History and Storytelling: Tracking Clues in Thomas Pynchon’s "V." and Christa Wolf’s "Cassandra"

By Victoria de Zwaan.

Published by The International Journal of Literary Humanities

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Christa Wolf’s “Cassandra” and Thomas Pynchon’s “V” constitute two strikingly different late 20th century imaginative engagements with, and challenges to, the realist generic conventions of traditional historical fiction and the assumptions about history that underlie such conventions. These narratives are driven not so much by standard rules of objectivity and causality in relation to precision about chronological events, but rather by the obsessive and idiosyncratic tracking of, in Pynchon’s case, an initial in a notebook through “history's rags and straws” (a range of late 19th and early 20th century events around the globe) and in Wolf’s case the “keyword” Cassandra in literary history (Homer’s Iliad, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon). As I will demonstrate by way of close literary analysis organised in relation to Hayden White’s ideas about the history / narrative connection, as well as to Nietzsche’s idea of critical history, these texts, while giving us two quite different counter-realist engagements with history in terms of focus, trajectory, meaning, and philosophy, both foreground the complex roles of subjectivity, imagination, and desire in what Nietzsche would call the uses and abuses of history in making it of service to life.

Keywords: Genre, Subjectivity, History, Literature

The International Journal of Literary Humanities, Volume 11, Issue 4, October 2014, pp.17-27. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 444.407KB).

Dr. Victoria de Zwaan

Associate Professor, Cultural Studies Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

My graduate work in English Departments at McGill (MA) and Toronto (PhD) focussed on late 20th century American Experimental fictions; the book that came out of that was "Interpreting Radical Metaphor in the Experimental Fictions of Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, and Kathy Acker" (Edwin Mellen 2002). I consider my work to be theoretically informed close readings in the arena of comp.lit/cultural studies; extending well beyond American fiction. I am currently working on a book-length study of experimental fictions by Milan Kundera, Christa Wolf, Salman Rushdie, Milorad Pavic, and Italo Calvino, as well as the OULIPO school, the American metafictionists, and Mark Danielewski. I have also published several items about the idea of slipstream literature, a term that is quite prominent inside Science Fiction literary-critical circles. Other interests include: literary theory, cultural theory, history and development of cultural studies, aesthetics.