Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference


"Surfictional Intratextuality: Raymond Federman" by Pia Brînzeu

Pia Brînzeu is Professor at the University of Timişoara, Romania. Email:

There are, indeed, countless analyses, discussions, essays, and books dedicated to intertextuality. Conspicuously absent are, however, serious investigations on intratextuality, a restricted form of intertextuality, which can be defined as the net of works belonging to a single author, who repeats the same story or characters in several of his or her works. Intratextuality represents a challenging theoretical issue related to specific forms of multiplicity, proliferation, and spreading illustrated by one writer only.

Although there are many similaraties between inter- and intratextuality, the latter, however, has many characteristics of its own, which make it stand apart as a challenging theoretical notion, worth investigating separately. Two famous statements made for intertextuality can be considered fundamental for intratextuality as well and can represent the starting point for our discussion. One is Charles Grivel’s (1982, 240) dictum “Il n’est de texte que d’intertexte”, which claims that no text exists in isolation but is always connected to a ‛universe of texts’. A distinction has to be made, however, between the larger universe of intertextuality, to which authors are indebted when imitating their predecessors, when stealing, copying, borrowing, parodying, or quoting other writers’ stories, and the smaller universe of intratextuality, which presupposes always new, different, original approaches to the same events or characters.
The second important statement is Heinrich F. Plett’s (1991, 17) affirmation that all texts have a retrospective as well as a prospective dimension. It implies that they are all simultaneously pre-texts and post-texts with reference to the works of their author and to those of other writers. Intratextually, all fictional works of a writer precede and follow other texts with the exception of the first text, which is only a pre-text, and the last one, which is only a post-text. The works are thus enmeshed in a field of intratextual creations, which has a dymanics of its own and creates a specific horizon of expectation: the readers expect the same story to be recycled in a different way and want to be surprised by the novelty of the result.
As regards the originality of intratextual fictions, the repetition of the same incidents and characters does not limit the writer’s imaginative powers On the contary, while intertextuality is considered by Roland Barthes (1977, 146) a tissue which reduces the writers’ art to a simple process of mixing texts, in the case on intratextuality we can say that the web created by refiguring the same events and heroes is a provocation to develop new literary devices, which place older and newer works into a fecundatory field of complementarity. Moreover, the intratextual space amplifies the inner potentialities of a work through the tensions exercised on it by pre- and post-texts. It activates the ‘internal mirrors’ noticed by Jean Ricardou (1975, 130) when speaking about the intensely self-reflexive character of postmodern fiction.
In order to understand how intratextual discourses traverse, guide, determine, and confuse a writer – willingly or unwillingly –, we should approach Raymon Federman’s experimental novels. They are based on the obsessive cloning of two incidents from his adolescence. The first is the moment when the Nazis came to take his parents and sisters to an extermination camp and when his mother pushed him into a closet, pretending that he was not at home and thus saving his life. The second significant moment is related to Federman’s leaving France for America, followed by a period rich in initiatic wanderings over America, Asia and Europe:

I lost both my mother and my mother country at a very young age. I left France an orphan, with nothing. No education. No family. No money to my name. I left France in summertime, practically naked. My luggage: shorts a size too small, a worn out skirt, and ragged sandals. I was nineteen. (Federman 2007, 17)

Destined to continue a desperate life as a Holocaust survivor, fighting with loneliness and poverty, Federman is tortured by a strong feeling of guilt: he is the one who has escaped death; he is the one who has taken the place of one of his sisters. That is why these major events of his life are repeatedly described in a series of novels, among which outstanding are Double or Nothing (DON 1971), Take It or Leave It (TIOLI, 1976), The Voice in the Closet (VC 1979), Twofold Vibration (TV 1982), To Whom It May Concern (TWMC, 1990), Aunt Rachel’s Fur (ARF 2001), and Return to Manure (RM 2006). The incidents are also referred to in many other writings, which form what the author calls “The Federman Cycle (A Portion Thereof) or Debris & Design of the Holocaust”, a syntagm used as the title of a short prose in which Federman (1997) underlines that it is only through repetition and variation that he can grasp the debris of his life and make a design out of it. The series, made up of fragments which recycle the same traumas, has grown to thirty pieces, and it is still growing into a large canvas, both of prose and poetry. Although the articulatory power of the two major events of the writer’s life has been convincingly analyzed by Cornis Pop (1988) as “_The Voice in the Closet_ complex”, Federman’s interviewers, critics and reviewers (Doris L. Eder 1976, Zoltán Abádi-Nagy 1988, Marcel Cornis Pop 1988, Anne-Kathrin Wielgosz 1996, Geoffrey Green 1996, Oppermann & Oppermann 1997, Alison Waters 2001, Mason Adams 2003, etc.) neglect the writer’s intratextual dimension, which, in my opinion, is Federman’s highly original way of transgressing his own literary limits.

Moreover, repetition, variation, and multiplicity are increased by the author’s diaglossia. Like Beckett, his great model, Federman writes both in French and English, feeling to be a “schizotype… who rides two languages/ who humps two languages at the same time,” “straddling two languages, two continents and two lives, two cultures also” (TIOLI 100). He thus amplifies the drama of recollection through linguistic duplication, repetition, and revision, a process he himself calls “distorification.” Based on the same autobiographical events, but narrated in two languages, writing becomes for Federman a process of “endless procrastination,” “a big crossing” of texts for the “mad acrobat of fiction” (TIOLI 199). The acrobats of fiction, Federman’s narrators, are his alter-egos, with different names, but always the same personality: Namredef (in TV and AFT), Old Man and Moinous (the French combination of “me” and “we” in TV), Frenchy (TIOLI), the writer (DON). Federman loves to play with narrators and their names, as he enjoys all his ludic digressions, juxtapositions, and collage strategies, born out of an immense pla(y)giaristic imagination.

On the one hand, Federman believes that reality exists only in its literary variants; on the other, he wants to erase the dramatic moments of his life by describing them in words and transforming them into literary texts. Since he fails in exorcising his traumas through writing, he is doomed to repeat the process over and over again. The experience is explained in The Twofold Vibration (1982), where the narrator, Old Man, an eighty-two-year-old writer living in the near future, awaits deportation to some space colonies and witnesses history repeat itself in a twofold manner. He concludes:

However, in this story, my story, if I deal with the death camps at all, it will have to be made clear that the central concern is not the extermination of the Jews, including my entire family, mother, father, sisters, but the erasure of that extermination as a central event. And it is, I believe, this ambivalence towards erasure that charges my life emotionally and informs its risks. (120)

For Federman, life is fiction, and biography is something one invents after having written it. To illustrate the idea, Federman introduces the term ‘surfiction,’ which, like surrealism, is above reality and abolishes history, especially the notion that reality is truth. He explains that unless an experience of life is articulated, verbalized, spoken or written, it remains nonexistent:

In the act of writing surfiction there is a sharing of the story with others. But the fact of transforming the primary-story into a secondary-story (into a ‘second-hand tale’ as I call it Take It or Leave It) implies an element of transformation, of distortion, and that’s because language always distorts the fact, the experience, the history, or, if you prefer, the origin. Surfiction is exactly that: a way of writing on top of a fiction but in the process transforming, distorting, displacing the original into a new space. (Nagy 1988, 158)

But Federman wants his novels to be more than surfiction. He inserts a lot of comments on writing fiction, thus creating texts which contain their own theory and even their own criticism. The metanarrative parts are meant to transform fiction into ‘critifiction’ (1993), a discourse in which the difference between fiction and criticism collapses in order to oppose John Barth’s ‘literature of exhaustion.’ Barth (1975, 19-20) believes that the novel has come to some sort of dead-end because of the changes to our sense of reality and because of the gradual diminution of literature’s importance amid the explosion of entertainment options in the late twentieth century. Federman (1975, 6) contradicts Barth, saying that the novel is far from being dead, and that its life is to be found in the Protean character of works which change, move, pulsate, transform, and are transformed according to the principle of complementarity. Even more, in The Twilight of the Bums (2008), Raymond Federman re-maps the territory of ‘laughterature,’ a term coined to name a specific style of writing, a game within language, set out to launch play as an exhaustion of transcendental signifieds, in which authors both weave and disperse a repetitive narrative to exhibit their digressive skills and explosive linguistic virtuosity.

Federman’s surfiction, critifiction, and laughterature make the intratextual field of texts (henceforward IF) have a dynamics of its own. In order to describe it adequately, I will use the perspective offered by quantum physics. Federman (1976b, 569) himself considers that

[q]uantum physics, postimpresionist art, the fiction that follows Joyce and leads to Beckett and what I call elsewhere SURFICTION, recent experiments in drama and cinema deny the possibility of a detached and fixed vantage, remove the pregnant point from the center of the circle. The subject is no longer enclosed within the frame of the observer’s vision. Instead there is a field of energy / a self-reflective field / where observer, subject, frame, and medium interact.

Quantum theory has noticed that at a subatomic level, matter is at the same time a particle and a wave. At the quantum level, physical objects possess both local, reductionist particle properties, and nonlocal, holistic wave properties, which depend on whether the position or wavelength of the object is measured. This discovery has demolished the classical concepts of solid objects and strictly deterministic laws of nature, since the solid material objects of classical physics dissolve into wave-like patterns of probabilities, ultimately representing probabilities of interconnections. In a similar way, a fictional work can be seen as an isolated particle, when readers are interested in the text as an isolated entity, taken out of its inter- or intratextual web. Outside the web, the work remains a mere particle; inside it, the work becomes a wave, flowing towards or away from other similar creations.
Moreover, at a subatomic level, matter does not exist with certainty, but rather shows tendencies to occur, expressed as probability. We can never predict an atomic event with certainty; we can only say how likely it is to happen. This wave-particle duality, together with its inner potentialities, makes physicists see the whole universe as a dynamic web of inseparable energy patterns. Similarly, within IF, a literary work is no longer a static object, but a dynamic pattern, a process based on the energy of generating new works. These works are colliding like subatomic particles and are redistributed to form new patterns, with fresh elements, open to new possible reformulations. That is probably why Federman (1996b) feels lost in the writer’s laboratory, where topics and characters, real incidents and texts mingle within an exhausting system of illusions. Intratextuality reverberates, cancelling distinctions between past and present, inside and outside, truth and fiction:

It turns. It gets all confused. It’s pure chaos. It spreads. It goes on and on. Somebody anybody do something. It gets hot. It gets cold. It turns in circles. It disappears and reappears just like that. It vibrates. It throbs. It makes funny noises. It looks like it’s going to do something and it does nothing. Sometimes it almost moves as if…

Repeated over and over, story telling invests works with kinetic energy, an act of provocation for Raymond Federman. He engages the reader in refashioning history by constructing a narrative which transforms memory, time, and place into a potential – a topos where the act of narrating becomes the memory of history. When one of Federman’s narrators reveals in The Twofold Vibration that “[i]t’s all there you schmucks, inside the words, teller and told, survivors and victims unified into a single design” (118), he suggests that the reality of an event becomes concrete only when the potential power of words is allowed to develop.

The kinetic dimension of Federman’s texts disrupts the conventional linearity of IF and makes it to be seen as a ‘flow’ rather than as a series of isolated texts. The boundaries of his texts also become permeable: no text is to be seen as an island entire of itself. It dissolves into the larger ocean of interactions, where both the tendencies to occur and the potentialities of the field are highlighted, but in which one can also notice the disruptive, disseminatory power based on a multiple articulation and pluralized practice, so often explained by Derrida. Last but not least, the space between the atomic particle is important in physics and so is the gap between the texts, in which forces of attraction and rejection come to a climax. It is the need to cover these gaps that makes Federman move from one text to another, introduce repetitions, comment upon his own writings in large metanarrative parts, and create a threefold discoursive complementarity. From a temporal perspective, Federman’s intratextuality is based on the complementarity boy/young man vs. mature/ old man, from a spatial persective France is opposed to and continued by America, while from a narrative point of view, the characters take the place of the narrator and vice versa, in a rational and simultaneously irrational game of perspectives, creating a series of selves, endlessly multiplied as a result of the various vantage points from which they may be – and necessarily must be – perceived. Like the subatomic space, the ‘hole’ is constantly present. In his effort to cover it, the author attempts to come to terms, on one hand, with the fact that he is the only member of a Jewish family to survive the Holocaust; on the other hand, he engages in a critique of the traditional literary conventions by emphasizing the limitations that language imposes on writers. Federman suggests that such conventions do not suffice as a means of conveying or explaining the horrors he underwent. However, the practice of repetition drives him crazy as does the inexhaustible relation between words and gaps, between what can be said and the unutterable:

It can’t go on. It can’t go on like that. It’s not possible. Doesn’t make sense. Somebody’s got to do something. Anything. It means nothing any more. Nobody knows what’s happening. There is everything and there is nothing. It’s going in all kinds of directions. Can’t control it. Doesn’t work any more. It’s as if …. It means nothing. It all seems lost. Lost nowhere. It can’t go on like that. It’s too much. /…/

It can’t go on. It can’t go on like that. Nobody knows what to do. What to say any more. No way to describe it. To control it any more. It drives everybody nuts. It palpitates. It sneezes. It spits. It ejaculates. Sometimes it even laughs at us. As if … It could go on for a long time. That would be terrible. Forever maybe. It could … yes it could … (Federman, 1996b)

Federman’s pronounced process of reiteration seems to be the only possible approach to understand the horrors and meaninglessness of the Holocaust. The unutterable is thus expressed by way of verbal icons imitating the same reality, but building chaotically structured narrative hierarchies that deviate from and mock at the traditional literary conventions.

How to speak the unspeakable? How to represent absence? These questions have been asked, over and over again, for more than fifty years now. But perhaps they were the wrong questions to ask. To say that it is impossible to say what cannot be said, to represent what refuses to let itself be represented, is indeed a dead end, unless one makes of this impossibility, of this void, this absence, the essential moral and aesthetic concern which displaces the original event, the Unforgivable Enormity of the Holocaust, towards it erasure. Perhaps these were the wrong questions to ask, because once the fire is out, only the smell of smoke remains — and the debris. (Federman 1997)

Apparently, the quantum principles of complementarity and particle-wave duality give freedom to the writer. In reality, however, Federman feels the prisoner of the closet, where, he, as a child, overlistened the last words of his family. Like many other victims of war, he feels guilty for having been the lucky survivor, and prefers, in his thoughts, not to get out of the closet. But there is also the voice of the Franco-American writer, closeted in his garret for the purpose of writing his work of fiction, a closet of artifice, from which he can escape only by multiplying his texts and trying to produce a unified text, made up of numerous smaller particles, of literary atoms. Ironically, Federman dreams of liberty, but he cannot go on freely, he has to move forward only within the same self-propelled text, unable to escape the power of his memories. Like Beckett in the end of The Unnamable, he feels he must go on, but he cannot do it. Life seems to be a hurting, painful, disastrous labyrinth, although for the readers the result of Federman’s fight with life is an impressive literary recollection.

The complementarity imprisonment-freedom brings us to a final idea concerning the reading of intratextual works. Although erratic, the movement from one novel to another establishes the real connection between texts, like the atomic movement, which gives consistency to matter in physics. Readers are free to start from whichever work they want, to activate any possible links, and to stop whenever and wherever they want. Moving across the oscillatory space continuum between newer and older texts, they can enjoying the basic unity and the intrinsically dynamic character of IF. Free to read the novels of an author like Raymond Federman in a haphazard way, to create their own intratextual field, with no work occupying a central position, they can successfully fight with turbulent literary demons, and survive in the stifling quantum closet of intratextuality.

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