After this post, we promise to return to our usual lowbrow snarkiness

I'm linking to this article with the warning that reading it may require you to watch a brief, possibly painless but possibly irritating ad, unless you're a Salon.com subscriber (I was forced to watch one for the ACLU featuring, for some reason, a naked middle-aged man on a tractor).

It's worth the trouble, though: Novelist James Hynes (Kings of Infinite Space, The Lecturer's Tale) recently read Anna Karenina for the first time, and his take on the book is refreshingly non-pretentious and heartfelt.

"The younger me would have been more credulous, perhaps, would have taken the novel's reputation as a masterpiece – maybe even the masterpiece – at face value. … The older me is a little more world-weary and streetwise: OK, Mr. Big Shot, Mr. Canonical Masterpiece, Mr. Greatest Fucking Novel Ever Written – what makes you so hot? Bring it on. And here's the rewarding part – you saw this coming, right? – the rewarding part is that the book does bring it, after all."

Probably once a year I check a couple books out of the library that I've decided I should finally get around to; Anna Karenina was one such book a couple years ago (just after Madame Bovary). I'm happy to say that neither book was a disappointment and, like Hynes, I particularly enjoyed Tolstoy.

When I picked up those books, I'd been out of college for several years and it was my first re-entry to the world of the 19th century novel. One of the first things I noticed was how different the narration was than what I'd become accustomed to by reading so much contemporary literature. A number of books are still ostensibly written from a third-person omniscient perspective, but what this generally amounts to is various close, over-the-shoulder third person narrators with only brief forays into real omniscience. Clearly, in the 19th century, it was much more acceptable for that omniscient authorial voice to intrude. Or, intrude is the wrong word, really, as the omniscient voice in Anna Karenina is there all along, ruling over the kingdom, God-like, while the camera periodically narrows in on a given character, then backs out again to allow for more commentary from on high.

Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to this kind of authorial voice. As Hynes rightly points out, there are sections of Anna Karenina that are almost unbearable, as they have little to do with the action of the book and are either long passages of description or mini-treatises on philosophy or the arts or social conventions that, while sometimes interesting, don't always do much to propel the story forward.

What I appreciate about these 19th century narrators, however, is a kind of authority that's rare today, and refreshing: this is the world I have created, the author seems to be saying, this is the objective reality of the story, and you will sit here patiently while I deliver up the goods, even if that means wending your way through a few detours and diatribes. Maybe it's a sign of cockiness – the author's belief that people will indeed sit there and take it, that his is a voice we'll want to listen to – but since both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are firmly planted in the literary canon, it's a cockiness that's hard to argue with.

And really, it takes a certain amount of hubris to write a novel in the first place, even a lousy novel, unless you're doing it as a purely personal exercise to be buried forever in a desk drawer. So there's something to be said for the author who doesn't shy away from this ego-fueled venture by cloaking his story in a this-is-just-one-way-of-seeing-things subjectivity.

So why don't we see more of this kind of narration today? Part of if, I imagine, has to do with literary fashion, which is always waxing and waning, and with the influence of film and our shortened attention spans. I wonder, though, if there's a larger shift afoot in the way we view the world that's changed the way we read (and write) novels. These days, everything under the sun is subjective, which we're constantly reminded of when we read news stories about current events (stories that, we're told, are biased in one direction or another by the journalist's politics), when we read self-help books (we're all on our own spiritual and emotional path) or talk to our shrinks (our problems are unique, and informed by chemicals or else our lousy childhoods). It's also evidenced in the sort of situational ethics preferred by politicians and professional athletes. Everything is indeed relative.

The point is that we're fast approaching a worldview in which there is no objective reality, if we haven't reached that point already, a universe in which everything is necessarily filtered through our own singular experience. And so maybe we don't know what to do with an omniscient narrator anymore. Maybe we can only approach stories as things that are seen through the eyes of a particular character, whether that means first person or the kind of limited third person that sits perched atop a character's shoulder like a parrot with its wings clipped.

In a fiction workshop, attempts to write in the third-person omniscient often result in comments like: Who is this narrator and why is he telling us this story? Why doesn't he show himself? Where is he hiding, in the clouds or something?

I don't think a 19th century reader would have asked himself those questions. It was clear enough who the narrator was: the author, who in the book's universe is the approximation of an omniscient God, and whose presence, I reckon, was appreciated in much the same way the religious appreciate the presence of a real God in their view of the universe: as the one truly objective seer, the one way to get the real story, and not just a debatable version of events.

1 comment:

Kistulentz said...

Hmmm. Predominantly what Mike's talking about is the seeming distaste for all things that even smack of the Victorian.

The winds of fashion are indeed fickle, but I'd risk a guess that part of the reason that the quasi-Victorian narrator has been on the wane is the continuing homogeneity of American publishing. Insert your own rants about publishers who no longer nurture authors through 5 books and those who have become increasingly uncomfortable with anything that challenges their strongly-held (yet meager) aesthetic.

Even our masters like DeLillo insert moments of the god-like narrator, only to back away.

Me, I'm a strong believer in that voice of God. My book has it. Of course that may be a direct result of my own suppressed Catholicism and messiah complex, but I doubt it. In my mind, my narrator is the voice of God as provided by John Facenda, the late voice of NFL Films, as he talks about the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field (TM).