This issue of LEAN magazine features examples of non-protagonist-centered fiction from the past. Modern literature in the West has been dominated by protagonist-centered writing but here and there, and sometimes in some very unexpected places, there are interesting instances of a counter tendency. In this issue – and, periodically, others in the future – LEAN is shining a light on that tradition.
The first selection consists of two chapters from Nanni Balestrini’s novel The Unseen. Balestrini was part of the post-WWII neoavanguardia movement in Italy and an ally of the leftist groups that rose up in the 1960s and 70s in response to high unemployment, lack of public spending, and the quietism of the Italian Communist Party. The Unseen is devoted in particular to the heady rise and ultimate repression of the Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) movement. While the novel is narrated in the first-person the focus is not so much on the narrator as an individual but rather his inclusion in collective action. Occupying a building, participating in a prison revolt, the atomized modern self becomes part of an exhilarating and always precarious whole. Balestrini’s work shows that this break from individual psychology opens up new ways of seeing and feeling in the world.
It may be surprising that the second selection in this issue is a short story – “Solid Objects” – by Virginia Woolf given that her work is invested in recording the workings of the individual’s inner life. But there are exceptions to this general trend in her novels (such as the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse) and especially in her early stories. The literary theorist Bill Brown has notably argued that “Solid Objects” renders “a life of things that is irreducible to the history of human subjects.” But it is not only things – a lump of beach glass, a piece of iron – that possess such independence. In this story of obsessive collecting, the main character’s very body is depicted as an entity that is separate from his self. The body, after all, can be viewed as just another thing, and it is this sort of radical perspective that becomes available, here and in other non-protagonist-centered fictions, once the individual is removed from the center of attention.