Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Narrative voice from book to book

The Guardian's excellent podcast interview with Andrew O'Hagan about his new novel Be Near Me began with an interesting opposition. The interviewer John Mullan says one might divide novelists into two groups, one represented by Henry Fielding, the other by Samuel Richardson. The first is "the kind of fiction where you hear the novelist's voice everywhere and all the time", while the second is about writing to find "strange, other voices, who are not yourself". O'Hagan's novels, he said, fell into the latter type. O'Hagan readily agreed and added that he thought finding such a voice distinguishes fiction from any other kind of writing: "Each novel absolutely defines the terms of its own announcement" he said, winning me over, "it can't just be yet another unloading of your narrative voice". Then he gets oh-so-close to naming names of unloaders:
There are some very good novelists who nevertheless have a deficiency for me, which is that they carry their style from book to book. They could be writing something in the voice of Bambi or something about their ex-wife, and they have the same tone, the same pace; the prose is the same.
I would put forward one obvious example even if O'Hagan won't. O'Hagan's interest in novel writing is precisely to avoid this tendency and instead to let a new character speak.

The opposition is a compelling means of defining one's relation to fiction. One might say Fielding's way is the fiction of control and Richardson's the fiction of discovery. But maybe there is another, obscurer path. There are many novelists who sound the same from book to book yet are nothing like my obvious example. For me, the obvious examples of this type of novelist are Bernhard and Blanchot. While Bernhard's novels are ostensibly narrated by separate individuals, they all happen to write like Bernhard, and Blanchot's fiction, particularly his later récit (which as I've made clear often enough aren't always to my taste) have a relentless anonymity and offer only fragments of a familiar world.

Reading Bernhard, one is eventually overwhelmed not only by the voice but also by what the voice is speaking in order to resist. And in reading Blanchot, language itself begins to speak separated from the individuals - author or character - who might otherwise have appropriated it. Both writers might be unloading the same narrative voice but it is not for reasons of control. Yet nor are they bringing to presence a strange other. It's something beyond both. Blanchot suggests what in After the Fact:
Prior to the work, the work of art, the work of writing, the work of words, there is no artist - neither a writer nor a speaking subject - since it is the production that produces the producer, bringing to life or making him appear in the act of substantiating him [...] But if the written work produces and substantiates the writer, once created it bears witness only to his dissolution, his disappearance, his defection and, to express it more brutally, his death, which itself can never be definitively verified: for it is a death that can never produce any verification.
Thanks to Lars Spurious for bringing this quotation to my attention.


  1. Anonymous9:11 am

    I think that the Fielding / Richardson opposition is interesting but, perhaps -- and this is a bit of a literary parlour game I'll readily admit -- an opposition between, say, Defoe and Sterne might be equally as productive here.

    Certainly, with Sterne (and earlier with Cervantes) there is both an urge to discover (a readiness for the text to discover as text all that it can), something we've lately called metatextuality and -- important for Blanchot_philes -- a kind of (pre-)existential Being-towards-death implicit in their comedy.

  2. Anonymous10:05 pm

    You've missed the s off 'récits' you under-educated oik.

  3. Anonymous4:17 pm

    Touché old boy.

  4. Anonymous7:51 am

    We are talking about that idea of the authorlessness of Art for my mfa program, but I do wonder where it fits into that perhaps tired, cliched "finding one's voice." I mean what is that, really? I like what you've raised here.


  5. Anonymous10:01 am

    What has always struck me about Coetzee, for example, is that the man who wrote Foe also wrote Disgrace and also wrote Waiting for the Barbarians and also wrote Diary of a Bad Year. Each time, you could have been fooled into thinking a different writer had written the book. Foe, in particular, stands out.
    However, I'm not sure this necessarily always defines a great writer. I'm thinking Beckett and Sebald: for me, their narrative voices hardly change at all, and yet their brilliance is undoubted. As I said to you earlier, Steve, I'd mainline Beckett's texts if I could... (but I think this all depends on the kind of writer you are: I don't think Coetzee's skills mean he is better than SB or WGS)



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