28923 - Theory of Literature (1) (LM)

Course Unit Page

Academic Year 2021/2022

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course, the students have a good insight in the specificity of literary language, a depth knowledge about the general concepts of literature, the literary institutions, the relationships between text and context, the dynamics of literary communication, as well as stylistic traditions, genres, modes and forms of representation. They can master the interpretative tools for the analysis of literary texts.

Course contents

To confess is to lie. Liars, unreliable narrators, worldmakers

Lies true to life: this paradoxical formula, since Aristotle, describes the field of possibilities explored by poets and storytellers. As we can read in the Poetics, «it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen, - what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity». Today, however, this rule seems to be undermined by two opposite and complementary trends: on the one hand the mystification and the use of fake in communication and media system; on the other hand, the «reality hunger» and the need of real facts and experiences, as we can see in the typical formula that stands out at the beginning of many films: «based on a true story». But great literature acts very differently. Anyone who plays with words knows – as Zeno Cosini could teach him – that «a written confession is always mendacious», that we could not grasp the truth about ourselves or about the world, at least not in the form trivialized by media, social network, or cultural industry. «Confession and lie – as Kafka remarks – are one and the same. To be able to confess, one tells lies. One cannot express what one is, for that is precisely what one is; one can communicate only what one is not, that is, the lie».

The course of Literary Theory will explore this hazardous and paradoxical field, starting from the end of the Nineteenth Century, passing through High Modernism, and ending to the contemporary literature. The problem of fiction will be observed from a specific point of view, the unreliable narration, an advanced and ambiguous literary device to re-tell and re-create the world. As John Fowles states in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, there is only one motive common to all novelists, and maybe to all human beings: «we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. […] We are all in the flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo sapiens».

The course is dedicated to Mario Lavagetto (1939-2020), professor of Literary Theory at the University of Bologna from 1984 to 2001.

Period: Second semester (February-March 2022)

Timetable of lessons, classrooms etc: Please visit the professor's website.


I. Novels

  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Il Master di Ballantrae (1889), Garzanti
  • Henry James, Il giro di vite (1898), edizione consigliata Marsilio, con testo a fronte, a cura di Giovanna Mochi
  • Italo Svevo, La coscienza di Zeno (1923), edizione consigliata in Romanzi e «continuazioni», a cura di Nunzia Palmieri e Fabio Vittorini, «Meridiani» Mondadori
  • Vladimir Nabokov, La vera vita di Sebastian Knight (1941), Adelphi
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Fuoco pallido (1962), Adelphi
  • Margaret Atwood, L’altra Grace (1996), Ponte alle Grazie

II.Critical Texts

Students must read the reference book in section A and three text in section B. Among texts listed in group B, choice can be made in every subsection (possible words, unreliable narration, novels listed above). It's only mandatory to read at least three texts.

A. Reference book (mandatory)

  • Mario Lavagetto, La cicatrice di Montaigne. Sulla bugia in letteratura, Einaudi

B. Three texts to choose

About possible worlds:

  • Lubomír Doležel, Heterocosmica. Fiction e mondi possibili, Bompiani
  • Umberto Eco, I boschi possibili, in Umberto Eco, Sei passeggiate nei boschi narrativi, Bompiani, pp. 91-117
  • Nelson Goodman, Words, Works, Worlds, in “Erkenntnis” vol. 9, n. 1, 1975, pp. 57-73
  • Mario Lavagetto, Bugia/Storia/Finzione/Verità, in Mario Lavagetto, Lavorare con piccoli indizi, Bollati Boringhieri, pp. 70-88
  • Uri Margolin, Text Worlds, Fictional Worlds, Narrative Fiction, in “Canadian Review of Comparative Literature”, vol. 27, nn. 1-2, 2000, pp. 256-273
  • Thomas Pavel, Mondi di invenzione, Einaudi
  • Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, in The Living Handbook of Narratology (https://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/node/54.html )
  • Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory, Indiana University Press

About unreliable narration:

  • Dan Shen, Unreliability, in The Living Handbook of Narratology (https://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/node/66.html)
  • Ansgar F. Nünning, Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches, in James Phelan e Peter J. Rabinowitz (edited by), A Companion to Narrative Theory, Blackwell, pp. 89-107
  • Greta Olson, Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators, in “Narrative”, vol. 9, n. 1, 2003, pp. 93-109
  • James Phelan, Reliable, Unreliable, and Deficient Narration: A Rhetorical Account, in “Narrative Culture”, vol. 4, n. 1, 2017, pp. 89-103
  • Tamar Yacobi, Package Deals in Fictional Narrative: The Case of the Narrator’s (Un)Reliability, in “Narrative”, vol. 9, n. 2, 2001, pp. 223-29
  • Bruno Zerweck, Historicizing Unreliable Narration: Unreliability and Cultural Discourse in Narrative Fiction, in "Style", vol. 35, n. 1, pp. 151-176

About novels:

  • Richard Ambrosini, Mito, storia e tragedia in The Master of Ballantrae, in Richard Amborsini, R.L. Stevenson. La poetica del romanzo, Bulzoni, pp. 271-330
  • Federico Bertoni, Robert Louis Stevenson. Il Master di Ballantrae, in Federico Bertoni, Letteratura. Teorie, metodi, strumenti, Carocci, pp. 257-276
  • Giovanna Mochi, Le “cose cattive” di Henry James, in Henry James, Il giro di vite, Marsilio, pp. 9-42
  • Edmund Wilson, L’ambiguità di Henry James, in Edmund Wilson, Il pensiero multiplo, Garzanti, pp. 101-146
  • Mario Lavagetto, Correzioni 1979, in Mario Lavagetto, L’impiegato Schmitz e altri saggi su Svevo, Einaudi, pp. 213-230
  • Massimiliano Tortora, Italo Svevo: quando il narratore si fa inattendibile, in Massimiliano Tortora, Annalisa Volpone (edited by), Il modernismo europeo, Carocci, pp. 153-173
  • Federico Bertoni, Quarto interludio. La vera vita di Sebastian Knight, in Federico Bertoni, Realismo e letteratura. Una storia possibile, Einaudi, pp. 270-280
  • Federico Bertoni, Vladimir Nabokov, Fuoco Pallido, in Federico Bertoni, Letteratura. Teorie, metodi, strumenti, Carocci, pp. 187-208
  • Lorna Hutchison, The Book Reads Well: Atwood’s “Alias Grace” and the Middle Voice, in “Pacific Coast Philology”, vol. 38, 2003, pp. 40-59
  • Magali Cornier Michael, Rethinking History as Patchwork: The Case of Atwood’s Alias Grace, in “Modern Fiction Studies”, vol. 47, n. 2, 2001, pp. 421- 447

Teaching methods

Traditional lectures

Assessment methods

The exam consists of an oral test that will assess the knowledge of the texts and the student's critical and interpretative skills. It will also assess the student's methodological awareness, the ability to master the bibliography in the course programme and the the field-specific language of the discipline. The ability to establish links between the theoretical framework and the texts will be especially appreciated. A wide and systematic knowledge of the texts, interpretative insight, critical understanding, and rhetorical effectiveness will be evaluated with a mark of excellence, while a mnemonic knowledge of the subject with a more superficial analytical ability and ability to synthesize, a correct command of the language but not always appropriate, will be evaluated with a “fair” mark. A superficial knowledge and understanding of the material, a scarce analytical and expressive ability will be evaluated with a pass mark or a negative mark.

Teaching tools

Projection of PowerPoint slides. For further teaching material, please visit the Professor's website and "Virtuale".

Links to further information


Office hours

See the website of Federico Bertoni