Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …

Frontiers of Narrative Studies

Editor-in-Chief: Biwu, Shang

Free Access
See all formats and pricing
More options …

“Both close and distant”: Experiments of form and the medieval in contemporary literature

Eva von Contzen
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of English, University of Freiburg, Rempartstr. 15, 79085 Freiburg im Breisgau, GermanyUniversity of FreiburgEnglish Literature DepartmentRempartstr. 1579085 Freiburg im BreisgauGermany
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2017-11-28 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/fns-2017-0019


This paper argues that some postmodern experimental forms of plot and narrative structure can be thrown into sharper relief by delineating them with medieval narrative practices of plot development. Ali Smith’s 2014 novel How to be both offers an experimental plot that is shaped by the alterity and modernity of medieval and Renaissance art. Drawing on the technique of fresco painting, the novel narrativizes the experience of simultaneity created by recollections of the past in the present. The novel’s two narrative strands – one set in contemporary England, the other in fifteenth-century Italy – are linked in associative and cross-temporal ways and highlight individual experience. Bearing similarities to medieval episodic narratives, the novel maximizes an a-centric narrative design that capitalizes on the reader’s input in motivating the story. Subsequently, Tokyo cancelled (2005) by Rana Dasgupta is briefly discussed as another example of a postmodern novel reminiscent of medieval narrative practices: in this tale collection held together by a very loose framework, plot itself becomes the protagonist as an epitome of modern society’s loss of identity.

Keywords: plot; experience; narrative motivation; medieval narrative; alterity and modernity; identity


  • Belknap, Robert L. 2016. Plots. With an introduction by Robin Feuer Miller. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar

  • Bhatt, Shakti. 2006. ‘India seems a greater abstraction to me than Europe.’ A conversation with Rana Dasgupta. Journal of postcolonial writing 42(2). 206–211.Google Scholar

  • Contzen, Eva von. 2015. Why medieval literature does not need the concept of social minds: Exemplarity and collective experience. Narrative 23(2). 140–153.Web of ScienceGoogle Scholar

  • Crown, Sarah. 2005. Narrative planes. The guardian, Mar. 29. Online.Google Scholar

  • D’Arcens, Louise. 2014. Presentism. In Elizabeth Emery & Richard Utz (eds.), Medievalism: Key critical terms (Medievalism V). 181–188. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.Google Scholar

  • Davenport, Anthony. 2004. Medieval narrative. An introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Dannenberg, Hilary P. 2008. Coincidence and counterfactuality. Plotting time and space in narrative fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar

  • Dasgupta, Rana. 2006 [2005]. Tokyo cancelled. London: Harper.Google Scholar

  • Dengel-Janic, Ellen. 2013. Voices of strangers in Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo cancelled (2005). Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 61(1). 73–85.Google Scholar

  • Elborough, Travis. 2006. Global Enchantment. Travis Elborough Talks to Rana Dasgupta. In Travis Elborough, P. S.: Ideas, interviews & features to Tokyo cancelled, 2–8. London: Harper.Google Scholar

  • Emery, Elizabeth & Richard Utz (eds.). 2014. Medievalism: Key critical terms (Medievalism V). Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.Web of ScienceGoogle Scholar

  • Fludernik, Monika. 1996. Towards a “natural” narratology. London & New York: Routledge.Google Scholar

  • Frow, John. 1982. The Literary Frame. Journal of aesthetic education 16(2). 25–30.Google Scholar

  • Gentry, Amy. 2014. How to be both: Ali Smith’s coin-flip. Chicago tribune, Dec. 12. Online.Google Scholar

  • Hamburger, Käte. 1994. Die Logik der Dichtung. 4th edn. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. Google Scholar

  • Jauss, Hans Robert. 1979. The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature. New literary history 10(2). 181–227.Google Scholar

  • Kukkonen, Karin. 2014. Plot. In Peter Hühn, Jan Christoph Meister, John Pier & Wolf Schmid (eds.), Handbook of narratology (Vol. 2). 706–719. Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter.Google Scholar

  • Lowe, N. J. 2004. The classical plot and the invention of western narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Lyall, Sarah. 2014. An onion of a novel, demanding to be peeled. Ali Smith talks about her new book, How to be both. The New York times, Nov. 25. Online.Google Scholar

  • Panda, Punyashree, and Sulagna Mohanty. 2012. Contemporizing the fantastic: A postmodern reading of Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo cancelled. Nigerian journal of the humanities 18. 1–17.Google Scholar

  • Richardson, Brian. 2005. Beyond the poetics of plot: Alternative forms of narrative progression and the multiple trajectories of Ulysses. In James Phelan & Peter J. Rabinowitz (eds.), A companion to narrative theory. 167–180. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Web of ScienceGoogle Scholar

  • Ryding, William W. 1971. Structure in medieval narrative. The Hague & Paris: Mouton.Google Scholar

  • Schultz, James A. 1987. Why does Mark marry Isolde? And why do we care? An essay on narrative motivation. Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 61. 206–222.Google Scholar

  • Schultz, James A. 1989. The coherence of Middle High German narrative. In Albrecht Classen (ed.), Medieval German literature. Proceedings from the 23rd international congress on medieval studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 5–8, 1988. 75–86. Göppingen: Kümmerle. Google Scholar

  • Schulz, Armin. 2012. Erzähltheorie in mediävistischer Perspektive. Edited by Manuel Braun, Alexandra Dunkel & Jan-Dirk Müller. Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter.Google Scholar

  • Smith, Ali. 2014. How to Be Both. London: Hamish Hamilton.Google Scholar

  • Vinaver, Eugène. 1971. The rise of romance. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar

  • Vitz, Evelyn Birge. 1989. Medieval narrative and modern narratology: Subjects and objects of desire. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar

  • Wiemann, Dirk. 2013. ‘...What will count as the world.’ Indian short story cycles and the question of genre. In Walter Goebel & Saskia Schabio (eds.), Locating postcolonial narrative genres. 153–168. New York & London: Routledge. Google Scholar

About the article

Published Online: 2017-11-28

Published in Print: 2017-11-23

Citation Information: Frontiers of Narrative Studies, Volume 3, Issue 2, Pages 289–303, ISSN (Online) 2509-4890, ISSN (Print) 2509-4882, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/fns-2017-0019.

Export Citation

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.Get Permission

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in