Singular First Person

26 Oct

Many years ago, as a student of English Literature I was told to go and write an essay about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

I tend to feel quite smug about that essay, because I got a pretty good mark for it and (just for a change) my tutor seemed to think I was being quite perceptive. (Her normal feeling seemed to be that I was quite good at identifying interesting issues and then veering away from them without managing to say anything very interesting about them).

One of the insights I had to offer was in my essay was the suggestion that Conrad’s decision to write Heart of Darkness as a first person narrative was crucial to the success of the novel as a whole.

(It should be noted that there really isn’t any such thing as a typical Joseph Conrad novel. He often wrote stories about the sea, but having said that he ranged freely across different styles, techniques and themes and if you’ve read one of his books and you didn’t like it, then it’s probably worth having a look at some of his other stuff, because you never know your luck).

In particular, I suggested that Conrad’s use of a first person narrative not only allowed him to be suitably vague about the exact setting of the story, but also allowed him to leave out a lot of the boring scene setting stuff and concentrate on what he really wanted to write about.

These points might not seem very important, but I think they are.

Heart of Darkness is a very short, economical story and one of the key elements of the novel is a sense of disorientation. A key scene in the novel occurs when the river boat is travelling through a heavy fog and Marlowe describes his feeling of losing any sense not only of place, but also of time. Earlier in the story, Marlowe also talks of being feverish at times and there’s something of the hallucination about the whole story.

Had Conrad settled for the third person narrative, which he used to great effect elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that he could have achieved either the brevity or the dreamlike quality so essential to this novel.

So first person narrative is a useful device for creating atmosphere and also for limiting the amount of information available to the reader. By definition that reader can only be told what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to tell. (By contrast a third person narrator is effectively omniscient and attempts by authors to create uncertainty about ‘perhaps this’ or ‘maybe that’ always seems pretty artificial to me).

This makes first person narrative particularly effective for thrillers that depend on a careful balance between what is concealed and what is revealed to the reader in order to build towards a (hopefully) unexpected denouement. So it’s no big surprise that Raymond Chandler used first person narrative in all his novels and most of his short stories or that Dashiell Hammett used it in his ‘Continental Op’ stories (although, surprisingly not in some of his best novels eg The Maltese Falcon).

Even Agatha Christie (who generally used 3rd person narrative) used it from time to time and most memorably in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in order to produce a really nice little plot twist that I must admit I didn’t see coming. (No spoilers here – if you want to know what happens, read the book).

Another useful effect of a first person narrative is to make a character who might seem bland to most observers much more interesting by revealing his, or her, inner life in a particularly vivid manner.

Adam Hall does this especially well in his ‘Quiller’ novels, which are based on a highly professional ‘spy’ (he refers to himself as an ‘executive’) who cultivates anonymity as a key tool of his trade. (He works for ‘The Bureau’ – which has no official existence and unlike James Bond he’s not specially handsome, doesn’t cultivate a particularly glamorous lifestyle, doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble or get on first name terms with bartenders and head waiters).

What makes Quiller distinctive is his perverse, quirky, often bloody minded and possibly borderline psychotic personality. What is also innovative about the Quiller novels in contrast with the James Bond books is that Quiller has little trust and no affection for his employers. They give him what he needs, the kid of work he lives for, but he tends to refer to The Bureau as ‘The Sacred Bull’ (from which so much sacred bullshit flows). The clear implication of this term being that The Bureau is some kind of dark and oppressive deity that demands its regular tribute of

blood sacrifice.

Much like the classic PI in a hard boiled detective story, Quiller goes into his missions with just enough information to function – and often having been misled or manipulated into taking a job that he would never have taken on if he’d known what was involved. He often describes himself as a ferret who’s been sent down a rabbit hole, but usually with the implication that he might well run into something a lot more dangerous than a rabbit. All in all this setting creates an edgy, contrast between the concrete reality of what Quiller does and how he does it and the uncertainty of the background to what he’s doing. (This always includes the possibility that Quiller will be betrayed by his own people).

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this kind of effect using a 3rd person narrative, but where Adam Hall is particularly innovative in his use of first person narrative is in his action sequences. He has written some of the best fight scenes in popular fiction in my opinion, so much so the Eric von Lustbader was clearly inspired ( if that’s the word) to use a very similar style in thrillers like The Ninja).

What Adam Hall does in his action scenes is to use a fragmented, kaleidoscopic style that allows a very concise, immediate style and also reflects the vivid confusion that most people experience in a violent situation. (Most of us haven’t been involved in terminal confrontation with a professional killer, but if you think of any time you might have played a contact sport, or been involved in a car crash, you’ll probably get the idea).

It has to be said that Charlotte Brontë (whatever her other virtues as an author) is not generally noted for her vivid and innovative action sequences, but in Villette she did use first person narrative to achieve some of the same effects I’ve been describing in Adam Hall’s work.

Villette is a novel told from the point of view of Lucy Snowe. (Who, on the face of it has very little in common with Quiller, but she is also an individual who is somewhat at odds with her environment and the people around her. In addition, she tends to have a very low profile, although in her case this is not always a matter of choice, and she has little trust or affection for her employer. She is also stubborn, perverse and has a distinctly rebellious streak at times).

So what we have in Lucy Snowe is a not desperately pretty heroine who is really quite peripheral to the lives of those around her. She may depend on them to some extent, but for the most part they could get along quite nicely without her.

What, perhaps, makes her most like Quiller is the disconnect between her public persona and her private personality. The people who think they know her would be shocked rigid if they only knew what she was thinking and feeling. (Some, in fact, might be surprised to discover that she thinks and feels at all).

Where Lucy Snowe shows her character most clearly is where she hides and distorts information. For example, there is an idyllic, extended description of her passage across the English Channel that comes to an abrupt halt with the instruction to ‘cancel’ all that. Snowe then goes on to describe the truly miserable crossing that she actually experienced. She is also not above concealing significant information for a chapter or two for no obvious reason than her own perversity.

Of all the women in Victorian fiction, I think Lucy Snowe is my favourite.

Of course the last, and possibly best, reason for using first person narrative is simply that sometimes your characters speak in more interesting voices than you can.

This was certainly James M Cain’s reason. (For those who don’t recognise the name, James M. Cain vies with Ross MacDonald – author of The Moving Target, which was filmed with Paul Newman as Harper – for the title of The Other Great Writer of Hardboiled Crime Stories – alongside Raymond Chandler and Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Or to be a little more factual, he was the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Allow me to quote from the Author’s Preface to Double Indemnity.

…for ten years (I) resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn’t write a novel… I didn’t seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put in the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they wanted to say.

So there you are; James M. Cain found that his characters were better storytellers than he was and he stepped aside to let them do the talking.

Of course there are problems with using a first person narrative. You can’t really jump from one character’s perspective to the another without using some kind of device. (eg Wilkie Collin’s use of written testimony from a series of characters in The Moonstonea device that I think he pulled off quite well but which I felt Bram Stoker struggled with in Dracula).

There is also the fact that if you’re writing from a first person perspective you have a certain theoretical lack of tension in as much as the reader ‘knows’ that the narrator can’t really get killed until he/she has fished telling the story. (Although you can get round that if you really try – see Sunset Boulevard). Of course this lack of tension is strictly theoretical. What a reader knows intellectually has little to do with how they respond to fiction, otherwise they wouldn’t respond to fiction at all.

Another problem is that in writing a first person narrative, you can feel quite exposed. Essentially you can maintain far more detachment from your central character as a 3rd person narrator.

On the other hand, to paraphrase someone I used to know; the more personal your writing is the more universal it becomes. And of course, you can’t make your writing personal unless you’re willing to take a few risks.


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