Friday, February 3, 2012


For some time, you’ve heard these splendid endorsements of Virginia Woolf and her contributions to the development of dramatic fiction.  The endorsements are, you believe, well deserved; she did turn a number of corners and truly helped a great number of writers achieve a tighter grasp of narrative strength, but if you were going to suggest one person a wannabe writer ought to read for technique and for psychological insight and for narrative focus, you would pick the writer Mrs. Woolf learned from without a lingering doubt.

That estimable source would be Jane Austen.

Pretty much all story before Jane Austen was related through the filter of a narrator, who added descriptions of what the various characters saw, felt, intended, and came to realize.

To be sure as well as clear, your reading experiences and studies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels impressed you and had such effect on you that you plunged into the stream using those techniques, without even thinking about them much less dissecting them.  So there you were, an emerging writer of the mid twentieth century, not overly visited with the narrative techniques associated with point of view.  A character was broke, you said he needed money, had him thinking he’d do pretty much anything for money.

Shows you how closely you read Austen’s Persuasion.  Shows you how little attention you paid to Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, especially that scene where Elizabeth is at a dance and Darcy and his buddy, Bingly, are chatting away, and Elizabeth hears Bingley speaking admiringly of her older sister and Darcy expressing no interest whatsoever in her to the point of being rude about it.  Shows you how much you picked up by rereading, going on to Persuasion, which you like even more than Emma, the opening paragraphs of that remarkable narrative a splendid distraction, not withstanding.

Alas, Jane was dead at 41, shortly before Persuasion was published, but what she left is more than a legacy, it is a dramatic handing off of the narration to the characters—not the author stepping in to comment or offer stage directions.

So far as you’re aware, William Trevor is the only one who comes close to using that omniscient sense you get wherein you’ve access to the inner workings of a number of characters at the same time.  Everyone else, you included when you don’t watch with greater care, sounds nineteenth century, which is to say remote, almost as issuing from behind some scrim, Thomas Hardy-like in effect.  And yes, for all that, it would not be so terrible to sound like Thomas Hardy, but there is, more or less, a century between you, and the century shows, affects the tone of the narrative when you read it.

No wonder Mark Twain had such a “thing” about Walter Scott; Twain was bringing in a conversational, vernacular approach to storytelling that once again turned narrative on its head, shook out the crumbs.

Was Scott all that bad?  He was only so in relative terms.  The early scene in Waverly, where the hauntingly lovely and passionate Flora, the then equivalent of Miss Scotland, took young Captain Waverly out into the countryside, whereupon she sang him songs of the Scottish mythology, is a splendid example of the city boy, the Englishman, becoming enraptured by the Highland spirit.  It holds up today; it has a life because it still says something, dramatizes an important individual and cultural conflict.  But it is told through the filter of another presence.

It took Jane Austen to whittle that presence down, to show us how to get the story from the characters rather than a detached narrator or, indeed, the author.

This is an extreme example, one with a fulcrum of absolute absurdity, but having reached it, you cannot help but wonder how much more effective that twit, Ayn Rand, would have been had she paid more attention to the narrative as advanced by Jane Austen.

This near screed has come about because you were at it again this past Wednesday night, in particular after listening to someone taking on an eleven-generation novel set in early Los Angeles, having no idea what you were talking about when you spoke of El pueblo de la nuestra senora la reina de los angeles de Porciuncula.  Huh?  She said.


Storm Dweller said...

My Spanish is a little dusty. I too am saying, "Huh?"

Unknown said...

"The town of our Lady Queen of Angels of the Little Portion." In 1780's Father Crespi, a Franciscan priest, gave Los Angeles it's name.

You'd think someone taking on an 11th generation novel set in LA would know that fact.