sonomama to Rekishi-banare" (1915) by Mori Ôgai (1862-1922)
and "The New Biography" (1927) by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) are two
essays in which the authors express their desires to combine fact and
fiction-one (Ôgai) through various methods of writing a historical
novella and the other (Woolf) through the revolution of the ways in
which biography is written. The two essays distinguish various elements
that constitute new forms of "historical" narrative, fictional or non-fictional.
Once the two essays are juxtaposed for comparison, the issue of intercultural
comparison raises its ugly head (or an intellectually stimulating and
fruitful one, depending on one's point of view). For how is it possible
to compare these two texts from two very different historical/cultural
contexts? Although two writers in our comparative scheme wrote in two
close temporal points, the literary cultures in which they wrote were
very different. Ôgai is reacting against the Japanese Naturalists'
version of shôsetsu and Min'yûsha biography; Woolf,
along with her Bloomsbury friends, struggles against Victorian biography.
The historical contexts for each writer are certainly determinant factors
in our understanding of key terms such as "history as it is" for Ôgai
and "personality" for Woolf. In fact, the comparison of these two essays
so embedded in respective historical moments reveals that there is no
generic distinction between fact and fiction available to us that one
could impose from the universal vantage point. The distinction between
fact and fiction is historically contingent.
is not to say, however, that the fact/fiction distinction does not
exist, although the latter statement has been argued for in recent
years, in various manifestations. The weaker version of this statement
states that the narrative of fiction and the narrative of non-fiction
are formally indistinguishable-and this often coupled with another
statement that the distinction between fact and fiction can be
made, but only in extratextual clues such as tacit "pact" between the
reader and the author or the different kinds of narrative "act." As
Dorrit Cohn argues in Distinction of Fiction, emphasis on formal
similarity between, for example, the novel and history tends to cover
up minor yet significant formal differences between fiction and non-fiction
in a given set of narrative conventions. One of the most notable of
such formal differences in our contemporary conventions is the freedom
accorded to fictional narrator(s) to move in and out of the minds of
the third person.
does not mean that the borderline between fact and fiction has never
been crossed. Instead, the close reading of the two texts reveals that
the distinctions Ôgai and Woolf make in the essays actually let
them make stronger cases for their new approaches to historical narrative.
Woolf argues for the potential of fiction that could remedy the defects
of fact-laden Victorian biography, but in order to make this argument,
she emphasizes the different origins of fictional narrative and factual
narrative, to such an extent that the granite-like solidity of fact
and the rainbow-like intangibility of personality with fiction as its
vehicle are almost irreconcilable. Meanwhile, Ôgai distinguishes
his shôsetsu from the shôsetsu by the rest
of the literary circle predominated by Naturalists because it preserves
the way history actually is. At the same time, Ôgai is aware of
the limitations imposed on historically truthful narrative. Their emphases
on the distinction also highlight similar historical conditions, which
may be called "modern": the lack of "natural" distinctions to which
the authors could ascribe, whether it results from their active, willful
forgetting of conventions or it has more to do with the surrounding
pervasive sense of loss in the particular historical moments.