Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative by Peter Brooks 2022

This is a fascinating book, one which was not easy to stick with at times, but which offered some penetrating insights into narrative, fiction, novels, and what they offer to the reader.

Brooks is an octagenarian academic who holds two named chairs, one at Yale and one at Princeton—not a shabby performance!  He is best known as a comparative literary theorist and this book has all the hallmarks of that approach—profound insights couched in occasionally impenetrable prose.

I was grateful that I stuck with this book because it provided some observations that were particularly appropriate to the thinking that I had just done around last year’s reading, specifically the issue of how we are the creators of the narrative of our lives and how that narrative is formed.  Sentences such as this one struck a responsive chord:  “Narrative epistemology, pursued with integrity, gives us only the best possible mimesis of what we know of the world: a story that is persuasive, that makes us understand how things might have happened….It rather makes that knowing a problem and a drama”.

Brooks is focused on the novel, how ‘life can be understood only in fiction” referring to Proust, Benjamin, James, Woolf, Faulkner, and Conrad as providing guidance to the subject of death, the time constrained mortality that confronts all beings.  Quoting Proust, Brooks writes that “By suppressing real people, Proust’s imagined characters extend our minds and emotions enabling us to see the world around us in radically other ways.”  He goes on to write “Fictional characters make a difference because they acknowledge and dramatize how tenuous our hold on one another is…The escape of fiction, a turning away from the real world, is an escape toward, into greater knowledge and more perfect communication.”

Perhaps Brooks’ quote from Madame Bovary is the best summary of his message in this book when Flaubert refers to language as “a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while we would wish to move the stars to pity”.  This is what moves writers to put pen to paper and all of us to create narratives of our lives—-too short, too imperfect, but all that we have.

I found this to be a profound book and perhaps you will as well.