Category Archives: narrative voice

Till We Have Faces

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis‘ story Till We Have Faces. I found it very enjoyable.

I had thought it would be an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Regress, with lots of literary and classical allusions and references. I thought I would need to at least know the original story of Cupid and Psyche. However, I found that was not necessary. The best part was when Orual meets her sister Psyche once more, beyond all hope, in a secret valley; she can see Psyche, but she cannot see the palace she lives in. Why not? She does not want to. She sees that Psyche is happy, happier than she has ever been, but Orual does not allow herself to accept Psyche’s happiness. All she wants to know is, “Does Psyche still love me?” In other words, she is self-centred.

The most significant thing about Psyche, as far as the world is concerned, is her physical beauty. However, it is also mentioned that she was a happy person, without malice. When Orual meets Psyche in the secret valley, Psyche’s happiness and the power of that happiness, rather than her physical beauty, become clear to the reader. It also becomes clear that Orual is an unreliable narrator.

I found these lines particularly poignant:

I was too busy… What did I not do? … I did and I did and I did – and what does it matter what I did? I cared for all these things only as a man cares for a hunt or a game, which fills the mind and seems of some moment while it lasts, but then the beast’s killed or the king’s mated, and now who cares? It was so with me almost every evening of my life; one little stairway led me from feast or council, all the bustle and skill and glory of queenship, to my own chamber to be alone with myself – that is, with a nothingness. Going to bed and waking in the morning… were bad times – so many hundreds of evenings and mornings. Sometimes I wondered who or what sends us this senseless repetition of days and nights and seasons and years; is it not like hearing a stupid boy whistle the same tune over and over, till you wonder how he can bear it himself? (the end of chapter 20.)

Work can be a distraction from what is truly important. Does Orual busy herself with mundane tasks in order to avoid facing the truth? Is what she is busy doing the most important thing? If not, why does she keep doing them? What should she be making her top priority? The more one busies oneself with mundane tasks, the more important they seem; and the more difficult it becomes to stop doing them.

The Greek tutor perhaps represents rational thinking, human intelligence. He despises the pagan religion, the superstitious worship of the goddess Ungit, and the uncritical belief in Ungit by the common people of that land, and as he is made tutor of the King’s daughters, he teaches them his philosophy. He manages to make Orual hate the native, pagan religion, but is not able to persuade her that the religion is powerless or meaningless.

In one memorable scene, we see the Fox (the Greek tutor) pitted against the Head Priest of the Temple of Ungit, in the presence of the King and Orual. The Priest has come to tell the King that the drought, the famine, lions, and now some mysterious horror called “the Brute”, are because Ungit is angry, and must be propitiated

“Those who have seen [the Brute] closest can least say what it is like, King… Your own chief shepherd on the Grey Mountain saw it the night the first lion came. He fell upon the lion with a burning torch. And in the light of the torch he saw the Brute – behind the lion – very black and big, a terrible shape….”

“By the King’s permission,” said the Fox, “the shepherd’s tale is very questionable. If the man had a torch, of necessity the lion would have a big black shadow behind it. The man was scared and new waked from sleep. He took a shadow for a monster.”

“That is the wisdom of the Greeks,” said the Priest…. “We are hearing much Greek wisdom this morning, King… and I have heard most of it before. … It is very subtle. But it brings no rain and grows no corn; sacrifice does both. It does not even give them the boldness to die. That Greek there is your slave because in some battle he threw down his arms and let them bind his hands and lead him away and sell him, rather than take a spear-thrust in his heart. Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book… nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about [the gods]. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

Later in the same scene, the angry King “had the point of the dagger through the Priest’s robes and into his skin. I have never… seen anything more wonderful than the Priest’s stillness… The Fox had taught me to think… of the Priest as of a mere schemer and a politic man who put into the mouth of Ungit whatever might most increase his own power and lands or most harm his enemies. I saw it was not so… The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness.”

Later, Psyche, who is to be sacrificed to Ungit, tells her sister Orual,“The Priest has been with me. I never knew him before. He is not what the Fox thinks. Do you know, Sister, I have come to feel more and more that the Fox hasn’t the whole truth. Oh, he has much of it. It’d be dark as a dungeon within me but for hist teaching. And yet… He calls the whole world a city. But what’s a city built on? There’s earth beneath. And outside the wall? Doesn’t all the food come from there as well as all the dangers? … things growing and rotting, strengthening and poisoning, things shining wet… in one way (I don’t know which way) more like, yes, even more like the House of [Ungit].”

Orual slowly becomes convinced that the Fox indeed does not know everything, wise though he is, and that the Priest knows of a deeper, stronger power. She believes that power is evil, “He thought there were no gods, or else (the fool!) that they were better than men. It never entered his mind – he was too good – to believe that the gods are real, and viler than the vilest men”; but Psyche is not so sure: “Or else thy are real gods but don’t really do these things. Or even – mightn’t it be – they do these things and the things are not what they seem to be. How if I am indeed to wed a god?” “Wed the god” is how Psyche’s sacrifice is called, although everyone believes this means in fact she will die, perhaps by being eaten by “the Brute”. In fact, Psyche is correct: the reality is more wonderful than anyone imagines, of a wonder that most people, including Orual, cannot conceive of or accept.

This story contains several themes that recur in many of C.S. Lewis’ stories:

  1. true joy comes from God
  2. human beings, as they are, are not ready to actually see God directly, or to experience the true joy
  3. God, in his kindness and wisdom, gives human beings chances to taste a little of the true joy, for example through art, or through friendship, or family love or romantic love
  4. the reality of God cannot be understood solely by intellect
  5. although human beings are not gods and are separated from God, nevertheless it is possible for them to see God or experience God
  6. most people are self-centred; they are thinking of themselves only; to see God or come closer to God, to experience true joy, one must stop thinking of oneself and think of others; this is not easy for anyone;
  7. however, in order to see God or experience God, they must first go through a transformation, as Psyche does and as, eventually, Orual does, too
  8. this transformation involves letting go of everything they hold dear, including their own life itself – they must trust God completely and not try to rely on their own efforts to obtain their own happiness
  9. that life itself offers us from time to time clues to the source of true joy
  10. that life itself offers opportunities for the transformation, for letting go completely and hence knowing (seeing, experiencing) God.

One of the key points of the Psyche and Cupid story is that Cupid fell in love with Psyche and built a palace for her, but he forbade her to see his face. This fits in with Lewis’ understanding of God, as expressed in points #2 and #6 above. We can now understand why Lewis changed the original story (by Apuleius): “The central alteration  in my own version consists in making Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes – if ‘making’ is not the wrong word for something which forced itself upon me, almost at my first reading of the story, as the way the things must have been.” (Note, hardback edition, Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1956.) 

Related to the idea that Orual is not ready, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, to see the god’s palace, is the idea of face. Orual is so ugly that she wears a veil over her face most of the time. When she meets Psyche in the secret valley the second time, she describes her as “so young, so brightface.”  “Brightface” is not a native English word. It is a made-up word, probably a literal translation of a Greek word or phrase. Much later in the story, Orual understands how she, and humans generally, use words believing that they are getting closer to the truth, but in fact they are often only building a wall, or repeating the same nonsensical things over and over. Orual herself kept in her heart for years her hatred, her complaint, her bitterness, and finally expressed it to the gods. However, her complaint had no end: if the gods had not told her shut up, she would have continued forever. Perhaps she felt that to express her complaint would bring her relief, but it did not, and never could. What she was looking for was relief, was true joy, but in order to experience that true relief and joy she would have to let go of her hurt, or her resentment, of her complaint, and also let go of her self and her self-centredness. When she meets Psyche again in the secret valley, she is more interested in whether Psyche still loves her than in finding out the source of Psyche’s happiness. In the second part of the book, she is forced to think about other people more than she has done before: about Bardia and Bardia’s wife; about her sister Redival; about her own father. She is accustomed to thinking of other people only in how they affect herself, but little by little she discovers how little she knew about those people. At one point, the Fox, her old tutor and advisor, tells her that the King is actually a little afraid of priests and women, and this astonishes Orual: she had never considered that possibility; in fact, she had never really considered the King, her father’s, real needs or feelings at all; she was only concerned with protecting herself against him. She is actually in his room where he lies dying, looking for a helmet to protect herself in her coming duel, when the King dies!

Lewis felt that myth was a vehicle for truth, a way to tell the truth in a way that people could understand more easily, more directly perhaps, than by simple straightforward exposition or explanation.

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Session #19 December 2nd, 2009: The Age of Innocence

* Photo: Edith Wharton, 1915 * License: Public...
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The next session will be on Dec. 2nd from 3:30-5:30. This will be the last meeting of the Informal Reading Group this year.

For this session I’ve chosen 2 pages from a novel by American authoress Edith Wharton, “The Age of Innocence”, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

Edith Wharton wrote in a post-Romantic style, the style called Realism. The story and the characters show the tension between Romanticism and Realism.

Edith Wharton on Wikipedia (English)

There seems to be no Japanese Wikipedia entry for her, but perhaps some of you can find a good website in Japanese about her.

“The Age of Innocence” is also the title of a painting by the famous British portrait painter Joshua Reynolds. You can see the painting and read about Reynolds here.

Did this painting influence Wharton? We can discuss this in the session, perhaps.

This website tells the whole story of “Age of Innocence” in a “digested” form (in English, though).

This article writes about “Age of Innocence” and Gustave Flaubert‘s classic “Emma Bovary“, itself a novel about Romanticism.

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Session #18 November 25th, 2009: A Sense of Place

Today’s session will be on a Sense of Place, and the text will be an extract from British author Martin Amis’ book,  ” Money” (1984). I will bring Japanese translations of the extract.

The discussion will briefly include Romanticism and the Realism movement which followed it.

Session #19 will be next week, December 2nd, from 3:30 – 5:30.

P.S. You can listen here to an interview with Martin Amis discussing his book “Money” on the BBC (recorded 2002).

Session #12: July 22nd, 2009 – “The Catcher in the Rye” and teenage skaz

Today’s topic is teenage skaz and the selected text is an excerpt from CatSTsalingercher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger.

The story follows Holden Caulfield‘s experiences in New York City in the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a fictional college preparatory school in Pennsylvania.

As I wrote in the previous post,

This novel is written in a style called “skaz”: a Russian word (which to English ears suggests “skat” and “jazz”). It means, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

in Russian literature, a written narrative that imitates a spontaneous oral account in its use of dialect, slang, and the peculiar idiom of that persona.

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Session #11: July 1st, 2009

Arnold Bennett, British novelist
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Today we discussed irony, and we read an extract from “Old Wives’ Tales” by British author Arnold Bennett.

It was not as difficult or challenging as Ayn Rand, which we have been reading for the past 3 sessions. However, the discussion was not quite as lively as in previous sessions. It seems that reading Rand gets people’s brain cells working.

UPDATE: Next session will be July 22nd, and we will read and discuss “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.  Although I chose this topic at random, actually there is a connection with irony: the “hero” of the story, Holden Caulfield, has this crazy idea that he wants to be the “catcher in the rye”. He remembers the Robert Burns poem incorrectly: he creates an image in his mind of a field of rye on a cliff-top: children are playing in the field, completely unaware of the danger of the cliff; his job is to catch them and save them from death.  It is not until almost the end of the novel that he learns (from his younger sister Phoebe) that he has made a mistake: the poem does not refer to a “catcher in the rye” but “if a body meet a body, coming through the rye.”

This novel is written in a style called “skaz”: a Russian word (which to English ears suggests “skat” and “jazz”). It means, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

in Russian literature, a written narrative that imitates a spontaneous oral account in its use of dialect, slang, and the peculiar idiom of that persona.

JD Salinger‘s novel is one example in English. Another is British writer’s Anthony Burgess‘s A Clockwork Orange. Salinger is a recluse.  He has repeatedly refused all attempts to obtain his permission to make a movie of his book.  Salinger was recently in the news but look at the photo! That is the most recent photo of Salinger? 1951??

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Session #7: Defamiliarization

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë
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In today’s session, we read an extract from Charlotte Bronte‘s novel Villette. The scene is in an art museum. The heroine, Lucy Snowe, has been brought there by Dr. John Bretton, a handsome English doctor who has taken a brotherly interest in her. Dr. Bretton escorts her to various art museums but leaves her there to explore the paintings on her own. In the museum, Lucy finds herself facing a picture of a nude woman: she guesses her weight and estimates how much butcher’s meat it required to feed her up to that size, wonders why the young lady is lying down as it is broad daylight outside in the painting and the woman is clearly young and fit; expresses disapproval of the young lady’s scant attire, despite being surrounded bylots of material:

Out of abundance of material – seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery – she managed to make insufficient raiment.

The traditional still-life decorations in a painting such as this also receive short shrift:

Then for the wretched untidiness surrounding her there could be no excuse. Pots and pans – perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets – were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor.

Then the punchline:

On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore the name “Cleopatra“.

There followed a lively discussion about the concept of defamiliarization, which is the English translation of ostranenie (literally “making strange”), a term invented by a Russian and published in an essay of 1917 by Victor Shklovsky.

The next session will be in 1 month, May 27th, and the topic will be “The Novel of Ideas”. The text will be 2 extracts from Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. In the May 27th session, we will read the passages (one about people’s doubts about the John Galt Line, the other a scene between Hank Rearden and his mother who comes to plead with her son to give his brother a job), then discuss the ideas that lie behind the text.

In the following session, June 3rd, we will discuss Rand’s philosophy and the role that ideas and concepts play in daily life, especially the relation between some of her ideas and the financial crisis of today. Depending on interest, we may continue the topic into a 3rd session, and examine other novels of ideas, such as 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
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Depiction of the death of Cleopatra VII by Reg...
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Session #6: The Unreliable Narrator (and the epistolary novel) April 1st, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro (b.
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In today’s session, we read an extract from Kazuo Ishiguro‘s novel The Remains of the Day, as an example of “the unreliable narrator” technique.

We also read an extract from Michael Frayn‘s The Trick of It (1989), as an example of the epistolary novel.

We had a long discussion about The Remains of the Day, with different opinions about Mr Steven’s character, personality, and morality.

The BBC interviewed Kazuo Ishiguro in November 2004, and you can listen to the interview here (in English only, and no text, unfortunately). There is a 2006 interview with Ishiguro published in Japanese here (no audio; text only).

A famous example of an exchange of letters which I referred to today was 84 Charing Cross Road (I believe I told you “85” and that was incorrect). This is not fiction, however, so it cannot accurately be called an epistolary novel. (It was made into a movie in 1987, which, like the movie Remains of the Day also starred Anthony Hopkins.)

The next session will be April 22nd, and the topic will be “Defamiliarization” (in Japanese 異化).

Once again, thanks for coming and for joining in and making it such a lively event.

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Session #5: Names and naming

Charming My Name!
Image by jpellgen via Flickr

Session #5: Names and naming, March 17th, 2009

Texts for today’s session:

  1. How Far Can You Go? (1980) by David Lodge
  2. Nice Work (1988), by David Lodge
  3. City of Glass (1985), by Paul Auster. This is the first book in the New York Trilogy.

In session #4, we read an extract from Virginia Woolf‘s novel Mrs Dalloway. One participant pointed out that the movie The Hours (in Japanese here), which is a fictitious story about (the real) Virginia Woolf and (the fictitious) Mrs Dalloway, is being shown on the cable television channel Movie Plus on the 21st, 27th, and 29th of March, in case you are interested.

I haven’t seen the movie, or read the story, but I notice that the music for the movie was written by Philip Glass, an American whose ethereal, electronic music was quite popular in France in the 70s. (Glass also wrote the music for a new movie called the Watchmen).

There is a BBC interview with David Lodge talking about his book “Nice Work” here (audio only)

Thank you all for attending today. I hope you enjoyed it and felt “Hmmmm. Interesting!”

Session #6 will be on April 1st, and the topic will be “the unreliable narrator“.  I will email you the materials for that session in the next few days.

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Session #4: Stream of Consciousness & Interior Monologue

Cover of "Mrs. Dalloway"
Cover of Mrs. Dalloway

Session #4: Stream of Consciousness & Interior Monologue, March 4th, 2009

Two texts for today:

  1. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf
  2. Ulysses by James Joyce

We read the first two paragraphs of “Mrs. Dalloway”, chosen to illustrate the “stream of consciousness“, and two short extracts from “Ulysses”, chosen to illustrate the “interior monologue” technique.

Both of these techniques allow the reader to “listen” directly to the thoughts of a character, without an intermediary explanation by an all-knowing narrator. The “stream of consciousness” is often mixed with the narrative voice, but the reader has to guess which is which.

The “stream of consciousness” technique was a development of an earlier technique called “free indirect style”, a technique used frequently by Jane Austen.

The “interior monologue” or “internal monologue” is more difficult to read: because there is no explanation or mediation by the narrator, and because the author is trying to give us the raw thoughts of a character. When we think, we know the context of our thoughts, we do not explain them. The lack of context makes it hard for the reader, though.

Here’s an extract from “Ulysses” to illustrate:

On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have.

The first sentence is the narrator’s voice. From the second sentence onwards we are “listening” to the thoughts of the character (Leopold Bloom, the “Ulysses” of the title).  The verb is left out, as it often is in our own thoughts. The other sentences are also a kind of shorthand, but the reader can fill in the blanks. The final sentence, “Potato I have” is completely baffling, unless you know that Leopold habitually carries a potato in his pocket for good luck.

The second extract we read comes from later in the novel, and illustrates how one thought leads to another by a quick process of association. Stephen Dedalus watches two nuns/midwives walking on the beach. He recalls that one such midwife assisted at his own birth. He glimpses some knitting in her bag and imagines the strand of wool as a navel cord, and the knitting as a “misbirth” “hushed in ruddy wool”. The idea of a navel cord makes him think of the genetic links that connect all human beings, going back to our original “mother”, Eve. “Navel” reminds him of “navel gazing”, or meditation. His knowledge of Greek  tells him the Greek word for navel, “omphalos” Somehow, the “cord” or cable, together with the idea of monks meditating in order to connect with God, gives Dedalus the hilarious idea of telephoning Eden: “Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.”

Reading this kind of text is very hard work, and requires either a great deal of knowledge, particularly of other languages and literature, or some kind of reference guide.  But it can also be very satisfying.  Joyce did not use this technique throughout his novel “Ulysses”: that would have been too much, for both reader and author.

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Session #2: Author and narrator

Into the Woods Narrator
Image by P Wood via Flickr

Session #2, February 4th, 2009.

The texts used today were:

  1. The first paragraph of Adam Bede (1859)  by George Eliot
  2. an excerpt from “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent” (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne,
  3. an excerpt from How Far Can You Go?? (1980) by David Lodge, and
  4. an excerpt from Nice Work (1988), also by David Lodge.

In “Adam Bede”, George Eliot uses an intrusive narrator’s voice:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far‐reaching visions of the past.  This is what I undertake to do for you,  reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 18th of June, in the year of our Lord, 1799.

In “Tristram Shandy”, Laurence Sterne actually berates an imaginary reader with whom he has a conversation: he orders the inattentive reader to go back and read the last few pages again.  While she is “gone”, he then talks directly to the “remaining” reader, with his tongue firmly in his cheek: “I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness or cruelty, but from the best of motives… ‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself, – of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infalliby impart with them.”

In the David Lodge extracts, we again have a narrator who  talks directly to the reader: “a girl you have not yet been introduced to…” and “I like the connotations of Violet – shrinking, penitential, melancholy…” The second extract provides a similar example: “And there, for the time being, let us leave Vic Wilcox, while we travel back an hour or two in time, a few miles in space, to meet a very different character.”

All of these examples also illustrate another technique of fiction called “breaking frame”. This expression originates from a sociologist called Erving Goffman (Japanese here) who created a concept called frame analysis or framing. A “frame” means a set of rules, expectations or stereotypes about a particular situation.

In the movies, one of the rules is that the actors should never look at the camera: this maintains the fiction that there is no camera, that we are watching something actually happening. This fiction is a pretence that everyone agrees to, a rule that everyone agrees to play by.  If a character looks straight at the camera, it reminds the viewers that the whole thing is a fiction, that everybody in front of the camera is playing FOR the camera. This is called “breaking frame”.

In literature, one of the “rules” is that the narrator refers only to the story being told, and not to the relationship between the narrator and the reader, for example, by addressing the reader directly. If the narrator addresses the reader directly, as Laurence Sterne does, it “breaks” the “frame”: it reminds us that there is no “action”, there are no real characters; everything is invented out of the author’s imagination, including the narrator!

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