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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


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Friday Column: How Should the First-Person Be Written?

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier seems to me to possess precisely those virtues to which the novel narrated in the first-person is best suited. Often in first-person novels, the narrator is magically able to relate her story with the polish and skill of a novelist, and no effort is ever made to address why an otherwise ordinary person possesses such sharp storytelling abilities. The Good Soldier strikes me as such an accomplishment because Ford does not only provide us with a narrator whose storytelling skills are realistically diminished; he also integrates the narrator’s diminished capacity into a portrayal of his character and an investigation into how the memory works and how we draw out memories by stringing them into stories.

A useful comparison: The Good Soldier very much brings to mind the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. As with Ishiguro’s novels, Ford’s proceeds along the winding, backtracking path of a mind mulling over a certain period of life. This kind of storytelling might be called disorganized organization; that is, in its purposeful aimlessness, it attempts to resemble the workings of a human mind as it gives shape to a mass of memories. As such, at many points in both authors’ works the entire basis of the plot changes as the narrator recalls a previously forgotten fact. We jump back and forth in time according to the narrator’s whim. Revelations that would generally sit at the apex of a climax are made here almost casually.

The difference, to me, between The Good Soldier and Ishiguro’s novels is that some of Ishiguro has seemed to me just a bit too clean. His novels are so well-built that one never feels the muddle of a mind trying to reconstruct the past; throughout, the skill of their maker continually belies the fact that the novel is not the product of a mind like ours, but rather that of a master storyteller who has marshaled all his skills to shape a story.

By contrast, The Good Soldier is often a frustrating, amorphous read. Major events and crucial plot points are shrugged at us so casually that it’s easy to miss them entirely. In the event that they are not missed, they often make such a meager impression that they are soon forgotten, or only half-remembered. Seemingly minor details are doted on to such an extent that one begins to lose faith in Ford—why does the narrator bore us with this matter of no significance?—and then, perhaps 50 pages later, we discover the true import of the event when the narrator happens to tell it from a completely different perspective.

This makes perfect sense. When the narrator discusses something, he is in possession of all the facts. He knows exactly what he’s referring to (even if we don’t), so why would it occur to him to spell it out for the benefit of his audience? Only a good storyteller would do that, and Ford’s narrator clearly isn’t one. What makes Ford such an extraordinary writer is that he provides us all the information we need without ever making his narrator seem anything more than the bumbling writer that he is.

In its apparent formlessness, the book loses the narrative drive that characterizes Ishiguro’s novels, and so, The Good Soldier is less of an entrancing read than Ishiguro’s addictive works. I think, though, that Ford’s novel is the superior one, in that he has hidden his construction so well that on a first read it truly does look as though he gave no thought to structure. By its very difficulty the book proves its merit, as attempting to understand another’s mind is never so easy and planned-out as Ishiguro’s novels make it feel.

What might save some of Ishiguro’s novels is that some minds are very simple; they see only in bright, clear tones, and so they might lack the complexity that a less simple mind would see as it looked back into its past. These minds, perhaps, would not be difficult to grasp, and the stories they concocted might be as clean as Ishiguro makes them.

This isn’t the case with The Good Soldier—which isn’t to say that I found the book’s narrator particularly smart or even praiseworthy. The narrator is a man who for nine years was cuckolded in complete ignorance by Ashburnham, a man he quite admired, and then, when he found out after Asburnham’s sudden death, went right on admiring him. The narrator is a man thoroughly aware of his own ignorance (although he attributes it more to a general, existential human ignorance of everything, rather than consider whether others are less ignorant than he in certain matters), and he is possessed by a clear and potent urge to overcome this ignorance, even though he doesn’t seem to really believe it’s possible.

In other words, he’s a lot like you and me; that is, he’s driven by an urge to understand his life, but he’s not really sure that there is any meaning to it. To make sense of it, he is writing down the story of two disastrously failed marriages, his and that of the man who made his wife a mistress.

Rarely does an unreliable narrator so invite us to question his judgment. Partially this is due to his overall tone; the cadences of the narrator’s sentences move with the seesawing vacillations of the wishy-washy and uninspiring, and he constantly cries out for meaning and explanation. But even more, it is hard to take seriously a man who speaks in such a steadfastly positive way about the man who for nine years slept with his wife, who seems so fundamentally innocent of why either partner would engage in the adultery.

We’re tipped off to the narrator’s supreme unreliability early enough on that The Good Soldier amounts to a virtual invitation to participate in the construction of meaning. It is, perhaps as a book like this must be, more documentation than storytelling, as the narrator’s rendition of events is so suspect and so jumbled (and his mind so besotted by his ignorance of everything) that we simply cannot say that the narrator is consciously shaping the meaning of the facts he gives us. What makes Ford’s rhetoric so elegant is that he is shaping our perceptions of each character (and often at cross-purposes with the narrator) while maintaining a narration that appears so purposelessly jumbled. It’s as if we were to listen to static coming out of the radio and nonetheless develop feelings typically associated with hearing music.

What you might say Ford is doing here is hiding the meaning in plain sight. The Good Soldier was published in 1913, and, unlike a lot of books published around this time, the prose style of this one isn’t terribly difficult or experimental. On the face of it, it seems like most close readers could more or less agree on the general shape of the narrative, what it’s rock-bottom "truth" is. But in reality, the closer you look at this book, the more even the most basic points of the plot begin to unravel in contradiction and ambiguity, and you begin to see that you’re no closer to knowing what really happened than if Ford had adopted a purposely opaque, indefinite style of constructing his sentences.

In this end, this may be Ford’s ultimate concession to his narrator. So riddled is he by innocence and self-deception that it simply wouldn’t be realistic to think that any story but a fundamentally unknowable one would come out of such a narrator. Ford’s courage as an author is to face this head-on and to write a book that requires a great deal of perception and faith on the part of the reader. As a result The Good Soldier is a book with affecting moments, but one that in the aggregate doesn’t have the ability that a more conventionally arced plot would to make us feel something; the feeling at the end isn’t anything but uncertainty and a desire to look back and begin to construct meaning. It’s a perfect acknowledgment of the narrator’s repeatedly professed helplessness to understand what this episode in his life means, and it’s a challenge to us to try and do better.

Although I’m far from arguing that all first-person narrators should be like The Good Soldier’s (exceptions that instantly come to mind would include those that are narrating an episode as it happens or those that are recounting an episode that they have gone over again and again in their minds (as in some Ishiguro)), I nonetheless think that a lot of first-person narratives needlessly shun the kind of difficulty that The Good Soldier thrives on. It’s not the easiest book to write or read, but it is honest to reality, and for writers who adopt the first-person that should be an important consideration.

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8 comments to Friday Column: How Should the First-Person Be Written?

  • “What you might say Ford is doing here is hiding the meaning in plain sight.” I think this is an excellent point, as is your overall argument. Would that there were more novels in this mode; but then, GATSBY, on the opposite side, doesn’t have a lot of company either.

  • Excellent post — thank you! I recently created a discussion kit for a book club who were tackling The Good Soldier. I agree w/ many of your observations and particularly like your conclusion that writers should embrace the inherent — or at least potential — complexity of first person narration. This week’s kit was on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — another complicated first person narration. Thank you!

  • Have you ever seen the TV version? I saw it so long ago that I can’t remember if they used a voice-over narration. Maybe it was on “Masterpiece Theatre” from the BBC in the late 1970s? I recall thinking it was an OK adaptation.

  • Rob

    Very interesting, thanks.

  • A lot to think about. Thanks for the article.

  • Wayne McCoy

    Writing first-person requires the ultimate in discipline. If one gives in to flawed memory, there is a tendency to slip into stream-of-consciousness drivel. On the other hand, making the story interesting and more accessible to readers necessitates another layer of suspension of disbelief. There is always an assumption that any first person narrator is unreliable. In fact, it is expected that the narrator’s perspectives and interpretations are not going to be neutral — the narrator is generally not a journalist, after all, nor some deity. The question is, at which point does the unreliability become a liability? I believe the best way to write first person is to create enough credibility in the recall of the narrator through details, but not too many, and to leave enough ambiguity in the perspectives to allow the reader to question the neutrality of the narrator.

  • A very interesting article.
    I think it also depends on the kind of story telling that the writer is trying to simulate. First person suggests an actual person telling a story, either out loud or written down. As you suggest, Ford’s narrator sounds like he is speaking, and so the lack of organisation and reliability perhaps reflects that. In “Theft”, in contrast, Carey’s narrator suggests that he’s told this story many times, and so it’s improved with the telling.
    However, if the narrator is suggesting that he or she is writing this tale, then a level of smoothness makes sense. We aren’t surprised that an autobiography is well structured and well laid out.
    Wayne: is it at all believable that you (as reader) could be actually listening to a person speak out a novel-length story? It seems so ridiculous when you think about it like that, and so believability in fiction must be a strange beast.

  • Kelly

    When I first read The Remains of the Day I immediately saw the influence of Ford in Ishiguro’s work, as did my professor at that time. I guess that was around the time that Day was first published. Both are fine examples of the unreliable narrator, both expertly conceived and executed, both masterful in their subtlety. I tip the hat of comedy to Ford in the case of these two works.
    The Good Soldier is an oft-overlooked masterpiece of 20th C. fiction.

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