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Another post on narrative technique

[Note: I wrote the notes to this post some months ago, but I had to translate a novel, and was unable to finish the series of posts until now.]

There is a scene in The Maltese Falcon (the first that, for some reason, springs to mind) when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy that Joel Cairo has come to see him. We do not know yet what connection there is between O’Shaughnessy and Cairo, but when she hears the name, she says nothing, merely gets up and starts poking at the fire. One of the great advantages that film has is that it can with great immediacy and economy show us the curtain that goes up between what people say and do when they are really thinking about something else, which we are free not to notice if we’re not careful. In fiction, Sam Spade would have to describe the scene to us. He might choose only to relate what he sees — O’Shaughnessy getting up and poking the fire for a moment — or he might interpret it for us and tell us that he took this to be a sign that she was shocked and nervous. (His reactions suggest that this is the case.) If a third person were describing the scene, the choices would more or less be the same, unless he were narrating from O’Shaughnessy’s point of view and was consequently privy to her thoughts. But if the scene were narrated by O’Shaughnessy herself, it would have to be done very differently. The emphasis would have to be entirely on her thoughts and feelings, and not on her appearance at that moment, otherwise it would psychologically fake. She has been lying to Spade about her reason for hiring him, and has kept her involvement with Cairo and the Falcon a secret. But surely when she hired Spade on a false case, the real reason was on her mind. If she were narrating, she would have to be dishonest to the reader and conceal her thoughts about the Falcon. This dishonesty, like Roger Ackroyd’s, could not be justified from within the story by her frame of mind. It would be there for one reason only: to make the writer’s job easier. And this is laziness and sloppiness.

Recently I completed a scene from my novel in which the narrator, an old man, goes for a drive with his granddaughter. They stop for a coffee and some lunch and she surprises him by telling him the real reason for her visit.

As I said in my previous post, the novel is written as a journal-letter from the old man to the granddaughter for her to read one day. I have avoided to my satisfaction the pitfalls that come from the fact that the old man is relating a scene to someone who was there when it occurred. The problem is something else.

The journal entry is written after the revelation that shocks him, and the revelation would have been foremost on his mind from the first moment he picked up his pen. In order to create the feeling of surprise for the reader, the narrator delays it for as long as possible, but this delay is psychologically false. It is done only for my convenience as a writer.

So I realised the scene had to be approached differently. For a while I thought about foregoing the suspense entirely and trying to get some other merit from the scene. But if I did this too often, the novel would begin to lose its dramatic force. Eventually I realised I could still generate enough suspense if I mentioned the revelation at the beginning of the entry, so that the reader would be interested in how it had all come about. Then the narrator (and I) could backtrack a little and describe the trip to the cafe, which would now be suffused with tension and irony.

Dear Reader

In the previous post, I touched on the subject of a narrator who withholds information from his reader for no other reason than to create a surprise.

It is unavoidable that a narrator who is aware of all the facts of the story at every point of its telling must give some order to those events. Events can be narrated in the order that they occurred, as they most often are, or they (as in works as different as The Great Gatsby, Beowulf and Oedipus Rex) events and details can be revealed out of chronological order, as they are discovered or as they become relevant.

If William Shakespeare were to tell us, “Did I ever tell you the one about the Danish prince who delayed avenging his father’s murder for so long that, by the time he eventually got round to it, eight people, including the prince himself, were dead?” we would say, “No, but you just did.” (Of course, many will object that we read and watch Hamlet over and over, always knowing how it will end, without our enjoyment being diminished in any way, but Shakespeare’s unfolding of the story never changes.) The reader’s desire to be entertained is greater than the desire to know everything as soon as possible. Nevertheless, if the withholding is not done subtly enough, the reader will question the mechanics of the narrative, and will almost certainly be annoyed and feel cheated. (See the previous entry, regarding The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.)

A few years ago I began working on a novel about an old man who, while preparing his house to receive his daughter and granddaughter, finds a journal he had very briefly kept over 40 years earlier, and decides to begin writing in it again. The novel takes the form of this journal.

Although not without its own problems, the approach appealed to me. The narrator is not just a voice speaking something of a vacuum; the act of narrating is now incorporated into and justified in the narrative itself.

When I moved to Greece in January of 1997, I began to keep a journal, which has now reached 17 volumes. I gave to the narrator of my novel the same motive that led me to start my journal: the desire to keep a record of myself that might be of interest to my descendants when I’m gone. I thought how fascinating it would have been for me if my grandfather or great-grandfather had left such a document behind.

Some people feel the need to address someone when they’re writing a journal entry, like Anne Frank’s Kitty, or simply by writing “Dear Diary”. My narrator begins keeping a journal for whatever descendants may come across it days before meeting his granddaughter for the first time, and then the idea occurs to him to address the journal to her, at which point the novel essentially takes on the epistolary form.

The problem with this approach is that if the narrator is addressing someone involved in the story, then he runs the risk of embarking on exposition to someone who is already well enough aware of the facts. When this happens, the characters are talking over each other and to the reader. One need only see this done in a film to see how artificial and annoying it is. It is a technique used by Theo Angelopoulos in his last films, especially the last two, The Weeping Meadow and The Dust of Time. The latter in particular was so full of this kind of exposition that most of the action had occurred somewhere else, in another time, and the film consisted mainly of people standing around relating things which had already happened and which everyone involved already knew about.

But what I like about these inherent risks is that they are, more than anything else, challenges that, when they are overcome, make your writing stronger.

My next entry will be about a specific problem that I am in the process of dealing with.

A Return

This blog has been inactive for nearly three years. I have often thought of returning to it, but the thought of physically writing a post would leave me weary before I even started. Then the desire to do so, except for these brief moments, when I didn’t even have a subject in mind, would simply disappear. There was a sense of community and excitement when I started it back in late 2004, which I feel is gone now, at least for me, and so I have to start again in another frame of mind, another spirit, and slowly reacquire a readership.

Lately, though, I’ve been giving some thought to writing about something has occupied some of my time over the past few years: the writing of my novel. I’ve thought of charting its development and the technical problems I face in its composition. I’ve even thought that blogging about it would be a sort of commitment that would encourage me to write more regularly in the novel, as well as here.

The central problem that I’ve grappled with has been one of perspective, more so than most readers would be interested in, and but less so than some writers and critics whose works I’ve dipped into. The question has been this: Who is telling the story, and why is he telling it? If the story is told in the third person, the question leads me to the answer – however unsatisfactory – that there is a silent understanding between the reader and the writer, or the narrator (or both) that can be summed up thus:

  • I, the writer, will entertain you by relating a sequence of events as they though they were true and you will visualize them as though you believed them;
  • I will play with the pretense of being omniscient about what is happening in various places, at various times, as though I had access to people’s thoughts and knew their motives, although these things have no reality (although they may resemble reality) outside my own mind (i.e. my inability to know something is merely my refusal to imagine and create it);
  • since your entertainment is my ultimate goal, and since that is based on sustaining your desire to know what happens next, I will withhold any details from you until such time as their revelation will heighten the entertainment, and in exchange, you will agree not to question the logic of this withholding.

By “withholding” I mean when a narrator decides not to tell the reader something he already knows about simply because it will ruin the surprise or the suspense. For most readers, the surprise is more important than the question of why the narrator, who already seems to know all the facts, has played the game this way. But I suspect readers are becoming increasingly impatient with this technique.

One of the worst examples in this respect is Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the unreliable narrator admits in the final pages that he is the murderer. One can easily understand his reason for concealing this fact: he doesn’t want to get caught. But the act of narrating occurs after the events, when Poirot has already discovered the truth, and the narrator has already been caught. Once our shock and surprise subside, if we continue to think about the transparent mechanics of the plot, we feel cheated. The only reason the facts were withheld was to create the surprise at the end.

The use of tense, one can see from this example, also plays a role. In a Greek book about fiction writing (Το εργαστήριο του μυθιστοριογράφου του Παντελή Καλιότσου, The Novelist’s Workshop by Pantelis Kaliotsos) I read the following:

[The tale-teller’s] story, even if we already know it, creates an illusion which can lead to this unconscious thought: “Here is a person who finally knows the whole story! Let’s listen to him carefully…” The secret sense of relief is enough for us, although we know that it is an illusion.

The writer doesn’t feel the same magic. He does not have the authority of the omniscient tale-teller, because although he too narrates a story that has happened already occurred, he does not appear to know what is going to happen, since all his verbs are in past tenses.

And later:

I ascertained that with the present tense, the writer moves farther away from the tale-teller, because, when the action is in continuous development, no one knows where it will lead, not even the writer. This uncertainty reduces his authority as opposed to the tale-teller (who knows where it will lead). The present tense is enough to remove the writer from the story.

Kaliotsos says that, for this reason, he returned to writing in the past tense after using the present tense for one book. But for myself, the illusion that the narrator does not know the outcome, and the questioning of his authority, are things I want to maintain. And I want, as much as possible, the mechanics of the narrative to be an inherent part of the narrative itself.

The Madness of Quixote

I’ve been reading Don Quixote again. I had put it down when we came back from Spain. Recently, something that has always troubled me about the book and its protagonist suddenly became clearer.

We know that Don Quixote is mad and imagines things. The book derives its comic power from the fact that windmills stay windmills and from Don Quixote’s belief that they are giants, and yet also from how he excuses his behaviour when he realises that they are not giants. But his persistence in the face of opposing reality is such that he begins to take on heroic dimensions, and we cannot help but admire him, even when we laugh at his absurdity. He finds the adventures he sets out to find, or creates them if he has to. He has, in fact, become greater than the “real” knights he sought to emulate. For all the beatings he gets, there are just as many times that he deals them out to others, with the result that just when we are sure he is nothing more than a decrepit bag of bones, he turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes his victims are reasonable people who become hapless fools because they don’t understand his madness, or because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; but sometimes they are actually scoundrels and villains who deserve what they get from him, or if they are abusing him, have their villainy confirmed for us by their abuse of him.

In his introduction to Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation, Harold Bloom says, “No critic’s account of Cervantes’s masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic’s impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader.” I believe this is because we are never quite sure what is really real, what the true nature of Don Quixote is. Reality, just beneath the surface of things, seen through an endlessly shifting prism, is always changing form, as if we readers shared his madness, and could not tell giants from windmills.

Place in Time

To feel nostalgia does not necessarily mean you want to turn away from the present or the future; it’s enough to feel that you can’t ever go back to a place where you were happy. Sometimes I think even happiness doesn’t matter, that even places where you were unhappy can call out to you, if enough time has passed. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

I had been thinking about the apartment in Pagkrati, where I spent my first ten years here in Greece, how things seem to be changing so rapidly in Athens, and how my Athens seems suspended in time, now that I’m gone from it. Images come to me almost unbidden, most often moments spent in solitude: my first Christmas Eve, walking along an empty Stadiou Street, and going into one of the cinemas to see a film; walking from my apartment to the Panellinion cafe at the bottom of Mavromichali Street, determined to go in and play chess, but then merely standing outside for half an hour, too shy to go in alone with so many good players inside; deciding to watch the sun come up from Lycabettus one Easter morning.

And then, about two months ago, a message comes from J.:

Just walked past your old house. The ensuing wave of nostalgia has obliged me to take a seat in a nearby hostelry and order a large cloudy one in your honour.

I don’t drink so much ouzo any more; it’s connected in my mind with Athens and sitting around with J. Now it’s Cretan wines I prefer.

I get the sense that J. is getting ready to leave Greece and go back to England after 15 or so years. I’m sure he is already beginning to feel nostalgic for the place he is preparing to leave. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Over a week ago, I was travelling down a road I’ve come down so many times before, every summer, some Easters, even a Christmas, into the Peloponnese, down through Nemea, and the Argolid, and then Kynouria, the part of Arcadia that touches the sea. I thought about how many times I’d made this trip as a bachelor on the Athens-Leonidio bus, and now I was driving down with my wife in our car, taking our daughter along for her first time.

* * * * *

The wind is up, blowing in from the sea, as it does every day. Little E. sits in my lap, turning over a eucalyptus leaf in her hands, quietly babbling to herself. I give her sprigs of rosemary and lavender to play with too. She brings them to her lips, without putting them into her mouth. She doesn’t seem to have learned to smell deliberately yet. I take her tiny hands and sniff them, and find traces of the three scents on them. The wind ruffles her little curls. And I think to myself, I will forget this moment, all the details that give it vividness: the coolness of the sea breeze, the warmth of E.’s little body, her shoulders, the back of her neck as she looks down at the sprig. She is bombarded by sensations and colours and sounds, and she absorbs them all, so that she can one day learn that this is called a tree, that is an ant, and that other thing a chair, but she will not remember this moment in itself, because it is all just a drop in the torrent of impressions she experiences every minute of the day. But I who have become so jaded, and who in all my forty years have never sat here in this place with a warm little daughter in my arms, what excuse have I got?

I set about trying to preserve the moment. I mention it to N., I write it down, I even grab my video camera and start to record moments that I know I will forget: the leaves of the lemon tree, seen through the balcony railing, as they sway in the wind, a bee among the oleander, dried up bougainvillea petals tumbling down the road. A caique in the afternoon as a fisherman casts his net. Our beach towels hanging to dry on the railings. The chaise longue where sleep is sweetest. The sandals left outside the door. The sound of someone chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or of the little gas cooker being lit and a little spoon tapping the inside of the briki of coffee. A lemon and two oranges in a basket hanging from the latticed roof of the pergola, and the wasp that hovers near them. The spider webs in the rosemary bush.

When I return home, maybe I’ll edit the fragments of video and make a DVD that I can watch on television. Years from now I will watch it, or read these words, and be so removed from the sensations that I tried to capture, that I will be reading them, like you, for the first time, like something I never lived at all, and they will remind me not of this place where I sit now, but of some other place like it, a place like no other place I’ve ever actually been — and by ” place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Written on some napkins

A few days ago I was looking through a notebook and came upon two square napkins that I’d written on in a cafe back in November.

10/11/08
Sitting in Σιναϊτικό, drinking a beer and eating a plate of mezedes. I had thought to bring a notebook with me or buy a paper to read. I hadn’t planned to come here: I had arranged to do a private lesson from 8.30 to 9.30, but it got moved to tomorrow.  So I sat and drank my beer, alone, with nothing to keep me occupied. I thought about things, and half-listened to the conversations around me.

A young boy across the room sat with his father and two of his father’s friends and talked with them. I was touched by how mature and intelligent he seemed. I thought about the child N. and I might have and I wondered about what it would look like. I imagined that its face and appearance was already determined, all we had to do was have it.

I imagined myself sitting here with my son, having a serious discussion, explaining why I’d waited till I was nearly 40 before I became a father. I’d explain to him the decisions I’d made in life, and where having him had fit in.

I looked out the door a lot, at the orange tree outside the entrance, at the benjamins further down, and listened to the hundreds of birds chirping in the trees in the square across the street, a strange sound at night, and I looked at the way the light from the street lamps fell on the flagstones on the pavement, and I felt happy: I had made all the right decisions in life; this was one of the moments all the other moments had led to.

And I looked at my watch: ten minutes had passed. I was sitting doing nothing, and time was passing slowly, without the help of boredom. All it needed was patience, and the strength that inactivity requires. But then I buckled, took my pen out of my pocket, grabbed a couple of napkins and wrote this down. And the time passed quickly.

Bit of Disquiet

Life, for most people, is a pain in the neck that they hardly notice, a sad affair with some happy respites, as when the watchers of a dead body tell anecdotes to get through the long, still night and their obligation to keep watch. I’ve always thought it futile to see life as a valley of tears; yes, it is a valley of tears, but one in which we rarely weep. Heine said that after great tragedies we always merely blow our noses. As a Jew, and therefore universal, he understood the universal nature of humanity.

Life would be unbearable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we’re not. We live as unconsciously, as uselessly and as pointlessly as animals, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not assuredly) they don’t, we anticipate it through so many distractions, diversions and ways of forgetting  that we can hardly say we think about it.

That’s how we live, and it’s a flimsy basis for considering ourselves superior to animals. We are distinguished from them by the purely external detail of speaking and writing, by an abstract intelligence, and by our ability to imagine impossible things. All this, however, is incidental to our organic essence. Speaking and writing have no effect on our primordial urge to live, without knowing how or why. Our abstract intelligence serves only to elaborate systems, or ideas that are quasi-systems, which in animals corresponds to lying in the sun. And to imagine the impossible may not be exclusive to us; I’ve seen cats look at the moon, and it may well be that they were longing to have it.

[Number 405, Zenith edition]

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