From Austen to Calvino; essential works of fiction about fiction.
Generally one of the more challenging concepts in contemporary literary theory, metafiction is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions.” It is, at its most basic, fiction about fiction.
Despite only rising to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, the origins of metafiction can be traced as far back as the 17th century in what is widely regarded as the world’s first modern novel: Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes. As a satire of chivalric romance, the relationship between reality and fiction is established from the prologue, when Cervantes outlines his plan to do away with “the great mass of inane books of chivalry” when recounting the adventures of the knight errant Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza as they journey through Spain. The metafictional character of the novel is even more evident in Part Two (1615), where Cervantes answers the duplicitous Don Quijote of Avellaneda by employing all manner of metafictional techniques to expose it as a fraud.
Written some two hundred years later, Jane Austen’s bildungsroman Northanger Abbey (1817) parodies the gothic tradition in its representation of the life and loves of unlikely heroine Catherine Morland. When Catherine is a guest at Northanger Abbey she falls subject to her overactive imagination in her determination to play out her role as Austen’s heroine. Speaking to Henry of her delight over the ancient building, that it must be “just like what one reads about,” Catherine continuously mistakes the abbey’s inhabitants for the unlikely characters of her gothic romances. Expecting to find hidden clues and mangled corpses at every corner, it is left up to the sensible and conscientious Henry Tilney to help her differentiate between the real and fictitious.
A multi-generational novel following the Buendia family over the course of a century, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), by Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel García Márquez, is a classic example of historiographic metafiction. Charting the turbulent history of Colombia and wider Latin America, the novel references several historical events, including the Thousand Days’ War and the unprovoked killing of United Fruit Company workers in the Banana Massacre of 1928. In an attempt to redefine Latin American identity, Marquez refutes the idea that the past can be accurately presented, employing magical realism to depict an alternate history of events and in so doing undermining any notion of objective truth.
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller”. So begins the first and only chapter of Italo Calvino’s 1979 landmark of postmodern literature. Comprised otherwise of ten incipits, all interrupted, the novel follows You, the Reader (a middle-aged man drawn to attractive, secretive women) and your various attempts to read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Packed full of stories at once distinct and inseparable, a thorough search for the metafictional aspects of Calvino’s novel is futile. For Calvino, reading is above all an act of pleasure rather than obligation.
Containing multiple plots in its employment of a story-within-a-story structure similar to that used in Calvino’s work, Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell employs metafictional techniques to enforce the importance of narrative in one’s life and the world more generally. Comprising the stories of six seemingly separate individuals, each told in its own writing format and along different timelines, chapters are broken off before completion, challenging traditional modes of writing to interrogate the purpose of storytelling.