Once upon a time many years ago I feared I had a stalker.
I was working as a reporter then and would usually get home late and full of white wine.
On arrival I would jab at my answer-machine to cue up the messages and then go for a much-needed wee while the tape was rewinding.
More often than not I would find that someone had left the following message: clomp clomp clomp whoooosh.
What could this mean, I asked myself? Should I call the police?
But apparently I’m not alone in my confusion. [Apologies for the crash of gears as I change up to the lit. crit. bit.] In fact I’m in great company.
In his useful book ‘How Fiction Works’ (Vintage 2009) the critic and novelist James Wood quotes the writer and scholar, the late WG Sebald. He said:’I think fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.’
He argued that novelists writing in the 19th Century, such as Jane Austen, were writing in a world where the rules were clear, accepted by everybody and electrical tape recorders hadn’t been invented. (That last point is mine, I admit.)
Sebald added: ‘Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who konws the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.’
As Wood comments in the same book, ‘For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat.’
Does this mean that when I’m writing stories I may not use the third person? I think it’s an interesting question. Of course people will argue that free indirect speech, (writing in the third person but clearly from a particular character’s point of view) is a happy medium and I think they may well be right.
I’d be very interested to hear what other people think, though. Is the world too complex for any one person to have a credible view of it? If so, what are the implications of that? Is there any way that standard, non-free indirect, third person narrative can be rescued?
Meantime I’m off for a wee. Quietly.