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In Which We Discuss First-Person Point of View:
As most of my ex-students and those of you who’ve heard
me speak on book tour or who have read the previous seven
installments of Writing Well know, I enjoy
teaching via digressions. So I’ll begin this discussion
of writing from different points-of-view, with a focus on
first-person narrative today, with a digression.
You may have noticed
that I share my writing insights in this series through a
deductive rather than inductive process. In other words, I
don’t set out Cosmic Principles of Writing but, rather,
tend to look at those writers who’ve proven their excellence
over a long period of time and attempt to see and share what
these men and women have to say about the art of writing well.
This approach, while infinitely superior (I think) to cosmic
pronouncements or the recipe-and-cookbook approach to teaching
writing, has its drawbacks. One such drawback, as discovered
by countless instructors in writing courses, is that much
of writing ability depends upon inherent talent, so “sharing
the secrets of great writers” tends to turn into a reading
course for the vast majority of students without that inherent
Another drawback is that great writers tend to lie about
the influences that have shaped them.
Why would writers do that, you ask. One reason is ego.
It was John Keats who said – “That which is creative
must create itself” – and the vast majority of
great writers seem to have believed, in their heart of hearts,
that they were singularities, unique unto themselves. As we’ll
see, this tends to be true in some ways (thus the lying to
interviewers and others who always ask about “influences”),
but it also leads to odd forms of writers lying to themselves.
Every beginning writer thinks that he or she can imitate
Ernest Hemingway (and Hemingway has had full-time professional
writers, such as the 1950’s Robert Ruark, who made a career of imitating Hemingway), but who,
we might ask with little worry about grammar, did Hemingway
Before you laugh or ask just who the hell Ronald Firbank was, please note that critics as clever as Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh spotted Hemingway’s imitation of Firbank (especially when it came to arranging dialogue), and Hemingway himself, for all his bragging around African campfires of having gone toe-to-toe with Tolstoy that morning in his writing labors, would grudgingly admit that Ronald Firbank had made an impression upon him.
Such admissions by a famous author can also be an exercise in ego. Compare oneself to Tolstoy and one is fated – in most cases – to lose that particular round. But . . . Ronald Firbank?
The other reason that the best authors often have some difficulty in noting the strongest influences on them is that they really don’t know.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a good example of this willingness – even eagerness – to share the literary influences that had shaped him, but was also a man who had trouble separating profound reading experiences from true shaping experiences. For those of us, readers and writers (if there can be any such separation), who believe that The Great Gatsby may be one of the (or even the) most perfect novel ever crafted, we’d like to know what influences allowed Fitzgerald to write and rewrite and hone that work into the near-perfect form it finally took.
In a letter to his daughter quoted by Edmund Wilson (who more or less single-handedly rescued Scott Fitzgerald from obscurity after his death) in The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald comes as close to explaining the mystery of literary influence as anyone ever has –
“A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year. Or rather it forms but instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.”
In an essay in his delightful and insightful book of 100 biography-essays, CULTURAL AMNESIA: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, Clive James analyzes both Fitzgerald’s unique talent and the writer’s earnest but sometimes obfuscating efforts to sort out the influences on his own work and talent.
Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway were great writers, but Edmund Wilson, Clive James, and many others have arrived at the conclusion that of the two of them, Hemingway was the more serious reader. The less formally educated Hemingway knew more about literature and was more serious about literature. (Which is why, perhaps, that Hemingway always resisted the lure of Hollywood while Fitzgerald ended up spilling far too much of the seed of his great talent on thickly carpeted floors out there.)
Long before I encountered the Clive James essay, I read Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Frances (known as Scotty) with great interest. As most good writer-instructors in advanced writing courses end up doing for their students, Fitzgerald was giving her a reading list for style (and Fitzgerald’s comments usually showed that he’d read them carefully and critically). The list included Henry James, Turgenev, Dreiser, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, D.H. Lawrence, Flaubert, and Thomas Mann.
But, as Clive James points out, Fitzgerald also advised his daughter to read John Reed’s then-popular Ten Days that Shook the World and The Communist Manifesto. These choices were pure 1930’s Hollywood political correctness – a sign of Fitzgerald’s intellectual and literary insecurity. As Clive James says of the choice of Reed’s book – “ . . . as a measure for style, Ten Days That Shook the World is devoid of beneficial properties.”
James goes on – “In Ten Days That Shook the World he [Reed] had the biggest story on earth to tell, and no gift to tell it with. He ended up buried in the Kremlin wall, but the reader feels the same weight. To Fitzgerald, this discrepancy between task and talent must have been apparent at a glance. It follows, damagingly, that Fitzgerald felt he ought to rank Reed’s celebrated kludge as a good book, presumably because of the line it spouted. One is forced to conclude that Fitzgerald not only declined to take his own literary judgement as an absolute, he thought there was another absolute that he ought to conform to, if only he could figure out what it was.”
Today’s equivalent might be if the late Norman Mailer had recommended, say, the untainted-by-talent kludge of Alice Walker.
Clive James comes to the conclusion that the reason there is no sign of influence of style by almost any of the great writers Fitzgerald cites to his daughter is that he was never really influenced by any of them – “ . . . he was more or less born writing in his characteristic manner and is recommending school to his daughter because he played hookey himself, and is all the more ashamed because he got away with it.”
The one writer with whom Fitzgerald showed great and sincere affinity was John Keats. As he wrote to Frances in 1940 –
“Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you – like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist – or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore around which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations. ‘The Grecian Urn’ is unbearably beautiful with every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or it’s just something you don’t understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius paused at that point in history and touched it. . . . . For awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.”
Clive James also picked up on Fitzgerald’s sincere resonance to Keats, but writes –
“If Fitzgerald can be said to have absorbed and amalgamated all the excellent stylists in English, then it was was probably because he was already like that, deep down. His fellow-feeling for Keats (the title of Tender is the Night is only one of the signs) reminds us of a question: where did Keats get it from? Keats’s touch and tone (we notice his excesses because they are his, not because they are borrowed) had always been fully formed: though he read prodigiously throughout his short life, he seemed mainly in search of reassurance that he was not as unique as he felt. Fitzgerald was like that, except that he was seldom alone long enough to find out that he was lonely. Quite early on, he ceased to sound like anybody else. The young Hemingway sounded like Gertrude Stein, and later on he sounded more and more like Hemingway, in a dreadfully hypertrophied example of the self-imitation we call mannerism.”
The critic Harold Bloom has spent decades constructing a literary theory sometimes called the Anxiety of Influence in which he posits that every great novelist or poet instinctively, whether he ever acknowledges it or even knows it, has chosen at least one great novelist or poet before him with which to compete – and to beat.
But again Clive James comments on this infinite regression, this literary hall of mirrors we stumble into whenever we try to understand “influence,” on ourselves or on our writing heroes –
“It can be argued – indeed, it is hard to argue otherwise – that ever since Shakespeare, every writer in English literature has had to devote a huge effort to not aping him. The chief reason there can’t be another Shakespeare is that he never had to waste time doing the same. Shakespeare created a permanent imbalance in every traditional field of subject matter and expession, so that it will never be possible to escape his influence, especially not by ignoring it. (The fallacy in the idea that purity of expression can arise from untainted ignorance lies right there.) . . .”
So, from these lofty regions back down to the most mundane nuts-and-bolts of writing:
Which point-of-view to use when writing a novel and why?
Even beginning writers tend to grasp that there are only about five choices when it comes to point-of-view: first, second, or third person, omniscient, or multiple viewpoints.
Those who would base their Apprenticeship to the Word on aping the style of current bestsellers would probably note that the last of these choices – multiple points of view – tends to be favored by our highest-paid storytellers. In truth, the current rash of shifting viewpoints in novels should probably have its own name – i.e. Grasshopper on the Skillet.
I would suggest that this hopping, ever-shifting point-of-view in so many of our – ah – more accessible airport novels is too often a function more of laziness and self-indulgence than of any thought. These writers shift from one character’s point-of-view to another’s, sometimes many times in a chapter, sometimes on a single page, because they can. This does not strike me as a compelling argument for following suit, since it’s also the explanation of why the 7-yr-old boy who finds his stepdaddy’s .44 Magnum shoots every family member in the trailer. It was there – I could do it – so I did.
Those of you who’ve read my essays to date know that I prefer not to knock other writers, whether living or dead. In my opinion, writing is hard enough – the profession amounts to leaping from one crucible to another until one dies – without other pros taking potshots at you. But this reductio ad absurdum of using constantly shifting points of view for no discernible structural or aesthetic purpose can be best illustrated by one example from perhaps the mega-bestseller of our recent era.
The book and author shall remain largely nameless – although a clever clue on the level of the clever clues in the novel itself might be that the real title rhymes with The Ba Blinchy Toad – and a minute or two of jumping around in the book will show us that point-of-view structure here is of the Grasshopper on the Skillet variety. If there are four characters in a scene, sooner or later – for no discernible purpose – we will be leaping into the consciousness of each of those four characters. If a FedEx messenger rushes into the scene to deliver a package, we can be fairly certain that we will jump into the mind of that FedEx person, no matter how irrelevant to the plot he and his mind may be.
But wait! There’s more!
In one extended scene, the novelist puts us into the mind of the villain behind all the conspiracy. But does this villain, in this early scene, recognize that he’s the villain behind all of the complicated (and idiotic) plot developments that he and the others are discussing? Of course not! That would reveal the entire mystery, such as it is, and collapse the Surprise Ending, such as it is. But just try being a villain behind all the machinations the innocent characters are discussing in your mansion’s parlor and not acknowledging to yourself that you’re the person responsible for all of these events. Just try not thinking of a blue cow when one is mentioned.
This, of course, is authorial dishonesty on an industrial scale. And the fact that today’s readers are too generous (or ignorant) to notice it and immediately throw the book away as a botched contrivance, does little to recommend the Grasshopper on a Skillet multiple-points-of-view-because-you-can approach for your next novel.
There was a time, early in the novel’s evolution, when omniscient point-of-view was the writers’ and readers’ preferred tone of telling. And why not? Even today (outside of the French postmodernists’ arcane mumblings and fumblings) we acknowledge that the writer is the God of His or Her little literary universe. Why shouldn’t He or She be able to see – and to tell us about – all things happening everywhere and within every mind?
Well, omniscient viewpoint still works, when handled perfectly, but it’s old-fashioned. Those early Jane Austen and Richard Fielding types just used it up. It comes across now as archaic, rather as a Dear Reader-aside would or the use of the word “alas!”
So for most of us, that leaves one of the three-person points of view – I, you, he or she – or a careful and reasoned rotation of viewpoints (perhaps different points-of-view for different chapters, just to show we don’t suffer from the Grasshopper in the Skillet Syndrome) and usually in the past tense.
We can more or less throw out the second person point-of-view. (Have you read any successful “you” pronouned novels recently?) Second person p-o-v is the equivalent of using subjective camera in a film and tends to be limited to allowing us a voyeuristic peek through a window as the next murder victim – young, female, sexy – undresses for bed. All we know of “ourselves” is that we’re a heavy breather and looking out through a hockey goalie’s mask.
Not the best way to create believable and three-dimensional characters.
So third-person or first-person past tense? (Past tense usually goes without saying; use of present tense is, in most cases, an affectation. At best it works only for specific and limited effects.)
Let’s finally get to the topic here and analyze why a writer should (and should not) use first-person point-of-view narration.
The strongest reason for not writing your short story or novel in first-person narrative point-of-view is that amateur and beginning writers so very frequently want to and try to, often to disastrous effect. The ratio of amateurs trying first-person p-o-v in their first story and novel attempts to professionals using it is probably about 50-to-1. When I read the overwhelming majority of college student and beginning-amateur stories and novel excerpts with the “I” narratives, I want to make a rule that NO first-person viewpoints will be allowed for the first three years one attempts to write for publication.
The reasons for beginners wanting that point-of-view are fairly obvious: amateurs are used to writing “I” in their journals and letters; they feel it somehow adds more oomph to the narrative, as if it made the fiction “truer”; it feels more immediate and natural to tell the story yourself, using the “I” narrative. Unfortunately, those are exactly the reasons the first-person narratives break down so frequently.
Amateur writers forget that there has to be a character behind that first-person narrative; their narrator may have a different name, but soon becomes just an extension of them. Pretty soon their own opinions and comments begin to leak through the paper-thin facade of character they’ve created (and forgotten) and the “story” becomes just another coffee-shop journal entry.
Solipsism is never a workable instrument for a writer of fiction. (And you needn’t cite Proust at me – the “Marcel” mentioned only two or three times in the 3,000+ pages of In Search of Lost Time was not the author. The persona of the narrator was, among other things, Christian and fiercely heterosexual, while Proust was Jewish and, at the very least, bisexual and predominantly homosexual.)
In my own first novel, 1985’s Song of Kali (written in 1982), I did use a first-person narrator, but only after careful consideration and after writing many stories with third-person p-o-v’s. And even though many of the Calcutta-based experiences I described had happened to me in India a few years earlier, in 1977, I never confused my own experience with that of my narrator, a New England poet named Luczak. The reason I chose first-person point-of-view was precisely that narrative’s inherent attribute of being the most limited of all points of view. Luczak was in Calcutta for business purposes, to find out how new work had surfaced from a Bengali poet who had died years earlier, but it was his personal quest to keep his wife and baby daughter safe in the City of Dreadful Night that powered the narrative. It’s what Luczak didn’t know – didn’t understand – and couldn’t discover until it was too late that convinced me to write the short novel from a first-person point-of-view.
Pop Quiz # 1: Without looking, tell the point-of-view in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
I trust that most of you passed this first quiz with flying colors.
The Great Gatsby begins – “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
Whose father? Whose mind? Not Gatsby’s, of course, and not just because Gatsby does not survive the novel and so could not be telling his own story (although that sort of narrative problem is never minor.) It’s not until the bottom of page 2 of my blue-covered Contemporary Classics Scribner paperback that the narrator begins talking about himself – “My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations.” – but I believe that it’s not until p. 15, long after we’ve been introduced to Tom Buchanan and his cousin Daisy (and even Miss Jordan Baker), that we hear the narrator’s first name mentioned when Buchanan says, “I love to see you at my table, Nick” and it’s p. 19 before Jordan Baker says, “Good night, Mr. Carraway.”
Nick Carraway, with his blend of idolatry and stern Midwestern moral judgment is not only the best narrative choice for The Great Gatsby, he is the only choice.
One cannot have a central character with such a hidden background, mysterious personal history, near-godlike attributes, and fatal obsession as has Jay Gatsby and even consider a first-person narration. When one is in the presence of a god or devil or cipher – or any primal mystery – we need an all-observing, sympathetic, but still essentially Old Testament witness such as that which Nick Carraway provides.
Once again, the first-person narration in The Great Gatsby serves many of the same purposes that my Robert Luczak first-person-told tale in Song of Kali required – i.e. a narrator with a restricted field of vision and only partial but unfolding understanding of the overall situation.
Pop Quiz # 2: If you were hired to write a novelization of Hamlet, which point-of-view would you use?
The more pertinent question here might be – How were you so stupid as to end up doing a novelization of what is possibly the most powerful play ever written? For money, you say? Well, all right then, let’s move on.
Obviously you could not (or at least should not ) do a first-person narrative of Hamlet: The Novel. The character of Hamlet is as close to an absolute consciousness as any mimetic art has ever come: the best one can do with Hamlet is what the audience in the theater does – observe and try to understand (but never to catch up with Hamlet’s exponentially expanding consciousness of self.) If the novelization were to require a narrative voice (for it is Hamlet who is the constant voice and presence in Shakespeare’s play, even when he is not onstage), it would have to be that of Horatio – Hamlet’s close friend and one of the few characters left standing at the end.
Many critics over the centuries have wondered why Hamlet holds the dim-but-loyal Horatio in such high regard: Hamlet sings Horatio’s praises even while the Prince has become disgusted with his first love, Ophelia, his other friends such as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and his mother. Perhaps it is because it is to Horatio that Hamlet entrusts the upholding of his “good name” – the dying prince’s obsession even unto the point of death. Or perhaps it is because Horatio has become the stand-in for the entire audience – present, silent, unjudging but, in the end, the final jury.
To transfer Horatio’s role to that of first-person narrator in a novel would be tricky. He would have to be present at intimate scenes – say Hamlet’s soliloquies or his confrontation with Gertrude and offhand murder of Polonius through the curtain -- previously only shared with the audience. Making Horatio somehow privy to these intensely private, even secret, moments would be difficult to do without distorting the entire glebe and globe of the tale.
So it would seem that third-person or even ominiscient p-o-v would be preferable here (for what is a theater audience’s point-of-view if it is not ominiscient)? But that would give us the opportunity to enter into Hamlet’s consciousness, and that is simply not possible. We can see Hamlet’s actions and hear the cascade of his words, the latter always working on several levels at once, always staying ahead of the ability of even his most intelligent interlocutors’ understanding, but we cannot become Hamlet. Not even for an instant.
This is one area where theater and film have an advantage over written prose – i.e. in their very inability to enter into the thoughts of any of the characters in any meaningful way. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim – “Action is character” – is paramount to an audience trapped behind the camera or beyond the proscenium.
Pop Quiz #3: What are some other good examples of first-person p-o-v used to describe a more important but ineffable ‘Jay Gatsby’ sort of character?
Well, one could argue that St. Paul’s Jesus is just that. Most certainly Plato’s Socrates. Take a man who never wrote down a word of his own philosophy, and you can bend him into any shape you want.
But we’re talking about more recent fiction.
Saul Bellow is a master of complex first-person narrative and I love his novel Humboldt’s Gift in which successful (but sold-out and used-up) writer Charlie Citrine keeps coming back to his monster-mentor, the great poet Von Humboldt Fleisher. One egotist talking about another (crazier) egotist. Or saint.
If you haven’t experienced Saul Bellow’s rambling but devastating use of the first-person narrator, you must run, not walk, to Humboldt’s Gift. For his third-person narrative look at other expanded-consciousness Hamletesque characters, I recommend his Herzog or (my favorite) Mr. Sammler’s Planet.
But the opening lines of Humboldt’s Gift show the double power of first-person narration – i.e. the ricochet, two-for-one ability for the narrator (as Nick Carraway does) to illuminate himself even while he is talking about someone else:
“The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. The guy had it all.”
Our idol-worshiping, literature-loving observer does sound a bit like Nick describing Gatsby with his new shirts, doesn’t he? And like Nick, this narrator – Charlie Citrine – will be disillusioned by his hero very quickly. (Would that St. Paul and Plato had followed the more difficult arc and art of such a storyline, from worship to disillusionment and then back to love of the human’s failings . . . but these earlier writers had an agenda. And agendas never allow for the honesty of good art.)
My own current novel, Drood, which I’m struggling to finish as I write this in January and which had damned well better be finished when you read this in February, has a similar first-person narrator telling all about his mentor-monster. In this case the narrator is the 19th Century hack writer Wilkie Collins and his mentor-monster is Charles Dickens. My template here, although not thought of until long after I had decided upon the first-person p-o-v and the identity of my narrator, is the fictional Salieri from the Peter Shaffer play and Milos Forman film Amadeus.
In real life – which is to say, in what we know from history – Salieri not only did not scheme to murder Mozart but was a friend to the genius. When Mozart wanted a music tutor for his own children, he chose Salieri for that imporant role.
But Peter Shaffer’s brilliant conceit was that Salieri – who represented mediocre musicians, artists, and writers everywhere – was so jealous of Mozart, to his mind an immature idiot who nonetheless produced music straight from God, that he schemed to murder him. This in a sense is my first-person narrator of Wilkie Collins – not just the mediocre writer, opium addict, and rather unimaginative friend and frequent collaborator to Dickens that biography shows us, but someone consumed by jealousy to the point of madness.
Which brings us to another great advantage of first-person point-of-view narration –
Pop Quiz # 4: What is one of the greatest joys of using a first-person narrator?
He or she can be totally unreliable. They can be beyond unreliable – they can be stone liars.
All other forms of narrative demand (or at least expect) some honesty from the author-narrator (although postmodernism has certainly played with that expectation.) But first-person narrators can be deliberately obscure or maliciously untruthful.
In my third novel, Carrion Comfort, I rotated points of view among different characters in different chapters, but my one first-person narrator was Melanie, an ancient “mind-vampire” who could control the actions of other people to her whim. For hundreds of pages (it was a big book) I could have Melanie describing such things as her beautiful home, the lovely nurse who took care of her, and her attentive servants, only later to find – when a different, third-person point-of-view finally saw this home and these people – that the house was a reeking disaster with food rotting on the floor, her lovely nurse was a shambling, mind-controlled zombie with lipstick smeared across her cheek, and Melanie herself . . . well, yuck, you’ll have to read that part for yourself.
Oh, how I enjoyed old Melanie as my unreliable narrator. And how I loved delivering the shock of the “real” as opposed to the long (but believable) narration of her fantasy world.
In Drood I get to do much the same thing, since my fictional Wilkie Collins is, as was the real Wilkie, lost in opium and laudanum addiction: a man who uses injections of morphine (on top of huge quantities of laudanum that would kill a roomful of men not so used to it) to get a few hours of dream-riddled sleep. With such a narrator, all things are possible – or can be made to seem so – but the pleasure in such a book is to create layers upon layers of possible and probable realities. It will be the reader’s job to sort them out.
Pop Quiz # 5: All right, first-person narrative point-of-view is good for others describing saints and monsters, but can it be used for the monster to describe itself?
I submit for your approval the small John Gardner novel Grendel, in which the baby-monster from Beowulf tells his own story.
Here is the creature as described in the original (pre-Seamus Heaney translation) poem –
“The grim spirit was Grendel, known as the rover of the borders, one who held the moors, fen and fastness. Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of Cain. The Eternal Lord avenged the murder in which he slew Abel. Cain had no pleasure in that feud, but He banished him far from mankind, the Ruler, for that misdeed. From him sprang all bad breeds, trolls and elves and monsters – likewise the giants who for a long time strove with God. He paid them for their reward for that.”
And this is how John Gardner has Grendel see himself –
“Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows.”
But for my money, the most marvelous depiction of a monster by the monster itself is Humbert Humbert (an assumed name, we are told) telling his story in Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant Lolita.
In an age where we quietly and passively assume that a mass murderer may be living down the street, we are so terrified of and repelled by pedophiles that we require the authorities to inform us if one is within five miles of our home. Pedophiles are – perhaps properly so – the last witches we all agree to hunt and burn on sight.
And yet Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita seduces us just as surely as he seduces the child-woman nymphet (even as, he says, she seduces him) – and he does so with the beauty and power of his first-person narration.
“Lolita” is the first and final word in this incredible book – certainly one of the finest American novels of the 20th Century – and in between those repeated syllables is a perfectly told tale of sexual obsession, love, tragedy, and – only incidentally – murder.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
And so, with a pretty play of peppy pedophilic alliteration, the tale begins. And it ends with the same message and probable truth repeated in Shakespeare’s many sonnets to his male Youth and Dark Lady: that only the beautiful written poetry of their love has any chance at immortality in a universe where love and lovers are fickle, frail, and all too mortal –
“I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C.Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
The “C.Q.” Humbert Humbert asks Lolita not to pity is Claire Quilty, Humbert’s strange Double, who has seduced Lolita away from him, the seducer, and treated her poorly. Humbert has murdered Quilty but we find this out in one of the most offhand first-person comments in literature, when, very early on in his narrative, Humbert writes that oft-quoted (and almost always quoted out of context) line – “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
Humbert Humbert’s prose style is fancy. It is also beautiful and compelling, turning a pedophile’s fetid fantasies into the stuff of epic tragedy and – in the end -- true love.
Sven Birkerts – a would-be novelist who gave up his attempts to write fiction and found his true and brilliantly capable niche of writing about books – tells in an essay of how he taught Lolita to undergraduates (cleverly and topically packaged with the currently popular Reading Lolita in Tehran) at Mount Holyoke and discovered, to his real surprise, that his student’s primary reaction was not one of shock or disgust, but of fascination and sympathy with Nabokov’s gift of Humbert Humbert’s beautiful, flowing narrative –
“But my students subverted my expectations immediately,” writes Berkerts. “Not by approving or trivializing anything Humbert did or confided – they were all properly disturbed (only one of the fourteen had read the novel before) – but by overruling that response with another. Simply: they declared themselves entranced with Humbert’s mind and the beauty and originality of his – that is to say, Nabokov’s – language. One after the next, with an enthusiasm I rarely find in these student/book encounters, they remarked on his wit, his beautiful phrases, his images, his elaborate references, and the astonishing precision of his prose. In fact, not only did Humbert Humbert capture their imaginations – with fascination and pity – but he did so in spite of their powerful (and stated) predisposition to pronounce him guilty. They were hardly blind to his monstrosity, but even though I felt that many of them wanted to condem his deeds as well as the sensibility that had conjured them up, they couldn’t quite do it. Their feelings had sheered off from their moral judgments. They were, I could see, dismayed to encounter so directly the confusing power of art. And this seems to me, in our or any age, a remarkable thing – a vote not just for the claims of an exacerbated sensibility, but also for the allusive, romantic detail-encrusted prose that would press those claims.”
Here a novel can do – and has done – what no film can accomplish. There have been two serious attempts at turning Lolita into a movie: Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation starring James Mason as Humbert and 14-yr-old Sue Lyon as Delores (“Lolita”) Haze, and the lesser 1998 attempt by director Adrian Lyne starring Jeremy Irons as the middle-aged pervert and Dominique Swain as Lolita.
Both films fail for a variety of reasons, but the Lyne version fails most dismally. Jeremy Irons is so morose throughout the film, so thoroughly and miserably perverse, that one has the urge to shoot him ten minutes into the movie, not for his pedophilic plans and transgressions, but just to put the poor S.O.B. out of his misery.
James Mason, on the other hand, is close to perfect as the sophisticated, world-weary vaguely but sinisterly and attractively “European” Humbert Humbert. James Mason, unlike Irons who seems incapable of prose, much less poetry, can be imagined to be the author of the book’s first paragraph cited above.
But without the poetry of Nabokov’s prose, we’re left only with plot, which is about pedophilia.
And even there – or perhaps especially there – both films fail totally. Lolita (the real Lolita) is a nymphet, a word often used (especially in pornography) today but one which Nabokov coined and used sparingly. A nymphet is a girl-child with some preternatural woman’s sexual consciousness already in her. The actress Sue Lyon in the 1962 Kubrick film may have been only 14, but she had a woman’s stare and the beginnings of a woman’s body. I have no idea how old the actress Dominique Swain was when they filmed the ’98 remake, but she had a child’s face above a woman’s body.
This is not Nabokov’s nymphet. This is not the child whom Humbert describes to us as “four foot ten in one sock.” No, the girl-women in both Kubrick’s failure of a film and Lyne’s total failure of a film aren’t that shocking at all: they’re not children, they’re just the usual Madison Avenue tarting up of our children turned into blatant sexual objects – a myth so pervasive that it has all but eliminated middle childhood for most girls today.
Birkerts points out that his students – or we, or at least our younger selves – may enter into reading Lolita for prurient reasons, but we emerge with wisdom.
Pop Quiz # 6: Besides being perfect for portraying monsters, why is first-person narration good for depicting teenagers?
One might point out that the terms “monsters” and “teenagers” often can be used interchangeably.
But that’s not the point.
In all of Charles Dickens’s novels, he used first-person narration only three times – Esther Sommerson’s chapters in Bleak House (which Dickens tended to forget about, resorting to his omniscient and third-person narratives with what feels like a greater sense of confidence), in David Copperfield’s narration in the book that was Dickens’s favorite of all his works, and finally Pip in Great Expectations. Both David’s and Pip’s narratives show why first-person narrated sensibilities of a young person can lend themselves powerfully to fiction, but Pip’s comes closest to Dickens’s masterpiece of that form.
Perhaps the two greatest novels of adolescence – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye – had to be told in first-person viewpoint.
Once again, all the great strengths of first-person narrative are brought into play – the limited-knowledge of the viewpoint, the ability to reveal deepest aspects of the character’s personality through thought and perception, the presence of a powerful Voice that no other point-of-view allows the author.
Huck Finn’s Voice is so distinctive, seemingly so natural, and so imbued with deep morality (as he decides to go to the Hell that his pastors and grown-ups have promised him should he continue with the sin of stealing the nigger Jim), that we understand why Ernest Hemingway said, in all sincerity, “American literature began with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
On the surface, Huckleberry and Holden Caulfield, although about the same age, seem opposite enough.
Huck is the eternal innocent – a Missouri-bred Candide who, although learning quickly to distrust everyone he comes in contact with when he brings his raft to land, still wants and tends to believe in and to trust others. Who else would continue to believe that the Duke and the Dauphin were anything but river-rat flim-flam men? (Even Jim, with all his slave deference, had his suspicions.)
Holden Caulfield, on the other hand, is the world’s youngest total cynic. He sniffs out phonies and hypocrites everywhere. Other than his beloved younger sister Phoebe and his dead little brother Allie, there’s no one in Holden’s world worthy of holding his trust or admiration. He is, along with Huck, the greatest literary embodiment of that period of insane alienation of the terminally puberty-stricken that we call adolescence.
But, as with Huck, it is Holden’s ferocious morality – a mania to protect the innocence in other children that he knows he has just abandoned – that allows us to see why Huck and Holden are kindred spirits across the century of time and literature that separated them.
It is also the Voice of both Huck and Holden that shows us the true power of first-person point-of-view and narration done not just right, but perfectly, brilliantly, and with genius. The voices are separate, but the power of Voice is the same. Here two adolescents, recently children, persuade with the same power of Voice with which the child-molester Humbert Humbert won us over.
Once again, Sven Birkerts has written about this:
“Once you grant that the voice is the thing, the alpha and omega, then it should just be a matter of pinning down what it is about the voice. Just. I’ve made enough stabs at it in the past to know that there is no getting there through analysis. Which is only fitting, when you think about it, since analysis is the standard operating procedure of the false world, the world of reasonable responses and planned action.
“Voice . . . as I mean it here, voice is that over-and-above quality that certain writing has which allows it not only to transmit information or opinion or whatever else it is that writing transmits, but which also convinces the reader that there is a single, unified – living – sensibility generating the words. Voice is the aura of writing, the sense of confidentiality; it is what allows us to fall in with a writer, a narrator, and to succumb to the illusion that we are being addressed. And in this respect, Catcher is a tour de force. I can’t think of a single moment in the book where I am not directly in Holden’s immediate earshot, listening carefully. The natural effect of this is the possessiveness I’m talking about. If I have felt addressed, confided in, then I feel the book is uniquely mine. The author, the narrator, is my friend, the kind of person I could imagine calling late at night on the phone.”
“Voice” – with that capital “V” – is that unknown yet always palpable literary factor that draws us to some writers – Stephen King, say, or Harlan Ellison, or Tom Wolfe or Nabokov or Twain – and leaves us with the reader’s smug certainty that no movie adaptation of what we’ve just read by them will ever satisfy. Without the Voice, that sense of the narrator’s presence on the other end of the line, one is left only with mere plot and story and images flashing one after the other.
Voice, whether found in first-person narrative or other, is what separates our reading experience from the mere media-watching of the masses.
Can we be taught how to find and create this Voice ourselves? To answer (or not-answer) that, we come full circle to F. Scott Fitzgerald lecturing his daughter on what to read so that she may become a great writer someday and to Clive James’s observation of how that turns out:
“There is no small print, unfortunately, to warn us it might be impossible to teach. We guess, and probably guess correctly, that if an artist acquires technical ability beyond the requirements of what lies within him to be expressed, the result can only be mannerism. The same guess should lead us to the possibility that the technical expertise artists really do need they will be driven to acquire by the demands of talent. If there is a class, whether for music or for painting, the best students in it know what they want; and it is doubtful whether a class for creative writing can teach anything at all except remedial reading. We shout ‘yes’ to Fitzgerald’s advice because what he recommends is what we were doing anyway: reading dozens of the best writers we could find, including him. As things turned out, Fitzgerald’s daughter did become a writer: but never one like him, because what he had could not be transmitted.”
But reading Fitzgerald and Nabokov and Twain and Salinger and Bellow shows us not just what to shoot for, but illuminates a difficult truth – in each case, they wrote that way because they were that way: in each case, the style was the man.
And for a while after you quit reading each of them, all other first-person-narrative prose seems to be only whistling or humming
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