“Far off and strange, a voice is in my ear,
Two voices, his and mine: the words we say
Fall strangely, like a dream, across the day.”
Arthur Symons, The Absinthe Drinker
It’s no accident that I often fall back on sexual metaphors when talking about books; writers practise the fine art of seduction to put readers in the mood. Unfortunately, the reader may hesitate on the brink of committing herself, or experience doubt at low points in the relationship. That is why writers try to break down our defences from the first sentence in their patter.
Some writers use great opening lines.
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.”
Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler
Others are designed to shock us or pique our curiosity.
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”
Albert Camus, The Outsider
“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”
Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night
“One warm April evening in 1984, in a pleasant suburb of Cairo called Zamalek, three exquisite young men tried to kill me.”
Robert Dessaix, A Mother’s Disgrace
Some amuse us.
“This all started because of a clerical error.”
Steve Martin, The Pleasure of My Company
Other writers give their narrator a voice that insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness, hypnotising them, enfolding them in words. Words can be narcotics, lulling the reader into a suggestible and pliable state.
Some narrators are terrible teasers. Be warned: The Crimson Petal and the White starts with teasing, and so it ends. The city that the narrator introduces is a metaphor for the world of the book.
“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.
When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you’re actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street of unlit houses full of unknown people.
And yet you did not choose me blindly. Certain expectations were aroused. Let’s not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you’re too shy to name, or at least show you a good time. Now you hesitate, still holding on to me, but tempted to let me go. When you first picked me up, you didn’t fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect I would grip you so tightly, so fast. Sleet stings your cheeks, sharp little spits of it so cold they feel hot, like fiery cinders in the wind. Your ears begin to hurt. But you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray, and it’s too late to turn back now.”
Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White
Yes, that’s the trouble: we can’t turn back now. We have to read on.
Some narrators bite, whereas others are reassuring.
“We have all, without choosing, been scattered at birth by the wind on to a country, but, like Flaubert, we are in adulthood granted the freedom imaginatively to re-create our identity in line with our true allegiances. When weary with our official nationality (from Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: French – ‘How proud one is to be French when one looks at the Colonne Vendôme’), we may withdraw to the parts of ourselves that are more Bedouin than Normand, that delight in riding on a camel through a khamsin, in sitting in cafés beside shitting donkeys and in engaging in what Edward Lane called ‘licentious conversation’.”
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Some narrators use an exaggerated, mock-serious mode to make us laugh:
“The miserable tale of the Baudelaire orphans will be safe in the pond’s murky depths, and you will be happier not to read the grim story I have written, but instead to gaze at the rippling scum that rises to the top of the world.”
Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril (Book the Twelfth, A Series of Unfortunate Events)
The narrator may be someone we wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, but we are compelled to listen to his tale, nonetheless. We may not agree with the narrator but they’ve caught our interest, just as we may read about characters who have traits we wouldn’t seek in friends. The narrator, even a third-person narrator, is in effect, a character, and he had better rivet us to the spot until his tale is done.
In the Dress Lodger, we’re intrigued by the identity of the narrators. “… [T]his is not your story. This is ours.” So who are the narrators, and why do they seem to be a group of people, rather than a single character who appears in their own story, or an unnamed, all-seeing, god-like person who observes but does not participate? I won’t spoil the novel’s conclusion by answering that; you’ll have to find out for yourself.
“If the story were in your hands, we might expect no unpleasantness, no murder or blackest betrayal, for you are not of a punishing nature.
And yet, dear matchstick painter, your growing suspicions are correct—this is not your story. This is ours, and you have been summoned, led through the marketplace, encouraged to see this entertainment over the tedious play on cholera morbus down the street for solely that purpose: to provide us with an introduction to our true heroine, who, if you’ll turn around, is walking down Sans Street toward you, carefully picking her way across the unctuous carpet of frogs.
Don’t be upset, dear friend; we can’t all of us be heroes. Though we met you first, we shouldn’t feel compelled to follow your tiresome life. From the factory. Home. To the public house for a warm beer every third night—the whole process repeating itself ad nauseam. You have a purpose in the machinery of this book, and though it is not large, it is necessary. We have brought you here to describe her to us, we being too far away in time and space to form a clear impression. Please, dear friend, keep us in suspense no longer. Is she lovely? Plain? Young? Old? First impressions are difficult to shake, dear friend, so please, be precise.”
Sheri Holman, The Dress Lodger
Some voices are so sympathetic, wise, or amusing that we want them with us always (Jane Austen’s, for example). Alternatively, I could have the narrator of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman accompanying me everywhere, analysing society with that ironic, perceptive vision.
“The second simple fact is that [Mrs Poulteney] was an opium-addict—but before you think I am wildly sacrificing plausibility to sensation, let me quickly add that she did not know it. What we call opium she called laudanum. A shrewd, if blasphemous, doctor of the time called it Our-Lordanum, since many a nineteenth-century lady—and less, for the medicine was cheap enough (in the form of Godfrey’s Cordial) to help all classes get through that black night of womankind—sipped it a great deal more frequently than Communion wine. It was, in short, a very near equivalent of our own age’s sedative pills. Why Mrs Poulteney should have been an inhabitant of the Victorian valley of the dolls we need not inquire, but it is to the point that laudanum, as Coleridge once discovered, gives vivid dreams.”
John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Perhaps the confusion of narrator and author is part of the reason why people want to meet their favourite writers. I wish that I had someone like Andrew Miller narrating life for me. Like a good psychotherapist, he offers unconditional positive regard, understanding why people do what they do, even if their behaviour is not admirable. He also has a poet’s eye, and points out things to me I would have otherwise missed, or finds beauty or horror in places I would never have looked.
Once I’d read one of Miller’s books, I quickly went on to order and read more of his books, such was the need to be “with him”, so to speak.
I just had to hear that voice again.