Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Tense Moment or Two in the Story

The primary goal of fiction is to somehow cause the reader to believe, against all evidence and historical conventions to the contrary, the characters within the story are real and the events they initiate and in which they participate are of equal fact.


From this critical point, opinions about goals of fiction vary, often to a considerable degree and with spirited argument.  This was not always the case.  In 1719, nearly four hundred years ago, a writer named Daniel DeFoe produced a narrative, The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of  York.  

The novel's subtitle went on for a good deal after that, with the usual language relating to this narrative "being an account of" a man who had been the sole survivor of a shipwreck, forced to endure for twenty-eight years on a small island near Trinidad.

Think early best-seller because the narrative went through a number of printings in the first year of its publication, and may well have remained in print in one form or other all these years later. While arguments are plentiful that playgoers understood the dynamic of story being performed before them, they had little or no reason to take De Foe's work for anything but absolute reality, thanks to a popular event in which a sailor named George Selkirk had been rescued to great fanfare from a similar fate. 

In 1740, readers of Samuel Richardson's narrative, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, had only staged dramas and an awareness of Robinson Crusoe to go on. Readers thoughtPamela it was real, most of them concerned for the eponymous heroine, in today's terms, rooting for her to keep her chastity until marriage to the randy young son of her refined lady employer. 

A great many of Richardson's readers were outraged to find they'd been hoodwinked, led on, seduced into believing Pamela was a real person, her employer a real person, the lecherous son of her now deceased employer every bit as randy and willing to take such opportunities as came his way.

In those ago years, one of the goals for such narratives was to dramatize and, thus, instill some measure of morality.  Possible interpretations of Robinson Crusoe and Pamela abound, including those wherein Crusoe was a slaver, a mutineer, or a simple mercenary advance guard of British colonialism.  Pamela, as her subtitled narrative suggests, is all about the honor and sanctity of marriage, the then massmarket approach to a virtuous woman marrying up in social class, and, of course, as we see later in Jane Austen, "they all lived happily ever after."

Novelists have been trying to achieve the same effect ever since, including wannabe writers who have neither read nor heard of Pamela or her creator.  The idea of a printed, fictional narrative was still new enough in those early days of the genre to lay the groundwork for that leap of faith readers and writers have been aware of for all these years.

Beyond that goal of convincing the reader, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that character and event were authentic, there emerged the concept of the roman a clef, the novel with a key, in which readers were led to believe that such a novel, although supposedly about fictional characters, was indeed about real ones.  Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale was widely believed to be one, in particular because Maugham swore it was not.

The main characters in Cakes and Ale were based on the beloved novelist, Thomas Hardy, and his wife who, upon his death, took up with a more commercial and apparently frivolous novelist named Horace Walpole.  There was also a character in the novel named Willie Ashenden, who walked with a slight limp, as Maugham did, had attended medical school, as Maugham did, and had his name used for a novel, Ashenden, or the Secret Agent, whose author was Somerset Maugham.

Although the verb tense known as the subjunctive is by no means limited to English, it seems perfectly suited for the kinds of interior monologue and reflection that have become increasingly more useful and common in the novel, at the same time helping us to bring us--reader and writer--closer to the inner workings of characters.  In consequence, the characters seem yet more real, peeling away several layers of resistance to the reader questioning the character and the validity of the character.

For a delicious sampling of this tantalizing kind of interior monologue and subjunctive verb tense use, we have no farther to look than Julian Barnes's splendid 2011 novel, The Sense of an Ending, where we are privy to what characters thought, what they might have thought, and what they might have thought they heard or understood from what they saw.

No mountain goat leap of logic or convenience of rhetoric to say of the subjunctive verb tense that they deal with circumstances not reflecting objective fact, rather an individual character's imaginative or speculative view.  What a lovely way to approach our reading and writing of fiction, with so much contemporary focus on ambiguity and irony.

He might have been wrong to think so, mightn't he?

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