The painting below, ‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez, was used by André Gide to demonstrate the idea of mise en abyme – a technique in art where a copy of an image is placed within itself. So the effect can resemble parallel mirrors, suggesting an infinitely recurring sequence of images. It’s sometimes called the Droste effect, named after the 1904 Droste cocoa package, which shows a woman holding a tray bearing a Droste cocoa package, which bears a smaller version of her image.
However, as an example of mise en abyme, ‘Las Meninas’ is more complex than the theory. Velázquez himself appears in the picture. He’s painting something we can’t see which could be a portrait of the king and queen, as reflected in the mirror at the back, or could be ‘Las Meninas’ itself. There’s also a man on the stairs at the vanishing point who resembles Velázquez. Critics describe this man (the queen’s chamberlain) as ‘opposing and echoing’ the figure of the artist. And the poses of The Maids of Honour are visually reflective of each other.
So what we’re seeing is a framed-stopped narrative. As art critic Harriet Stone says: ‘The painting communicates through images which, in order to be understood, must thus be considered in sequence, one after the other’. It’s as if we’re lining up a collection of Russian Dolls, seeing what connects and separates them, then reassembling them with a whole new understanding.
When the expression mise en abyme is transferred to books and films, it’s often used to describe the practice of embedding a story within a story.
It’s a technique I used at the start of my novel ‘Violet’, inserting a story written by my protagonist Beth at the age of eight…
The Girl Who Began Again June 22nd 1960 Once there was a girl who thought there should be more sunshine in her world so she decided to start again with more smiling and plenty of fresh air. But her new life didn’t have enough rain to feed the trees so the next day she started a whole new story. Every day she made a new beginning. But even when the sun shone and the rain joined in to make a rainbow, the girl wasn’t happy with the day because she wasn’t a proper heroine, and stories have to have one of those. Otherwise a mirror and a spell are not enough. Every time the girl started a new life she tried to be bigger in her own story. She was a princess but the king wouldn’t let her climb trees. So she became captain of the ship but she could never find the island. One day she was born a singer and the whole world was her audience with candles in their hands but the trouble was the birds sang a better song. In her next life she was a clever artist but nothing she painted was as lovely as the flowers. Then she started again as a doctor but she didn’t know how to fix all the fighting, just the wounds. By now the girl was a lady, but her knight rode off to battle leaving her asleep. Then she escaped flying on a swan and went up into nowhere. When she began a day as an angel by the end of it she’d forgotten how to be good. Every new day of each new life she had to throw her story away because the ending wouldn’t come and you only know it’s a wonderful story when it’s over. The End. By Elizabeth Jarvis
I chose to begin in child-speak to prepare the reader for other stories written in a variety of styles and voices. As a novelist, I believe in setting out my stall straightaway. If I’d started with a conventionally-worded narrative anything ‘non-standard’ coming later might jar and seem ‘dropped in’, spoiling the flow of the narrative.
My next mise en abyme episode was a series of letters written by James to Beth before their first date. Using James’s spontaneous voice-in-the-head, they let us into his character and his world.
Here’s the beginning of the first letter:
Dear Beth, So now I know what you sound like! I was standing at the top of the stairs when you rang. I remember wondering ‘Is this a cold-caller?’ as I went down to take it. As my father would have said, probably as he pulled on a pair of heavy boots, ‘phones are like bloody bosses, they make you jump’. I’ll tell you more about him later. Quite a bit later, I imagine, because this letter’s going to take time. But once I get started… I’ll write when I can, bit by bit over the next few days, and keep posting. Anyway, when I picked it up I recognised your voice from the recorded message. You sounded oh my goodness so warm. Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cherry. I think, to be honest, a bit edgy as well. I suppose anyone in your place would have felt the same. I really enjoyed our talk. When I put down the phone there were so many words and ideas filling my head that I just had to start this letter. So I’m going to write as it comes, with a smile and a large cup of tea, and now. It’s like that art quote: ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. There’s a lot to take in.
After that the mise en abyme episodes in the book include phone calls, a series of texts exchanged between Beth and James, a ‘dark tale’ written by Beth, as well as her diary containing dream sequences, a play and this teen-speak story written by her step-daughter Hannah:
I guess I’m the product of all kinds of forces I can’t control. Some of them dark. And then there are my genes. I don’t know a typical all-American family, twenty-first century, but I know I don’t come from one for sure. Although a mommy who’s a drunk with classy social skills for cover may not be as rare as you’d think. I’m not exactly daddy’s girl but plenty of others are, girls I mean, some of them friends of mine, past tense. Dean Dickinson likes to think he’s hot but his belly tells another story and his jeans are one size too tight. Miami is the eldest of the Dickinson kids and she takes setting the baddest example possible really seriously, as in a full-time job. Her look is grunge with hairy armpits and flame-red lips, rips in her T-shirts and black fingernails but one thing she isn’t aiming on is scaring any guys. There may be some hiding teeth marks with hoodies zipped up high because it’d be hard to find anyone more suited to the vampire life. Or death. Next is Demona, taller, flat chest, braces, straight A’s. To look at her you might think churchgoer, virgin. No way. Demona can act the straight but she smokes more than tobacco, only gum and perfume hide it well. That leaves our little brother, the Junior Dean, and he’s a shouter, always has been, only it used to be I hate you to his teachers with a teddy thrown their way and now it’s fuck off with a compass. Except when he’s cute and curly with his tongue hanging out stabbing anything small with more legs than him. Which leaves me, Evangeline, the audience taking it all in and mixing it my way, making it pay, biding my time. Stockpiling grievances like weapons. Getting ready.
Beth’s diary also contains a memory of her father John, telling her a childhood story:
There was once an angel no one saw. He was a big, fine angel made of dreams. As tall as a house and, when he stretched his wings, wide as a field. He was old, old as the Earth, and could fly above the Moon. But there was one problem, no one could see him. When he was there people felt the wind or the sun. Sometimes they smelled flowers or heard music. On dark nights he was rain against the window. But nobody saw him – and because he wasn’t seen, he didn’t have a name. But he did have a name, one he used alone, when he talked to himself. He’d tried it in the day, but the other angels didn’t like it. “Too short,” they said or “Not right,” they said, then “Not for you,” they said. Their words put him off. So he went around trying different names. He called himself Old in the sun, King by water, Young in the wind. But no one saw him. So he disguised himself, coming down to earth as a bird. And there he found a girl, sitting by herself in a garden. “I am the bird No-name,” he sang. She listened, head to one side, “No-name, why do you call yourself that?” “Because no one can see me.” The girl looked sad, “No one sees me, too. But I can see you, you’re a bird.” The angel blushed, “No, no, that’s not my name.” The girl stretched out her arm. “Come,” she said and the bird hopped onto her hand, “let me take you to my naming place.” So she walked, with the bird on her palm, along to the church. The door was open and as they entered the bird flew up. It landed on the cross and at once the church was filled with rainbows. Flowers appeared and the bird began to sing. The walls and ceiling lifted off and then the girl was alone, walking beneath stars. They were bright and silvery and shone like jewels. “Now I know your name,” she said quietly, “You-Are-Who-Is.” As she spoke, she looked up. Above her she saw the angel, stretching from horizon to horizon, covering the stars. He was white and silver, glowing all over. Reaching forward the angel scooped her up. “And you,” he whispered, “are Queen of the Sky.”
The purpose of these mise en abyme episodes is to cast a fresh light on the central action and ask questions about what people are like. So an Easter story later in ‘Violet’ gives the reader insight into the mind set of Conrad, the closed-off oppressive minister, and James’s final letter to Beth charts his journey to the other side and back, from loss to the first signs of recovery.
Using a variety of fictional voices frees up the narrative, allowing new angles on what happens, surprise cameos, and changes in pace, tone and context. In ‘Violet’ these added-in stories are complete in themselves, but symbolic of the whole. Their purpose, as they bend and twist the story, is to build up extra layers of meaning while providing multiple entry/exit points to the book’s central concerns of late-life love, mortality and the shaping power of imagination and memory.