KARLSTAD Conference 2004: Memory, Haunting, Discourse

Memory and potentiality as narrative strategies in the work of Raymond Federman.

Federman's logo

Workshop frame:

 “History is bankrupt”, Raymond Federman declares in his novel The Twofold Vibration, suggesting that history, like money, is a liability in the hands of investors who can lose it, regain it, invest in it, sell it, buy it, conceal it, reveal it, make it available. All these fluctuating and conflicting aspects of history are recurrent in Federman’s fictional work and point to a world of potentiality. As a subject in a historical context, one relates to history’s potential by exhibiting what Federman calls a “sense of historical possibilities”.

All Federman’s works are saturated with making history, and particularly personal history, an active part of memory which never settles with ‘solid’ or ‘simple’ facts, but rather develops possibilities and potentialities around factual certainties. “I am often asked”, Federman writes, “as a survivor of the Holocaust and as a writer: ‘Federman tell us the story of your survival’. And I can only answer: ‘There is no story. My life is the story. Or rather, the story is my life.’”

Federman’s fictional work is concerned with construing variations on statements such as these, which mark a demand for distinguishing history from story, reality from fiction. Federman’s capacity to think historically is enforced in the idea of remembrance as narrative strategy: one writes in order to remember, and one remembers in order to be able to reveal. “It is necessary to speak”, he furthermore says, “to write, and keep on speaking and writing (lest we forget) about the Jewish Holocaust during the Nazi period even if words cannot express this monstrous event. It is impossible to speak or write about the Holocaust because words cannot express this monstrous event.” For Federman therefore, history is a dialectical bind, which involves a both necessary and impossible transmission of these haunting memories. Federman’s notion of history is not defined by a rejection of it as an ideology but by creating a mode of discourse in which history is open to possibilities.

Bent Sørensen
Camelia Elias
Jesper Christensen
Lisbeth R. Pedersen

Federman-quotations from the four lectures

Bent Sørensen:
Future and Past Memory in Raymond Federman’s The Twofold Vibration

French born writer and critic Raymond Federman is best known as a practitioner and theorist of experimental fiction and as the inventor of terms such as ‘surfiction’ and ‘critifiction’, both denoting a type of literature where literary theory and practice meet in an acutely self aware form of historiographic metafiction.

This paper is concerned both with Federman’s experimental style and with the playful representation of memory and history and its consequences in his 1981 novel, The Twofold Vibration. The novel poses questions about the intersections between political activism, idealism and exploitation, and popular culture and history.

In the novel a character known only as ‘the old man’ (one of many Federman alter egos in the book) accidentally involves himself in a campus demonstration in Buffalo, New York, in the late 1960s. He performs what amounts to an acte gratuite by hurling a bicycle at a policeman, and from there he becomes propelled by events beyond his control into a role as a political activist/celebrity. The pace picks up when a thinly veiled Jane Fonda-like character, June Fanon, chooses to champion the cause of the “Buffalo 45”, of whom ‘the old man’ is cast as a leader by the media. As casually as ‘the old man’ hurled the bicycle, the two ‘activists’ fall for each other’s charms and decide to “forget about the revolution” and elope together to Europe.

This apparently irresponsible act is further motivated by ‘the old man’s’ assertion that “most of us live our politics in the past” (to which Fanon replies: “Or in the future”), and, what is more, that “political understanding is but a series of second thoughts”. Both characters escape the historical moment of the 1960s without qualms: Fonda/Fanon already planning the emotional depths of future film roles that have yet to be created for her (for instance, her Oscar winning performance in 1978 in Coming Home); ‘the old man’ dreaming of repeating a fabulous winning streak at the roulette tables of Monte Carlo. In the greater scheme of the novel, both these future and past reminiscences are presented as far more substantial than the characters’ present 1960s counter cultural activism. The couple embark on a trip which gradually evolves into a journey of remembrance for ‘the old man’, taking him from the casino tables to the Nazi death camps that are symbolically figured as a birthplace for his second, surplus life in America.

This paper therefore presents a twofold thesis: ‘The old man’s’ accidental political radicalism leads to a confrontation with the haunting past, which ultimately is redeemed in an effective working through of trauma; whereas Fonda/Fanon’s carefully designed, but futile activism leads nowhere but back to Hollywood, simply because it does not result in any exoneration of a past burden or guilt, but merely serves as a future oriented publicity strategy.

Camelia Elias:
H(a)unting Potentialities: Federman Frenzies

Story telling, for Raymond Federman, is an act of provocation which engages the reader in a refashioning of history by constructing a narrative which transforms memory, time, and place into a potential - a topos where the act of narrating in the first person plural becomes the memory of history. When one of Federman’s narrators “reveals” in The Twofold Vibration: “It’s all there you schmucks, inside the words, teller and told, survivors and victims unified into a single design”, he suggests that the reality of an event becomes concrete only into the potentiality of words. This paper argues that one of the functions of the use of the first person plural is to ‘plot’ against traditional modes of narration, which merely ‘set up’ and ‘frame’ the reader’s expectation. The interplay between first, second, and third person narrators, culminating in the collective narrator/narratee of the first person plural, further indicates that the reader’s referential field itself becomes a potential topos for situating history in memory.

Jesper Christensen:
Hypothetical Past, Present and Future – Narrative Strategies in Raymond Federman’s Writing

As the only member of his close family, French-American writer and critic and Raymond Federman survived the Holocaust. Ever since, Federman has attempted to come to terms with this horrible historical fact through his writings. Both his poetry and prose are radical as regards the manner of narration, form, typesetting and layout. However, to Federman writing is not primarily a matter of experimenting. Rather, it is the only way for him to come to terms with living when so many others were exterminated.

Reading Federman’s texts is to witness a constant challenge of the conventional relationships between the concepts of both historical facts as well as fictional facts. As Federman cautions the reader at the onset of his 1976 novel, Take It or Leave It: “All characters and places in this book are real, they are made of words, and therefore any resemblance with anything written (published or unpublished) is purely coincidental”. Reality depends on how you write and narrate it.

This paper suggests a methodological approach to a major narrative strategy in Federman’s historiographic metafiction. An
examination of the use of hypothetical notions in his texts will serve as insights into Federman’s perception of the potentiality of writing versus the narration of one’s history. Concerning the historical past, Federman’s approach to his narration is an attempt at uncovering the matter of Fate: Surviving while others have perished.

The overall purpose of this paper is to investigate how Federman uses the forwarding passages of hypothetical notions in texts to clarify his strained relationship with the facts of linear historical time. To Federman, writing history is not merely a matter of words, it is matter of how life and death — and reality — could potentially have turned out.

Lisbeth R. Pedersen:
Frame-breaking and concrete prose in the works of Raymond Federman.

Raymond Federman’s two novels Double or Nothing (1971) and Take It or Leave It (1976) are highly experimental and provocative both in terms of their style and the narrative strategies employed. With these novels, Federman presents us with two somewhat thinly disguised versions of his autobiography while, at the same time, he tells us the story of telling stories and the problems that arise during this process. Both novels can therefore be seen as typical examples of metafiction. Hence, the novels serve a twofold function: On the one hand, they can be seen as Federman’s attempt of coming to terms with the fact that he is the only member of a Jewish family to survive the Holocaust. On the other hand, the novels function as a critique of traditional literary conventions and emphasise the limitations that language imposes on us. Federman seems to suggest that such conventions do not suffice as a means of conveying or explaining the horrors he underwent.

The purpose of this paper is to investigate some of the metafictional strategies employed by Federman. Through the prominent and very playful use of concrete prose and abstract typographical shapes, the materiality of Federman’s books is foregrounded to such an extent that their projected “realities” are constantly disrupted. In doing so, Federman presents us with a deep ontological cut between the physical reality of the actual ink shapes on the page and the world(s) projected by words. However, this is not the only ontological problem that his novels exhibit. Through a thorough mixing and merging of different possible worlds within the narrative hierarchy, it becomes almost impossible for the reader to distinguish between and keep track of the many fictional universes presented within the discourses. Consequently, the levels collapse and Federman’s aim “to tell a story that cancels itself as it goes” is fulfilled.

This paper, therefore, argues that Federman’s pronounced use of radical frame-breaking and concrete prose is perhaps the only approach for him if he is to at least attempt to render and understand the horrors and meaninglessness of the Holocaust. The “unutterable” is thus expressed by way of verbal icons imitating the “real” object (or process) as well as chaotically structured narrative hierarchies that deviate from and mock traditional literary conventions.