The course I recently completed, Oxford University’s Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing, includes a Literary Criticism strand they call Reading for Writers. I thought some people might be interested in the essay I wrote at the beginning of the year for this part of the course.
I wanted to look it over as I am facing a three-hour lit crit exam in less than a month. We had to choose a passage to critique and then analyse it paying attention to matters of form and diction, as far as I remember. I chose chapters two and three of Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack, a novel I absolutely love. I am sure it would make Ms Trapido laugh her socks off, but here’s what I wrote (I’ve incorporated my tutor’s valuable criticism of the work. He gave me a middling 2:1) :
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Chapters two and three of Barbara Trapido’s 1982 bestseller, Brother of the More Famous Jack, follow her protagonist, Katharine Browne, from London to the Sussex countryside. The language, settings and plot are conventional in all senses and the characters only mildly eccentric.
The story is told chronologically in the tradition of ‘Classic bourgeois’ realism [Roland Barthes cited in Martin Gray, 1992, p59]. Less normatively, the novel, a Bildungsroman, is literary fiction. The text is quietly but sensitively written, with some playful flourishes. There is no extravagant imagery. The language does not call attention to itself. What is distinctive about this text’s composition is Trapido’s treatment of time, specifically, her sudden, unexplained changes in tense.
Arranged in scenes and told by Trapido’s first-person narrator, chapter two is past-tense, as the older Katharine looks back on events. It covers a period of some days. Chapter three switches to the present-tense and real-time, covering some minutes. It is almost entirely one scene, ostensibly seen through the young Katharine’s eyes, although only the words ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘us’ and ‘we’ (p.15) indicate this. I want to argue that Trapido’s muscular treatment of time is central to the text’s powerfully enjoyable overall effecting, linking its theme to its organising literary device, which is, in my view, irony.
I am using irony here in the sense that James Wood uses it in his book How Fiction Works [Vintage, 2009]. He writes at the end of chapter one, Narration: ‘ … there is almost no area of narration not touched by the long finger of free indirect narration – which is to say, by irony.’ He quotes Nabokov’s Pnin, citing a passage where the Pnin drops a nutcracker. Wood writes: ‘Pnin tries to grasp it, but ‘the leggy thing’ slips into the water. … Now if the brilliant ‘leggy’ is Nabokov’s word, then the hapless ‘thing’ is Pnin’s word and Nabokov here is using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about it.’ Wood’s point is that with free indirect speech, the condition of irony, which is that words should say one thing yet mean at least one other thing, is satisfied.
Trapido uses many literary devices throughout the text. I believe the author manipulates the sound of the language using consonance onomatopoeically to reinforce characterisations and settings. Katharine’s p.11 encounter with Millet is full of the sibilance and ‘sh’ of furtive transgression. Thus: ‘stacks’, ‘browsed’, ‘BBC English’, ‘twisted smile’, ‘shoulder’, ‘blushed’, ’embarrassed’ and ‘cliché’.
Our first sight of Jane Goldman (p.14) repeats the soft, not to say gestational, ‘g’ so redolent of the late stages of pregnancy. So: ‘bulge’ (twice), ‘engages’, ‘hugely’, ‘strong’, ‘pyjama’, and ‘Burne-Jones’.
The narrative voice is articulate but the register is loosely conversational and funny, mixing formal, almost dated, syntax with more demotic phrasing. Thus on p.11 Trapido writes ‘advertisement’ rather than ‘advert’ or ‘ad’, shortly followed by ‘Gallic fags’, rather than French cigarettes.
Trapido repays careful reading. Some of her jokes are buried. On p.11 Millet refers to ‘jam and poetry’. On p.12 he’s at the Tate feeding Katharine doughnuts and talking of the Portland Vase – jam and pottery (unless it was ring doughnuts)? More straightforwardly, he has just driven her to the gallery in Trapido’s punning Alpha Romeo.
The author enjoys playing with words and phrases. The garden of the Goldman’s house is ‘seasonally infested’ (p.14), and Jacob Goldman is described as a man who ‘likes to suffer in public’ (p. 16).
Trapido uses parataxis (for example, p.16, final paragraph) too, to suggest we are privy to our narrators’ streams of consciousness. Truly ‘Virginia Woolf country’ (p. 14).
A very significant and marked feature of Trapido’s text is, I would argue, the preponderance of the Latinate, frontofmouth vocabulary of the Conqueror and his heirs, represented here by an unorthodox intellectual elite.
That Trapido is writing about an elite is surely evidenced by her extensive connotive allusions to elite cultural markers. There are myriad artistic, historical and geographical references. At least one character’s name alludes to an artist, Jean-Francois Millet, a 19th century French painter of the peasantry (a possible joke at Katharine’s expense).
Some references are overt. Thus in chapter two: ‘BBC English’, ‘John Donne’, ‘Austin Reed’, ‘Japanese’, ‘Tate Gallery’, ‘Alpha Romeo’, ‘Rome’, ‘Henry Moores’, ‘Portland Vase’. Chapter three, set in the domestic, less mediated, environment of a country house, still includes references to ‘Glyndebourne,’ ‘Virginia Woolf’, ‘Burne-Jones’, ‘Worthing’, and, again, ‘Rome’.
Some references are buried. When Millet refers to ‘jam’ and ‘poetry’ on p.11 I thought of Rupert Brooke’s 1912 sentimental classic poem, The Old Vicarage, Granchester, (‘And is there honey still for tea?’) which brought nostalgic ideas of Englishness into the text alongside references to other countries and nationalities [Brooke, 2006, p.85].
Also, on p.15, Jane Goldman’s reference to ‘time’ followed by ‘cabbages’ brought Through the Looking Glass [Carroll, 2006, p.74] to mind. It is worth noting that commentators have worried about the 30-year-old Charles Dodgson’s friendship with his book’s likely inspiration, Alice Liddell, aged 10. The reference also underlines the points that Katharine has arrived in an eccentric world, and that she’s young.
All this connotation and allusion must imply an exceptionally scholarly reader. Surely this is nothing less than outrageous flattery, and it works. Although I have had to look up some of the allusions for this exercise, the first time I read the novel, I accepted them all as hallmarks of the characters’ elite milieu and was warmed by the author’s assumption that I would get the references.
My sense of being included is, I believe, strengthened by Trapido’s choice of first person narration. This point-of-view gives readers privileged access to Katharine’s innermost, apparently unfiltered, thoughts, especially the younger Katharine’s. Trapido also uses Katharine for third person description. The narration again gives us privileged access to the thoughts and feelings of other characters, in something that looks much like free indirect speech.
Thus, Katharine’s report of how her mother prides ‘herself on her instinct for nosing out sexual deviance’ (p. 13). This is clearly Mrs Browne’s language because the sentiments are at odds with Katharine’s implied Weltanshauung.
Daughters can know their mothers intimately. It is less obvious how Katharine divines, on p. 16, that her new friend, Millet, ‘clearly finds reassurance in the fact that his friends are unchanged’ (p. 16). Surely there is some undesirable confusion here between author and narrator, especially if this is supposed to be the young Katharine?
A great benefit of Trapido’s first person outsider-narrator is that we learn about the Goldmans and their world alongside Katharine and this surely adds to the text’s immediacy, realism and pleasure.
The idea of ‘the real’ in fiction seems so fraught that I feel I must specify what I mean by realism. My definition relies on novelist and critic James Wood’s counter-argument to the French critic, Roland Barthes, who disparaged realist fiction [Wood, 2009, p178]. Wood champions Brigid Lowe’s argument that readers are not asked to ‘believe’ fictional events but to ‘imagine’ them; the former being an abstract experience, the latter being sensual. (Lowe suggests the degraded term ‘realism’ should be replaced with ‘hypotyposis’.)
A good example of hyptyposis in this sense, I suggest, is Trapido’s sharp observation of Katharine’s emotional response to her first meeting with Millet. She is ’embarrassed’ by his ‘good looks’. I recognise that feeling and was delighted to find it validated by the printed text and bound pages of a published novel. Could this be an example of Barthian jouissance?
But this first person point-of-view is not without problems, the main one being conflict between the narrator’s petit bourgeois origins and her evidently haut bourgeois voice.
Trapido solves this problem by presenting her narrator as telling the story from a position of ‘belated enlightenment’ [Wood, 2009, p.7]. She has joined the educated elite and now looks back on her younger, more ignorant self. Here we arrive at the issue of tenses, the issue that brought me to this text.
The first change in tense occurs in chapter two where, after her past-tense encounter with Millet, the older Katharine suddenly launches inexplicably into a present-tense rhapsody to fashion and knitting.
Trapido’s abrupt veering into the present-tense for those few lines on p. 11 undermined my trust that the protagonist would develop as a character, potentially fatal in a Bildungsroman. If, as the present-tense suggested, her taste in clothing had not changed, what else might be static?
I can only understand these lines as a species of Chekhovian gun (which does admittedly go off later on) or as a reference to the title of the novel, which itself is a commentary on the gap between contemporary judgements and the verdicts of history. Jack Yeats was, in his day, a famous artist. It is his brother, the poet, we celebrate in ours.
The second change in tense occurs at the beginning of chapter three which seems to be happening now, and in real-time.
One effect of this dual-time structure is that Trapido sacrifices all tension about Katharine’s fate. We know from the ‘belated enlightenment’ and from the voice that Katharine survives her story and comes to easy, affectionate, terms with it. But, what she loses in surprise, Trapido gains in irony, which, as I said, I believe to be the text’s main organising device.
Throughout the text readers see and understand more about what is happening than the young Katharine, the reliably unreliable first-person narrator. Interestingly, Trapido almost discards Katharine in chapter three, in what I regard as a literary sleight of hand. She wants the old Katharine’s voice and view. Young Katharine is in the way.
While the present-tense voice does not change or become ‘young’, the narrator almost disappears, being relegated to the first paragraph where Trapido disguises Katharine’s youth with the pronoun ‘we’. For the rest of the chapter Trapido uses Katharine as a camera, recording events, frequently in parataxis, as stated.
Given her theme, scope for layer upon layer or irony must be Trapido’s main goal. It is not just readers who give their view of the text. There are at least four views of the text in play as far as I can judge. We have the implied reader, the implied author and the older Katharine all watching the younger Katharine. Each of the first three has a more informed view of events than the young Katharine, but we also see the action as Katharine sees it.
Katharine’s description of the haircut Millet organises for her, for example, appears uncomfortable to me, whereas the young Katharine likes it, the older Katharine is nostalgic about it and the implied author wise to Millet’s sexual agenda.
I would argue that much of p. 16, which is mainly concerned with Jane Goldman enthusing about her children in a rather dull way, only sustains interest because we as readers are seeing the conversation through four sets of eyes.
I have even wondered if one sentence has been put in for – almost written by – presumed moralist readers of ‘Classic bourgeois’ realism. On p. 12, ‘He was considerately restrained always in his touchings.’ This enigmatic sentence, a strange sentiment expressed in strained syntax, works as an evocation of the awkwardness and fear of the sexually inexperienced. Could it also be pre-emptive reassurance from the author (or publisher) that no inter-age intercourse is taking place? On the other hand, Katharine is hardly Lolita and perhaps Trapido is seeking to sustain Millet’s sexual ambiguity: is Katharine’s mother right or wrong?
The complexity of the novel’s structure is not without its problems. I believe I have spotted one error. On p. 14, Katharine, now in the present-tense chapter three, refers to Mrs Goldman. At this moment, Katharine cannot know her hostess’s last name, or else Millet’s unkind prank (that she is unwittingly the guest of her philosophy professor) is confounded.
Would the Katharine of chapter three know of Burne-Jones? Or Glyndebourne? Surely the author is again intruding on the narrator.
Similarly, when, on p. 16, Katharine comments that Millet ‘has clearly been expressing his love for Jane Goldman in courtly tributes these twenty years’, I did wonder again at the young narrator’s acuity. Moreover, if Katharine perceives Millet’s preference for Jane, wouldn’t she be at least a bit threatened by it?
One defence against this criticism might be that Trapido is not using the present-tense, but the historical present. In this construction, which seems a bit tortured to me, the chapter would be implicitly prefaced with I remember ‘The house as it presents … ‘
Even if I’m right, and these are flaws, they are minor ones, none of which I noticed on first reading, any more than I noticed the changes in tense.
Having read the text closely, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that these odd-looking changes in tense are necessary, central even, to the work’s overall effect, specifically to its principal mechanism which I believe to be authorial irony.
Brother of the More Famous Jack Barbara Trapido (1998, Penguin Books)
How Fiction Works James Wood (2009, Vintage)
A Dictionary of Literary Terms Martin Gray (1992, York Press)
Distance and Point-of-View: Wayne C. Booth (1961, An Essay in Clarification OUP)
The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke (2006, The Echo Press)
Through the looking glass: Lewis Carroll (2006, And what Alice found there Macmillan Children’s Books)