When Voices Clash: A Study in Literary Pragmatics

When Voices Clash: A Study in Literary Pragmatics

When Voices Clash: A Study in Literary Pragmatics

When Voices Clash: A Study in Literary Pragmatics

Excerpt

During a lifetime spent with books and many other sorts of literary pro—ductions, some persistent questions have been sticking in my reader's craw like so many annoying chicken bones. The questions had to do with the credibility of the narrative: How could characters perform the way they did, how could they say what they said, how could the action happen the way we were told—all these questions kept coming up, right from the time when as a very young child, having finished my first real book, Tolstoy's short story Ivan the Idiot (in a Dutch translation called Iwan de Dwaas), I asked myself how anybody could be so stupid as to say and do the things poor Ivan said and did. He just didn't make sense to one like me, admittedly not too competent a reader. (Today, I would say that this young reader had a 'voice problem').

Much later, I found that other people had been thinking along the same lines. In the mid-eighties, when I had been running the Journal of Pragmatics for a number of years, I crossed paths with a young Japanese graduate student, who thrust a manuscript into my hands on the way out of a guest lecture I had given at Osaka University. The piece was a critique of a book I had only heard of through occasional references, but which I now felt I had a kind of moral duty to read. The work reviewed was Ann Banfield's Unspeakable Sentences; the review was subsequently published in the Journal (Vol.13, 1989), and the young gentleman's name was Haruhiko Yamaguchi. For the latter, this was the flying start on a very promising career; for me, it was an introduction into the field of literary pragmatics, where I found many of the questions that had bothered me, raised, sometimes even with answers provided.

However, the idea itself of '(un-)speakability' (at least the way it is defined as the core theme of Banfield's book) was not exactly my cup of tea. As it turned out, Banfield's orientation was towards a pattern of thinking that I had abandoned several decades earlier, and this made it difficult for me to accept and underwrite her strictures and conclusions. In contrast, the notion of 'speakability' as such seemed a fruitful one and the questions it implicitly threw out were the same that I had been . . .

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