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Paul Zumthor

Brevity as Form1
Translated by
Laurence Thiollier Moscato and William Nelles

ABSTRACT: Paul Zumthors La Brivet comme forme analyzes the relations between brevity and form and addresses such matters as narrative time and the definition of narrative as a genre. Zumthor summarizes classical rhetorical theories of brevity in narration, and he considers the roles played by variations in time, space, and
cultural milieux in the objects to which the term brevity is applied. Drawing examples from geographically, generically, and culturally diverse traditions, from ancient to
modern practices, he notes that the length of a text in terms of its linguistic materiality
does not necessarily give the measure of its duration, and argues that discussions of
brevity must take into account the real time of performance or reading and the immediate spatial and temporal contexts within which these works function in a given
sociocultural situation. Zumthor concludes by listing a series of attributes found at the
heart of all brief medieval narrative literature: the unity of the event narrated; the finality of the ending, in which the conclusion exhausts the narrative premises; a relatively
explicit and univocal significance or meaning; and a cluster of shared stylistic features
found in narratives of less than a few hundred lines.
KEYWORDS: brevity, duration, form, narrative time, rhetoric

Native French speaker Laurence Thiollier Moscato earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in
French literature, at Hunter College and Cal State Long Beach. Between 1987 and 2007 she taught French
and Italian at Marymount University and Cal State Long Beach. Since retiring she has edited numerous
translations for DreamWorks, including Bee Movie, and co-translated noted Swiss novelist Jean-Michel
Oliviers LEnfant Secret.
William Nelles teaches in the English department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His publications include Frameworks: Narrative Levels and Embedded Narrative and numerous journal articles and
book chapters on literature and narrative theory. He can be reached at wnelles@umassd.edu.
NARRATIVE, Vol 24, No. 1 (January 2016)
Copyright 2016 by The Ohio State University

74Paul Zumthor
IN the context of a conference where our task is to elucidate, if possible, the various
problems posed by brief literary genres, I would like to start with a few general points.
These genres, if we consider them in their distribution throughout the world,
are in fact quite diverse: poetic genres (to wit, the Japanese haiku, or the epigram of
the European tradition), narrative genres, as well as gnomic genres (such as proverbs)
or, in certain cultures, ritualistic, especially divinatory genres (as were the Delphic or
Sibylline oracles). Even if we decide to focus on questions regarding brief narrative
genres, the fact remains that, by their very definition, they share one of their specific
traits with several other genres that are not necessarily narrative: brevity.
It remains now to specify what brevity is . . . in order, perhaps, to understand
what it involves. I wish simply to offer a few remarks on this point.

To clarify these remarks and put them within a historical perspective (given the
brevity of the time allowed for this talk!), I begin by offering a thesis to which I hope
the rest of the paper will lend support: that brevity is never random but constitutes a
structuring model. This is doubtless why Latin rhetoric had recourse to the term brevitas (sermo brevis, brief discourse) to designate not a model per se, but essentially a
virtus (capacity or virtue), a modality, and (in the scholastic sense) a qualitas (quality
or property) of formal structure.
Regarding this aspect of the problem, I refer to the abundant documentation
gathered by Heinrich Lausberg in his Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik as well as
to Antonio DAndreass essay on Sermo brevis, published in 1981. Among the texts
published by Edmond Faral in Arts potiques, the most explicit is the Documentum of
Geoffrey of Vinsauf 3044. On the whole, and without overemphasizing this rhetorical notion of brevitas, I cannot dodge its implications. It refers to three orders of
textual realityor rather of textual realization:2
in a secondary manner, to the disposition of elements (thus dividing the matter into two parts rather than three by suppressing the middle term: Lausberg
443; or else it can govern the use of paranomasia, 638);
in a more essential way, to elocution (where it affects the choice of words and
but principally to a shaping of narration: see Lausberg 297314 on narratio
brevis. This approach is defined in opposition to two other modalities: narratio aperta (on the level of the intellectio of what is said) and narratio probabilis
(on the level of persuasion); on either level, it is characterized by a certain
internal sufficiency. It is notable that Cicero, in De oratorio, chapter 19, and
Quintilian as well (Institutio 11.3) employ the adjective brevis to describe by
analogy the movements of the orators body, especially the hands. In the order
of intellection, brevitas strives to achieve a synthesizing percursio, if not an allusion.3 This trait is of course fundamental: but even if we wish to generalize,
it is necessary to be clear when explaining its presuppositions.

Brevity as Form 75
We have no choice but to return to the quantitative, foundational nature of brevity (yet to be determined), and of a number of derived connotations or denotations
that the term might have acquired in the course of its history.
If we wish to proceed systematically, starting from an opposition, let us, for the
fun of it, begin with a simple truism: brief is that which is not long. In fact, a brief text
is opposed to what is perceived as a long text. The nuance is not negligible: it connotes
the need to integrate history into the description of structures. In other words, brevity
does not result from an absolute norm; it is culturally conditioned, and in two ways:
fundamentally, given the sometimes considerable variations in time, space,
cultural milieux, and objects to which the term is applied and given the judgment on the basis of which it is asserted This is brief (thus, this is opposed
to that which, under the same conditions, would be long);
functionally, in that the length of a text in terms of its linguistic materiality
does not necessarily give the measure of its duration. This might be an effect
of the unpredictable nature of the reading process: interruption, resumption,
backtracking. In the oral transmission of texts this potential is even more
evident, and can enter into the definition of performance, for this constitutes
one of the marks of temporalization. I have considered these issues in a book
currently in press.4 Certainly the duration of some texts coincides with their
length, be it a few minutes or several days. But I would be inclined to view
that as rare, bordering on the ideal. In the reality of reading, and even more
so of listening, the factors of length and duration tend at times even to reciprocally neutralize one another: the Zulus long panegyrics (one of the great
poetic genres of humanity) are reeled off at a rapid pace in an uninterrupted
flow; the Malay pantun and Somalian balwo, on the other hand, are set to a
slow rhythm with a repetitive melody that greatly prolongs the performance
of their two or four lines. Other factors regulating duration result from the
particular characteristics of a given communicative situation, written or oral.
Assessing the actual duration of the Nigerian epic Ozidi, Okepwho observes
that it is measured less in time (seven evenings of declamation) than in accordance with the appropriate spacing out of the episodes: that is, by virtue
of a narrative economy imposed by the physical and social conditions of
the performance. In a number of cultures, length and brevity are part of the
characteristics of a genre and are perceived as such: in Romania, a Christmas
carol never exceeds a hundred lines; an epic ballad has around eight hundred.
All across black Africa one finds the practice of improvised songs, rising up
from the impact of some emotion, picked up immediately by the listeners,
the passersby, sometimes uniting in a powerful emotional impulse an entire
group of workers in a shop, of fellow travelers, of men or women enjoying
their leisure in the village square. Such improvisations are characterized by
the extreme brevity of the lyric content (often a single phrase), even if repetitions and reprises are developed in some instances to the point of creating a
sort of collective drama. It may occur that a poet of talent exploits this custom

76Paul Zumthor
and draws remarkable and complex effects from it, as with the great Swahili
poet Muyaka. In Islamized eastern Africa the genre of wimbo is defined (not
without analogy with the Japanese tanka!) by the number of syllables in the
text: always thirty-six, divided into three or six lines. The case is not much
different for the Spanish coblas (Grg-Karady 2426).
The most frequently cited examples of genres defined by their brevity as described
above belong to ancient and stable traditions. Nevertheless, technologized culture
(which, given its temporality, can hardly be anything but a pop culture, a culture
that reflects the latest trends, in direct opposition to tradition) is still subject to a
poetic restriction that is, if not identical, at least analogous: a restriction that is due to
the well-known three-minute rule imposed on singers by disk jockeys and the record
industry. Fastidiously adhered to since the invention of microgroove recordings, it
set the maximum duration of commercially marketable songs. This entailed stylistic
and thematic constraints, the need for a certain concision, and all the interplay of
suggestion. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were the first, in 196667, to cross that line, and
although they were at risk of having to give up being heard on the radio, they successfully released albums with songs whose lyrics lasted up to eight or nine, exceptionally
even thirteen, minutes. But these breakthroughs have proven unsustainable. A powerful tendency toward brevity still predominates in this art form. From this angle, I
examined two hundred songs by fifteen French and American singers from the 1960s
and 70s: 42% of these texts lasted from 2 to 3 minutes; 31% from 3 to 4; 15% from 1
to 2; 7% from 4 to 5; the remainder is negligible, and the only durations put into practice by all of the singers in my corpus, and thus the normal temporal range, were
between two and four minutes.
The pronounced brevity of a poem, as I have noted, 5 neutralizes the effects of its
duration. The discourse remains on this side of any clear-cut distinctions between
narrative and lyric, dramatic and gnomic. Only beyond a certain threshold does time
fully intervene in textual functioning and a poem inscribe itself in one or the other
of these registers.
It is thus in terms of the real time of performance or reading that we should hone in
on the notion of brevity by focusing on what makes it essential within a given cultural
situation. By real time I mean the duration organically lived through, and interiorized in, the act of reading or hearing. I mean this in the phenomenological sense in
which lived experience cannot be conceived as such, as evidence of my existence, except in the present (Husserl 148ff). It is here, this situation of being-in-the-present, that
every brief form of discourse aspires to as its desired end. Fundamentally, although imperfectly, often blindly, even going against the grain of grammatical constraints, every
brief literary form, by virtue of a powerful urge, inscribed in the being of language
itself, in the being-of-language, has a tendency to lean toward what would be the pure
present. Is this not precisely the same thing that becomes apparent (deep down) when
we consider the requirement imposed upon the genre of the epigram in the classical

Brevity as Form 77
Western tradition, whose raison dtre lies in its point? Similarly, it would be easy
to glean statements about their art from contemporary short story writers that would
only elaborate on this fantastical aspiration.
By expressing myself in this way, Im placing myself at a critical level that is hierarchically very elevated prior to setting up proper formal definitions (which could
only apply to genres or species); but in no way does it prevent me from also touching
upon an element of reality that remains perceptible in all particular manifestations of
discursive brevity.
Having narrative time intervene here, as we often do in narratological studies,
constitutes a displacement, if not of perspective, at least of rank in critical genealogy
(Greimas and Courts). Narrative time belongs to the level of techniques of formalization . . . techniques obviously implied in and by a model, weighed down, however,
by various mediating, generic, or specific constraints. This set of factors, and the nature of the relations existing (from this point of view) between real time and narrative time, cannot be better illustrated, it seems to me, than by the literary genre of the
crnica peculiar (as far as I know) to contemporary Brazil: a genre so utterly identified
with local tradition that in addition to various critical studies, an anthology designed
for educational purposes has recently been published (Hower and Preto-Rodas).
Real time, being a lived-in time, necessarily modalizes, in the act of reception,
the process of concretizing the text in the sense the term is used by the Constance
Rezeptionssthetik school (Warning 48). To put it simply, this process affects how
memory works and thus the spontaneous mechanisms of interpretation as well as
the perception of discourse cohesion. By cohesion (to which, following Fillol and
Mouchon, I oppose to coherence), I mean all factors leading to the perception of textual unity and its particular significance. Now the coherence of a text of some length
is perceived progressively in the reading: there comes a point when indices appear
and then become organized in the readers imagination into an ideal system of combinatory rules, an interpretive hypothesis confirmed or invalidated by what follows.
The cohesion of the brief message is of another kind, at least tendentiously: it is given
straightaway, empirically, sensorily, as a global certitude whose possible consequences are inferred during the course of a brief reading or of a brief period of listening.
Brevity, as a fundamental approach for the presentification of meaning, therefore
constitutes one of the modes of literary discourse: a mode, in fact, exploited in one
way or another by every culture.
One question nevertheless remains to be asked regarding the status this assertion
might require in critical terminology.
This question stems from the nature of languageor, more precisely, of discourse.
It boils down to this: what is the relationship between discourse and narrative? Does
narrative constitute a class of discourse? Or, in accordance with an opposing ordering
of structures, should we say that all discourse is necessarily (if only latently) narrative?
In giving such a broad interpretation of the positions of Greimas and his school,
one would be granting that a sort of generalized virtual narrativity invests all forms of

78Paul Zumthor
organized discourse. Particular linguistic manifestations limit narrativity and define
it by tying it to figurative forms. Pierre Janet used to say that what created humanity
was narration. There is no doubt that the ability to tell stories is definitional for anthropological status, nor that, conversely, memory, dream, myth, legend, history and
the rest collectively constitute the manner in which individuals and groups attempt to
situate themselves in the world. It would not be absurd to propose hypothetically that
every artistic production, in poetry as in painting and in the plastic arts, including
architecture, is, in this very diluted sense, narrative.
Narrative in the strict sense of the word emerged somewhere in a continuous series of cultural events. But where then? Shall we regard as narratives the metaphoric
or metonymic names traditionally given in Africa, or by the native Americans, and
elsewhere still, to individual humans, or indeed, as so often in our rural areas, to
domestic animals? One reaches a limit here: a minimal form and an allusive maximum. Would that be the acme of the brief narrative? This question requires a positive
answer, considering the African mottoes, which specialists have never hesitated to
classify as a poetic (if not musical) genre, and which consist of a formal enunciation
of the Name.
On this hypothesis, every brief form would thus be a narrative, and nothing
would authorize us to distinguish clearly between the proverb, for example, or the
Mozarabian kharjas of medieval Andalusia, and the animal fable or the short novella. Moreover, this is a position adopted by many ethnologists. Personally, I am
strongly inclined to favor it as well. Certainly, the opposition traditionally maintained
between the terms narrative and lyric can still be used in practice (with a great deal
of prudence), as long as one limits its scope to clearly discernible features, as P. Bec
does for the French Middle Ages. While narrative implies a linear concatenation of
interdependent units, lyric involves the addition, circular or unordered, of more or
less autonomous units. These criteria further require the dramatic be located on the
narrative side and the gnomic on the lyric side. From these surface features it results
that the lyric or gnomic poem is generally rather brief and that very long poems
are almost necessarily narrative or dramatic. . . . But one can see how much of this
remains problematic! And still it is perhaps necessary to introduce a more subtle difference (but important here, as these are genres that lend themselves to declamation
or recitation): are texts as received orally and texts as read governed by the same tendencies? Could we not suspect a Murder of Narrative in certain cases when passing
from orality to writing? Might gestural accompaniment, so fundamental in every performance, be interpreted as narrative content upon which, and in relation to which,
discursive polyphony is opened up?
Specialists in medieval European literature have never formulated the problem of
brevity except in relation to fictional narrativesexcluding, moreover, rightly or
wrongly, the epic phenomenon. Around 1960 Tiemann, taking advantage of a term
current in his native language, suggested the existence of a profound literary unity of
the medieval Kurzerzhlung [short story].6 Tiemann was inclined to grant this des-

Brevity as Form 79
ignation (despite the diversity of denominations in the vulgar languages), if not to a
genre in the strictest sense of the word, at least to a coherent generic ensemble. I myself followed Tiemann in my 1972 Essai, the chapter in which I addressed this problem having been written in 1970.7 Shortly after my book appeared, the massive thesis
of R. Dubuis was published, itself also closely inspired by Tiemann.8 These studies,
which remained unique in the field until about the end of the 1970s, distinguish at the
heart of narrative medieval literature a group of texts characterized by four correlated
features, each of which seems to engender the other three:
First trait: the unity of the event narrated, whatever the complexity of its
causes or effects might be, both of them in fact possessing more often than
not a sort of internal evidence eliminating any superficial ambiguity. This
structure is generally manifested in the result of the action culminating in
a point. I mean by this a final cause by which what precedes the action
and brings it about is produced and by virtue of which it is organizedall
proportions maintained, as in the epigram. For the reader or listener perceiving it, according to the linearity of the narrative and its successive units, this
results in a strong impression of temporal and spatial compactness, limiting
considerablyif not eliminatingthe unpredictability of actions and circumstances. The narrative carries within itself its own programming, sometimes explained or suggested from the very beginning; the execution of that
program implies a directly perceptible structural rounding off. It is in this
sense that we speak of the coincidence of two forms: exterior and interior.
Second trait: the unfolding of the action thus tends to turn back on itself. The
conclusion exhausts the premises. The narratio (as we must recall) is here
neither aperta nor probabilis. As a rule, no causality extrinsic to the initial
situation will be introduced during the course of the narration: the end is an
absolute end.
Third trait: meaning, called senefiance in Old French, is not only implied
by the narration but contains explicit markers of one kind or another and
is perceptible at the level of the narrative as a whole. Therein lies one of the
strongest oppositions distinguishing the novel, for example, from the texts
under discussion here. The senefiance of a novel is built up on the basis of
each detail or episode and thus normally comprises an irreducible multiplicity. The senefiance of a brief narrative has the entire text for its signifier and
tends, apart from exceptional cases, to be fairly obvious and concrete. It often happens that senefiance is handed over explicitly and in an apparently
univocal way in didactic terms that are more or less well-integrated into the
Fourth trait: brevity. It is difficult to put a precise number on this, but two
orders of length are in opposition on a consistent basis throughout the range
of medieval poetic traditions: a few dozen or a few hundred verses or lines as
opposed to several thousands. The length of French fabliaux can vary from
around twenty to a thousand or so lines, the norm being between two and five
hundred. As of 1972, I was already stressing the pertinence of this opposition.

80Paul Zumthor
Now, ten years later, I remain firmly convinced that there exists in this matter
a set of proprieties peculiar to a certain type of narrative. One could readily
point out the stylistic features that seem, for the 12th, 13th, or even the 14th
centuries, tied to brevitywhether they are derived from it or whether they
constitute its immediate cause.
I need not produce such a catalogue here. At a deeper level, however, is the existence of the traditions to which the secular maintenance of these brief forms is due
not based on a conviction characteristic of medieval culture, as expressed in the following words by a rhetorician from Antiquity, Aquila Romanus, one of those obscure
items published by Halm?
Illa (id est brevitas) res universas pluresque in eundum locum confert, haec
distantia plura inter se percurrens velocitate ipsa circumponit. (24)9
One thus encounters again the universal perspective that I was attempting to point
out earlier. The ancient author uses the topical language natural during his epoch,
and he expresses himself in spatial terms: locus, percurrere, circumponere . . . However,
does the ambiguity of these distantia plura that need to be abolished by some velocitas
not imply, buried among the subterranean intentions of a text as it is being created,
something like the rejection of time?

1. Originally published as La Brivet comme forme in La Nouvelle. Our thanks to the readers
from Narrative for their useful input, and especially to John Pier, who suggested numerous valuable improvements to our translation [Translators note].
2. Speaking to an audience of medievalists a generation ago, Zumthor could take for granted their
familiarity with the intricacies of classical rhetoric, but a brief overview may be useful here. Three
specific intellectual frameworks are invoked in his discussion of the rhetorical notion of brevity
in this section: the five elements of rhetoric, the six parts of a formal oration, and the three virtues
of narration. Classical rhetorical study was divided into inventio (invention, discovery), dispositio (arrangement), elocutio (style), memoria (memory), and pronuntiatio (delivery or recitation).
Narratio, narration, in which the speaker recounted the events of the case in question, was the
second of the six components of an oration (along with the exordium or introduction, partitio or
division, confirmatio or proof, refutatio or refutation, and peroratio or conclusion). Narration
was also assumed to cover literary and historical narratives in addition to the narrative component of orations. The three necessary virtues of narration (virtutes narrationis) were brevity (narratio brevis), clarity (narratio aperta), and plausibility (narratio probabilis). These three virtues
interact with one another in structuring a narrative: the proper degree of brevity, for example,
can enhance the clarity (or plausibility) of a discourse by providing precisely what is needed, and
no more, for the audiences full comprehension, while too little (or too much) brevity can lessen
the effectiveness of an oration by cluttering it with excess information (or by leaving out key elements) [Translators note].
3. Percursio, the shortest form of narratio, is a rhetorical figure in which a narrative is briefly summarized [Translators note].
4. Introduction la posie orale, translated as Oral Poetry: An Introduction [Translators note].

Brevity as Form 81
5. In Prsence de la voix, which was actually published as Introduction la posie orale [Translators
6. Presumably Hermann Tiemanns Die Entstehung der mittelalterlichen Novelle in Frankreich
[Translators note].
7. Essai de potique mdivale [Translators note].
8. Presumably Roger Dubuis Les cent nouvelles nouvelles et la tradition de la nouvelle en France au
Moyen Age [Translators note].
9. Zumthor appears to be mistaken about the precise context of this passage, which is not about
brevity per se, but rather makes a distinction between coacervatio (aggregation) and percursio
(rapid review). The full sentence runs as follows, with Zumthors excerpt underlined: In the same
way, this figure [percursio] differs from coacervatio, in that that figure gathers together many and
broad concepts into the same place, while this one [i.e., percursio], rapidly reviewing many things
that differ among themselves, binds them together by its very speed, as if you were to say, Caesar
rushed off to Italy, he kicked out Domitius, he was seizing Corfinium, was laying hold of Rome,
was in pursuit of Pompey. Thanks to Joel Relihan for his expert assistance in our treatment of this
passage [Translators note].

Works Cited
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6982. Padova: Cleup, 1981.
Dubuis, Roger. Les cent nouvelles nouvelles et la tradition de la nouvelle en France au Moyen Age.
Grenoble: Presses Univ. de Grenoble, 1973.
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Fillol, Franois, and Jean Mouchon, Approche des notions de cohrence et de cohsion sur un corpus
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Grg-Karady, Veronika, ed. Genres, Forms, Meanings: Essays in African Oral Literature. Oxford:
JASO, 1982.
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thorie du langage. Paris: Hachette, 1979.
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Lausberg, Heinrich. Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik. Munich: Hueber, 1960.
Preto-Rodas, Richard A., Alfred Hower, and Charles A. Perrone, eds. Crnicas brasileiras. Gainesville:
Univ. Press of Florida, 1971.
Tiemann, Hermann. Die Entstehung der mittelalterlichen Novelle in Frankreich. Hamburg: Vortrag,
Warning, Rainer. Rezeptionssthetik. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1975.
Zumthor, Paul. La Brivet comme forme. In La Nouvelle: formation, codification et rayonnement
dun genre mdival, edited by Michelangelo Picone, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Pamela D. Stewart,
38. Montreal: Plato Academic Press, 1983.
. Essai de potique mdivale. Paris: ditions du Seuil, 1972.
. Introduction la posie orale. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1983.

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