The confusing truth about tweedy bottoms with Arturo Perez-Reverte on drugs

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.

Merry Christmas

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Posted in characters, creativity, criticism, Uncategorized, writing novels
8 comments on “The confusing truth about tweedy bottoms with Arturo Perez-Reverte on drugs
  1. zencherry says:

    Like father like son? Lol! Good advice about telling the story on yourself first. Always the way to go in an embarrassing moment. 😉

  2. “I am hoping to create an audience for my writing which might one day make me some money”

    Even if I didn’t know you, I’d have deduced the above from the fact that you’ve created a blog about writing and titled it in such a way as it is more likely to be found by those interested in writing. Isn’t that why writers (and others with ambitions for creative careers) make themselves known on the internet. Are they not all out to create (and keep) an audience?

    I don’t have much of a pov about pov. While traditional old-fashioned pompous omniscience generally irritates me (as do most books of that era), and I prefer not to have the interference of an intrusive self conscious narrator, there are always exceptions (e.g. The Book Thief is narrated by death, and beautifully so). I think any book that is skillfully written and uses a pov that adds value in some way to the story (rather than being used simply for the sake of it) will most likely be readable.

  3. Yes I think your first point is right. But it’s not much acknowledged and that bothers me a bit.

    I think your comments about pov are brilliant. I haven’t read The Book Thief and I’ll try and get to it because it’s sounding great.

    Thanks Nic for such a great comment. I really appreciate it.

    Cathy x

  4. Amanda says:

    Love the imagery of you pinching you father-in-laws ‘tweedy’ bottom! Re POV, it agree with BMFrog, it all works if the book is skilfully written. The second person works well in Bright Lights, Big City, but it would take a brave person to launch into that POV for their novel! I LOVED The Book Thief. It’s one of my top reads. And yes, Death narrates with great skill. Third person and first person both work well. Third person omniscent, in my humble opinion, should be avoided. But only because the power of Third person from a single viewpoint is too great to dilute. It’s all so subjective. Damn this literature lark!!
    Hope you don’t go pinching the wrong bottoms this Christmas, Cathy…

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      Thanks Amanda. If only it had just been imagery. I am very interested in what you say about the power of the third person from a single viewpoint being too great to dilute. I’ll have to think about that as I am not quite sure what it means. But perhaps you, like Sebald, feel it lacks credibility in a complex world … ? Cathy x

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