Living Houses. ‘Post-fantastic’ variations on a literary topos in Cortázar, Vian, Aichinger and Ballard
Usually, houses are not ‘alive,’ they are ‘lived in.’ As a space for human habitation they are “a receptacle to shelter chattels and living beings” (Aristotle), and denote an ‘enclosed’ area shielding an interior from a potentially inimical exterior (Heidegger; Baecker). Out of the vastness of the world, its walls carve out the space of the private and thus open up a “space of security” separated from the external “space of threat” (Bollnow), a place of “shelter” that evokes “images of protected intimacy” (Bachelard).
However, literary history offers prominent counterexamples in which the protective function of the house reverts into its opposite. Narratives of the uncanny undermine the idea of intimacy and security: They demonstrate how the supposedly protected and protecting space of the house is radically unsettled―often by depicting the house as haunted by a ghost, possessed, or in some other way animate. From the 19th century on, the haunted house not only becomes a common setting for fantastic fiction; as a (bourgeois) continuation of the old gothic novel motif of the haunted castle, the uncanny house also increasingly establishes itself as a popular model of fantastic literature. The narrative texts from the middle of the 20th century, which this project examines, address the topos of the uncannily animated house of fantastic literature but breathe an entirely different life into them. The seemingly organic housing in Boris Vians’ L‘Écume des jours (1947) withers away in a slow process of decay, which results in the shrinking of the rooms, eventually forcing its inhabitants to abandon the premises. Similarly, in Julio Cortázar’s “Casa tomada” (1946) and Ilse Aichinger’s “Wo ich wohne” (1955), the houses actively intervene in the unfolding of the plot by changing their size and position, respectively. In the fictional world outlined by J. G. Ballard in “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (1962), “psychotropic houses” even represent the current architectural standard.
Like their predecessors in the fantastic tradition, the houses depicted by Cortázar, Vian, Aichinger, and Ballard evince a life of their own that contradicts the rules of reason. In contrast to the “hackneyed model of the haunted house” (Cortázar), however, there is nothing ‘fantastic’ about them in the sense of the supernatural, at most something odd or unusual. They do not make the reader shiver or doubt but explore an extended and disconcerting understanding of reality that programmatically “turns against furnishing oneself thoughtlessly in the habitual” (Eggers). Analogous to Cortázar’s understanding of the fantastic as a “working hypothesis,” I propose the ‘post-fantastic’ as both a collective and a search term capable of covering all those narrative designs that, on the one hand, overtly build on the foundations of the traditional fantastic, but, on the other hand, modify its worn out models by exhibiting and reflecting on their own literary filiation by means of metafictional and self-referential strategies. For what ‘comes to life’ here in the end, I argue, is nothing but the ‘architecture’ of the (fantastic) narrative itself.
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Architektonische Wahrnehmungsdispositive in der Literatur und in den Künsten
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University of Glasgow
Review by Ross Lipton, in: Monatshefte Vol. 112, 1 (2020), 150–152
Review by Susanne Hauser, in: Zeitschrift für Germanistik, New series XXX (2020), 277–279