One Christmas morning I went to church with my husband and parents-in-law. We all dressed smartly because that’s the tradition of their church.
Standpipe had forgotten his suit, or may not then have owned one, so he had borrowed one of his father’s tweed two-pieces.
After the service, on the way out of the church, I spotted a tweedy figure just passing the vicar, a few people ahead of me in the general throng. I stretched my hand forward and goosed the tweedy bottom. Standpipe would turn and smile at me, I knew. He would think it was funny that the spirit had moved me to such cheeky behaviour.
The tweedy figure did not turn. Instead, a hand came back through the crowd and gently removed mine, giving it a wordless, but not unsympathetic, squeeze.
I had pinched the wrong tweedy bum. And not just any old wrong tweedy bum. It was Standpipe’s father’s tweedy bum. On the way out of church. On Christmas morning.
Why, you might ask, am I telling you this story? It is the question that perhaps lies at the bottom of the mystery of narrative voice.
Here are some answers.
- I am hoping to amuse you
- It is one of the few Christmas stories from family life I can tell without threat of legal action
- I am hoping to interest you in literary criticism
These are both true answers but there’s another.
- I am hoping to create an audience for my writing which might one day make me some money
- I’ve got a point of view about church-going
The question is, is it fair that I only own up to the first three, if the last two are also important? What I mean is, I hope you can tell I’m trying to be funny from the way I’ve written the piece. You can obviously see that it is seasonal. And there’s a lot of literary criticism all over my blog. But the last two reasons in my list are not really acknowledged in the writing. They are more hidden.
I think writers who worry about narrative voice, like Sebald and Wood, are concerned to play fair with readers. Not just in reflecting our ever more complex world, as Sebald urges, but also to treat readers as adults and equals, rather than as children at a magic show with wide eyes and open mouths watching the master perform impossible feats of daring-do.
One route is to use the first person. This is evidently a partial view, in all senses of that word.
But another technique, which is also popular, is to call attention to the narrator, to make her or him an actor in the story, an interested party.
The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte is told in the both the first and third person.
The author and the first person narrator may be one and the same, it’s not clear. Perez-Reverte is a journalist, so is his first person narrator. When we discussed the book in class, our tutor Frank Egerton said he thought that the story might be based on fact; perhaps Perez-Reverte muddies the waters for legal reasons.
The parts of the story he tells in the third person, mostly in flashback, are told very much in free indirect speech. We are, during these portions of the story, privy to the protagonist Teresa Mendoza’s innermost thoughts and experiences.
It is a compelling and absorbing novel. Apparently an expertly researched examination of an illegal trade, the real pleasure for me in the book lies less in the portrait of the world of drug smuggling (which I don’t really care about) and more in the author/narrator’s confidence about what he is doing. His conviction that the story matters, even when I can’t quite see why it does, gives it urgency and pace. It is access to the author/narrator’s excitement which beguiles me, far more than Perez-Reverte’s ideas of what Teresa Mendoza might be thinking of her strange and violent life.
For me it is striking that even while Perez-Reverte is writing free indirect speech from the inside of Teresa Mendoza’s brain, he, and she, frequently conclude that she’s somewhat unknowable, a cold mountain (in the literal translation of her name) which forbids summation perhaps. Even she doesn’t really seem to know why she does all that she does.
Perez-Reverte is among our most thoughtful and literary writers so this cannot be an accident. He is making points about what these two sort of narration can and can’t do for readers.
There is another reason that I think literary writers spend such a lot of time, thought and effort on narrative position. The conventional, non-genre novel is a mature form and sometimes its devices can seem a bit creaky and even tired or obvious. Making mysteries about narrators and narrative voices is a good way of distracting readers from this problem and perhaps redeeming the form.
I found it hard to redeem my sorry form that Christmas morning. The only way I could think of to make sure Standpipe’s father knew my faux pas was exactly that, was to be the first person to tell the story against myself immediately. How we laughed, especially Standpipe’s mother, although I’m not sure her laughter was a reliable guide to her feelings.