of thought and organization. This led, as Jefferson states, to a heated debate about the character of the novel, which in turn was reflected in the works of young authors:

 The crisis in the concept of the novel that began in the 1950's led to an extremely intense and fertile exploration within fiction itself of the nature and limits of its own being as fiction. A high degree of reflexivity can be seen as a major consequence of the crisis in the theory of fiction. [2]

This self-directed criticism -- what Stonehill terms the novel's "skeptical examination of its own validity" [3] -- was not at all as ground-breaking as some critics made it out to be, of course. So-called "narcissistic" narratives can be found throughout the history of literature and the arts, and although often subversive in character, by no means do most of them display a blatant rupture with past tradition. Sterne's Tristram Shandy is a prime example of self-indulgent narrative, with the narrator (and ostensible author) directly addressing the reader at regular intervals, requesting her to read more attentively, and indeed reminding her incessantly of the act of reading the fiction. Even Don Quixote, considered to be a vanguard in the tradition of the European novel, shows the Knight in the second volume reading from the first volume of his own adventures: a prime case of what André Gide was to term the mise-en-abyme, a forever regressing reduplication (the term is taken from the heraldic practice "where one quadrant of a coat of arms reduplicates in miniature the structure of the entire coat of arms in which it appears" [4]). Hamlet's play-within-the-play is one of a long line of such 'metadramas,' stretching back to Aristophanic models. In painting the use of mirrors fulfills a similar function, while in music, as Stonehill points out, even J. S. Bach was not above self-indulgence in his fugues, one of which is based upon the notes B-A-C-H. James Joyce's Ulysses is perhaps the pinnacle of self-conscious fiction, and has received deserved attention and praise for its melding of fictionality and self-consciousness in style as well as substance.

More significant may be the contention that the nature of the novel per se is one of reflexivity and self-awareness. Mikhail Bakhtin, for example, claims that all novels are inherently reflexive because they do not concern an independent "reality" but rather their subject is the "language" in which we perceive this reality. Or, as Jefferson elaborates:

 Language in the novel does not only represent, but serves as the object of representation. The discourse of the novel is always self-critical. [5]

There is a marked difference, however, between novels in the tradition of nineteenth-century realism, which may deal thematically with topics such as language and writing but still uphold their stance as 'mirrors on reality,' and those of the new fiction: whereas the latter enjoy a claim to mimesis and are secure in their representation of a 'separate but equal' fictional world, self-conscious fiction upsets and even erases the boundaries between the fiction and the reality by merging the two into one. This is not only 'narcissistic' narrative in the sense of being self-indulgent, but it is indeed 'metafiction.' In Hutcheon's terminology:

 In all fiction, language is representational, but of a fictional 'other' world, a complete and coherent 'heterocosm' created by the fictive referents of the signs. In metafiction, however, this fact is made explicit and, while he reads, the reader lives in a world which he is forced to acknowledge as fictional. [6]

Other critics agree, and see in metafiction a subversive quality which is directly tied to the explicit fictionality of the work. Indeed, a main strength of the nouveau roman may lie in its ability to sustain a narrative while questioning its own validity. To produce and simultaneously subject the product to an intense scrutiny from within, Jefferson reports, is not only a rupture from realistic tradition, but an effort to assert a new paradigm for the writing of fiction itself:

 Ricardou, for example, sees the nouveau roman as an attempt to subvert the conventions which imply that the novel is a copy of reality, in order to demonstrate that the nouveau roman is constituted instead primarily by writing itself, which produces rather than copies reality. [7]

While Ricardou emphasizes the original and productive, i.e. non-mimetic quality of metafiction, it is important to note that the change is not in the ability to produce, but rather in the raw material used for production. Thus, the same activity that Ricardou terms "producing reality" is that which Stonehill sees as doubly mimetic: reflexivity, he rightly points out, can "absolve the novel of its responsibility to mirror reality by turning the novel's mirror upon itself." [8] Nonetheless, the innovation remains.

Above all, then, self-conscious narrative is seen not only as a break from realist tradition, but as a philosophical agent in its own right. Metafiction, as Waugh writes, "self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality." [9] In other words, by making the very nature of fiction a theme within itself, the nouveau roman can consider what traditional novels perhaps cannot. To test the boundaries between fiction and reality is in many ways the most delicate of tasks, and carries with it the danger of transparency, on the one hand, and paradoxical inconsistency, on the other. The means and mechanisms by which these novels attempt to successfully accomplish their objective remain to be considered.

Many critics seem to be content to trace the theoretical importance of metafiction without applying their critiques to the practice of modern novels; still others focus on the function of reflexivity within a particular novel but fail to elaborate on the particular forms this self-reference can assume. It would seem fitting, however, to first examine a range of novels and draw from them a set of reflexive devices that may be used, at which point individual examples can be discussed at length. Brian Stonehill has compiled just such a "repertoire of reflexivity," in which manifestations of self-conscious narrative forms are discussed at length. Drawing on his analysis as well as my own, the following paragraphs inspect the varied use and expression of reflexive narrative as well as its function.

Stonehill remarks, in considering the well-established history of reflexive literary works, that "there is something palpably subversive about a self-conscious novel, despite the distinguished tradition which it itself enjoys." [10] Indeed, perhaps because of this very well-recognized tradition, the modern metafictional novel both pays respect to its predecessors as well as declaring its independence from them. As Michel Butor suggested already in 1960, the novel is the "laboratory of narrative," a genre uniquely suited to the exploration of fictionality, since it is

 ... free to explore various forms of narrative and perhaps, being itself narrative, can make us aware of the narrative forms in which we habitually but unconsciously perceive, hear and talk of the real. [11]

As meta-narrative, then, the novel can enhance our understanding of 'real' narration; by extension, the nouveau roman, as meta-fiction, can also contribute to our understanding of the fictions which we perceive in our subjective reality. It is in this sense, then, that the self-conscious novel reveals both its subversive quality (attempting to reveal the 'fiction' inherent in 'reality') as well as its intellectual appeal. As Stonehill notes:

 By acknowledging what they are, self-conscious novels show an honesty and a respect for the reader's intelligence which novels that pretend to be life itself do not. [12]

In essence, these novels rely on a curious mixture of sovereign fictionality and mimetic realism -- this precarious balance also accounts for what Stonehill describes as the combination of "alienation" and "intimacy" in most metafictional texts. Although open thematization of the fictional construct does tend to distance the reader (it "prevents us from believing in the fictional illusion, by reminding us that it has been invented by the author for his or her readers"), it also creates a "bond of intimacy," much like that between listener and storyteller, in the very act of revealing its status as created fiction. [13] Also characteristic of such texts is a certain elitist quality: the sense that the metafictional text, with its often obscure narrative style and highly structuralized plot, as well as its tendency toward citation, is directed at a rather narrow cadre of educated elite readers.

To be noted here is also the autonomous nature of most metafiction: instead of obliging itself to mirror nature, the self-conscious novel "asserts instead that art has virtues of its own to admire," [14] and that art is an entity in and of itself. Kierkegaard's comment that "the beautiful is that which has its teleology in itself" [15] takes on importance in considering metafictional texts, for, as Stonehill explains, a completely non-mimetic literature can scarcely avoid "utter randomness and chaos." The saving grace comes in the conception of art as a game -- the so-called ludic theory of art, as expressed for instance in Schiller's Spieltrieb when applied to literature and the arts.

 In the ludic view which thus emerges, literature, like the other arts, is to be seen as a game in which the goal is "esthetic satisfaction," and in which "truth to life" is irrelevant. A novel, for example, proceeds according to stringent rules which have no necessary application outside the game. [16]

One of the rules of this game, at least from the reader's point of view, has always been what Coleridge termed the "willing suspension of disbelief," that is, the acceptance of the fictional construct as a temporary reality in which the internal laws have dominance over any external mandates. But while this acceptance is a necessary component of all fiction, there is a crucial distinction between the manner in which a 'realistic' novel approaches the reader, and the more 'honest' nature of reflexive narratives:

 All fictions ... require us to suspend our disbelief. The realistic novel does so covertly, as it endeavors to pass itself off as real life. But self-depicting fictions, by acknowledging the limitations of their own imitations, invite us to suspend our disbelief not only willingly but wittingly. [17]

Accordingly, Stonehill's analysis of reflexive tropes in self-conscious novels begins with an examination of the narrator's role in constructing the fiction. A notable (but not necessary) feature of most self-conscious narratives is, somewhat tautologically, the presence of a self-conscious narrator. While this most often takes the form of a figure who is simultaneously a character in the story, the story's narrator, and the implied author, there are other possible configurations, as well -- such as the narrator who either overtly or indirectly admits to the existence of the real author behind his creation. Additional characteristic attributes of narrative self-consciousness include, as discussed above, a marked tendency to alienate the reader by illusion-breaking and direct address, as well as logical inconsistencies, contradictions, or overt moralization in the narrator-author's own voice.

Stonehill then proceeds to discuss the stylistic markings of reflexive narrative, and remarks offhandedly that "all self-conscious novels are stylistically ostentatious." [18] I find this claim problematic, but will agree with the more neutral phrasing that style is often accentuated in the nouveau roman. In fact, the emphasis on style is yet another method by which the novel calls attention to its constructed fictionality. Stonehill notes, then, that the style of most metafictional novels is "linguistically opaque," a fact easily supported by the most cursory review of such works as Finnegan's Wake or even more conventional prose such as Grass' Blechtrommel. On the other hand, however, it seems that not all self-conscious texts seek to avoid linguistic clarity: works such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot make use of extremely simple language and use precisely this simplicity to reveal their fictionality, as well.

Briefly noting that the structure of self-conscious narrative may often draw attention to itself by virtue of its highly constructed quality or its sense of artificiality -- as expressed, for instance, in techniques like the mise-en-abyme or a so-called "spatial" form -- Stonehill then goes on to discuss the construction of character types in metafiction. In addition to structural constraints such as the doppelgänger motif or symbolic and dehumanizing names, "characters in self-conscious fictions tend also to be aware of their fictional status as characters, and are given to speaking back their authors, often in a critical tone." [19] Finally, he notes that, as previously considered, the break from the realist tradition is most consistently mirrored in thematic issues. Conventional 'naturalistic' themes are challenged, while paradox, contradiction, and self-parody are used to great effect as reflexive counter-themes. Images of games can often be found, as can what Stonehill terms "reflexive" behavior, including incest, masturbation, and death. All of these, he concludes, are "often accompanied by a thematic skepticism concerning the efficacy of language itself." [20]

A mistrust in the ability of language to faithfully represent experience, however, is not limited to metafictional texts, and can be found in canonical texts ranging from antiquity to the modern day. This skepticism has been such a salient feature of avant-garde writings, most particularly in Germany, however, that I feel a further investigation is called for. In light of this, I shall undertake a concise analysis of two modern German novels, focusing particularly on their character as self-conscious narratives, in an effort to illustrate the reflexive properties in each. Stonehill's excellent "Repertoire of Reflexivity," included here in brief form, will serve as a guiding framework for my discussion.


1. Narrators visibly engaged in the act of composition.
2. Reminders of the author in control behind a succession of narrators.
3. Direct address to the reader, as reader.
4. Textual self-reference; that is, other reminders that the book is a book.
5. Overt and eccentric moralization.
6. Verfremdungseffekt; the intentionally unconvincing rendering of character and action.
7. Description that de-visualizes.
8. Ostentatious manipulation of point-of-view.
9. Abrupt transitions between scenes.
10. Contradictions and "false" scenes.
11. "Unaccountable" disruptions of chronological sequence.

12. Conspicuously artificial styles, especially Euphuism.
13. Manifest incongruities of style and sense.
14. Linguistic opacity.
15. "Parabasis;" "a sudden revelation of the discontinuity between two rhetorical codes." (Paul de Man).
16. "Foregrounding;" the hypertrophy of style at the expense of story.
17. Use of non-referential language, including incantations.
18. Use of polysemous language, including puns, anagrams, and palindromes.

19. Conspicuous subordination of the plot to artificial generative principles.
20. "Spatial form;" narrative structures that are perceived spatially, as if in a single moment of time, by means of "reflexive reference."
21. "Architectonic" or "closed" structures, which "may claim near-total freedom from the laws of reality." (Sharon Spencer)
22. Mises-en-abyme.
23. Infinite regresses of structure; endo- and exo-narratives.

24. Dehumanization of character.
25. Characters aware of their fictional status; addressing their author, etc.
26. Doppelgangers of parodic or symmetric intent.
27. Grotesque or comical names.

28. Thematic concern with the relations between fiction and reality.
29. Deliberate and overt resistance to the traditions and conventions of literary naturalism.
30. Inclusion in the text of literary criticism of the text.
31. Self-parody.
32. Paradox.
33. Thematic images of reflexivity, both in physical setting (facing mirrors, concentric rings, etc.) and in reflexive behavior by the characters (incest, masturbation, repetition of one's past; etc.).
34. Death, rendered both as destroyer of illusions and as creator of the need for fictions.
35. Intimations of fiction as a self-contained game.
36. Celebration of the imagination's freedom to transcend the stubborn facts of reality.

Critics of the nouveau roman and its various incarnations -- metafictional texts and self-conscious narratives -- seldom mention German authors in their discussions, but focus instead on American, French, and British novelists. Certainly there is some logic in this exclusion of modern German writings; the intensity of self-awareness seems, it is true, much more pronounced in French novels, whereas the German form, still so tied to its realist heritage, retains an outward appearance that is highly conventional and quasi-realist. Nonetheless, many German postwar narratives do exhibit, to varying degrees, self-conscious and reflexive characteristics. Two works I see as being useful in this comparison are Walser's Ein fliehendes Pferd (1978) and Becker's Jakob der Lügner (1969); in both texts, the process of writing fiction is presented with narrative, stylistic, or thematic reflection. By undertaking such a comparison, I certainly do not mean to imply that these novels are undisputed examples of the German variant of the nouveau roman -- on the contrary, in many aspects both are anciens romans of the highest order. At the same time, the reflexive quality of each novel provides a stimulating basis for comparison, and can even reveal aspects of self-consciousness that other approaches may have neglected.

Ein fliehendes Pferd is perhaps the simplest of the two novels, both in linguistic style as well as self-conscious character. Indeed, until the final sentences of the novel, there is very little reflexivity to be seen in the work at all. Certainly the reader is aware that the novel is about a writer; but throughout most of the novel we are given to think that Helmut has not actually succeeded in accomplishing his intentions. By the end, however, we realize that the structure of the story is closed, the narrative revolves around itself, in what Stonehill would term an "endo-narrative." There are even aspects of Gide's mise-en-abyme, for when Helmut, recounting his story to Sabine in the train, reaches the end, one can only wonder if he will once again begin by relating how he tells her the story. Thus although the narrator is not overtly self-conscious, nor is the reader disturbed by any illusion-breaking moments, the textual Moebius strip created by the final scene jars the reader out of his complacency and into contemplation of the constructed fiction. So too is the structure of the work highly artificial: the symmetry between the married couples Helmut-Sabine-Klaus-Helene, complete with the significance of their names (Helmut and Helene, Klaus Buch, even Helmut Halm), as well as the monotonous sameness of the Halms' married life -- certainly a marker of "reflexive behavior" according to Stonehill's scheme -- all contribute to the sense of heavily-laden fictionality in the work. Despite its apparent claim to mimesis and its relative simplicity of language, the work's intratextual as well as intertextual reference, with nods to Kierkegaard, Goethe, and numerous others, place it clearly within the realm of reflexive fiction.

Becker's Ghetto novel Jakob der Lügner is significantly more problematic. In the first place, the narrator clearly thematizes the concept of fictionality, and presents the reader with two very different readings of the story: not only the version of the tale which he claims to be "das blaßwangige und verdrießliche, das wirkliche und einfallslose Ende" [22] but also the ending, "das sich nie ergeben hat." [23] Clearly he is "engaged," in Stonehill's terms, in the act of writing; what is more, he may be in control of the narrative's progress, but he cannot force his aesthetically and humanely more pleasing ending upon the course of the fiction which, in the end, retains its claims to mimesis and 'realism.' The reader is addressed as audience, usually indirectly as "man" or "ihr," and there are often other reminders of the work's fictional character, such as the narrator's insistent use of phrases like "es wäre am besten" [24] or the continuous discussion of probability and reality. Although the linguistic style is not "opaque," there is nonetheless a heightened awareness of the power of language itself -- this is due primarily, though, to the most heavily thematized issue of the novel: lying. Jakob's invented radio reports, his 'fictions,' are characterized as lies -- as a game, yes, but a deadly serious one. Stonehill's description of the significance of death in a self-conscious novel seems chillingly accurate here: "Death, rendered both as destroyer of illusions and as creator of the need for fictions." [25] It is the prospect of death that charges Jakob with the duty of creating his fictions, and it is the reality of death which in the end nullifies the narrator's own illusion of what would be "best" for his fiction. Indeed, the entire novel could be summed up with reference to Stonehill's category of the celebration (and in this case the ultimate failure) of the "imagination's freedom to transcend the stubborn facts of reality." [26]

In attempting to uphold the fiction's "probability" in the face of the erosion of "real" dignity, Becker demonstrates a fascinating blend of narrative approaches. As several critics have pointed out, one danger of the overly self-conscious novel is its proclivity towards either complete chaos and incomprehensibility (as approached by Finnegan's Wake), or toward formalistic monotony (Stonehill cites Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa (1974) as "an atrophy of story" [27]). Becker, however, retains both plot and style by tempering the extremes of his reflexive narration with the insistence on mimetic realism. As David Lodge formulated in his conception of the ideal metafictional novel, there can and should be a mixture of 'realism' and 'fictionality' within one text.

 The reality principle is never allowed to lapse entirely - indeed, it is often evoked, in the spirit of the nonfiction novel, to expose the artificiality of the conventional realistic illusion. Whereas the fabulator is impatient with 'reality' and the nonfiction novelist is impatient with fiction, the kind of novelist I'm talking about retains a loyalty to both, but lacks the orthodox novelist's confidence in the possibility of reconciling them. [28]

Indeed, the narrator's eventual failure to reconcile Jakob's two endings, and his recognition that the "wirkliche und einfallslose" version must win out, are presaged by the mistrust expressed at the very beginning of his novel: "ich habe schon tausendmal versucht, diese verfluchte Geschichte loszuwerden, immer vergebens." [29] This time he succeeds, but only at the cost of sacrificing his faith in probability and as well as his trust in reality. Becker's novel illustrates precisely the dilemma of the metafictional paradigm for the modern German novel, and demonstrates how, by preserving such a delicate balance between fanciful fabulation and conventional realism, the work can maintain its stance in the literary avant-garde.


(1)  Jean-Paul Sartre, Préface, in Nathalie Sarraute, Portrait d'un inconnu (Paris: Gallimard, 1956). Quoted in Ann Jefferson, The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 194. [return to text]
(2)  Jefferson, p. 5. [return to text]
(3)  Brian Stonehill, The Self-Conscious Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), p. 10. [return to text]
(4)  Stonehill, p. 9. [return to text]
(5)  Jefferson, p. 167. [return to text]
(6)  Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative (New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 7. Quoted in Michael Ahlers, Die Stimme des Menelaos : Intertextualität und Metakommunikation in Texten der Metafiction (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1993), p. 188. [return to text]
(7)  Jefferson, p. 4. [return to text]
(8)  Stonehill, p. 8. [return to text]
(9)  Patricia Waugh, Metafiction (New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 21. Quoted in Ahlers, p. 51. [return to text]
(10)  Stonehill, p. 8. [return to text]
(11)  Jefferson, p. 17. [return to text]
(12)  Stonehill, p. 7. [return to text]
(13)  Stonehill, pp. 6-7. [return to text]
(14)  Stonehill, p. 11. [return to text]
(15)  Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or. Quoted in Stonehill, p. 11. [return to text]
(16)  Stonehill, p. 13. [return to text]
(17)  Stonehill, p. 15. [return to text]
(18)  Stonehill, p. 21. [return to text]
(19)  Stonehill, p. 28. [return to text]
(20)  Stonehill, p. 29. [return to text]
(21)  Stonehill, pp. 30-31. [return to text]
(22)  Jurek Becker, Jakob der Lügner (1969; Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982), p. 272. [return to text]
(23)  Becker, p. 258. [return to text]
(24)  Becker, p. 44. [return to text]
(25)  Stonehill, p. 31. [return to text]
(26)  Stonehill, p. 31. [return to text]
(27)  Stonehill, p. 12. [return to text]
(28)  David Lodge, "The Novelist at the Crossroads," in Malcolm Bradbury, ed., The Novel Today (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 105. Quoted in Ahlers, p. 177. [return to text]
(29)  Becker, p. 9. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1996 for German 636 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Metafiction and the Modern German Novel." Website Article. 7 May 1996. <>.