Sunday, January 27, 2008

Characters in Fiction



James Wood on characters in fiction:

Perhaps because I am not sure what a character is, I find especially moving those postmodern novels, such as Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or José Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which we are confronted with characters at once real and unreal. In these novels, the authors ask us to reflect on the fictionality of the heroes and heroines who give the books their titles. And in a fine paradox, it is precisely such reflection that stirs in the reader a desire to make these fictional characters "real", to say, in effect, to the authors: "I know that they are only fictional - you keep on telling me this. But I can only know them by treating them as real." That is how Pnin works, for instance. An unreliable narrator insists that Professor Pnin is "a character" in two senses of the word: a type (clownish, eccentric émigré), and a fictional character, the narrator's fantasy. Yet precisely because we resent the narrator's condescension towards his fond and foolish possession, we insist that behind the "type" there must be a real Pnin, who is worth "knowing" in all his fullness and complexity. And the novel is constructed in such a way as to excite that desire in us for a real Professor Pnin, a "true fiction" with which to oppose the false fictions of the overbearing and sinister narrator.

Click here to read the rest of Wood's very thought-provoking article. It doesn't say so anywhere on the article, but it seems likely that this is an excerpt from Wood's forthcoming book How Fiction Works (to be released next week in Britain but, alas, not until the summer in North America). If so, I'm even keener than I already was to read it.

The photo with which I've headed this post is an entry from my grade six "Language Arts" notebook. I unearthed it in my parents' basement not long ago and thought I ought to hang on to it as it seems to me to represent the beginning of my formal literary education. Of course, the true beginning dates back some years earlier to when I learned to read or earlier still to when my parents began to read to me. In any event, Mr. Wood doesn't think much of E.M. Forster's distinction between flat characters and round characters so perhaps it wasn't the best beginning. But then, where else would you start? Incidentally, is it common practice to offer up insights from Forster's Aspects of the Novel in sixth grade, or was my sixth grade teacher ahead of the pack? I always liked Mrs. Hawkins.

6 comments:

Seachanges said...

I enjoyed Wood's piece in today's Sunday Times and you've beaten me to commenting on it! His book is published shortly. I found this quite thought provoking

Seachanges said...

I meant 'The Saturday Guardian' of course! The weekend got muddled between reading book reviews on Saturday and on Sunday! My apologies.

Mark Thwaite said...

I can imagine a few late nights next week when this lands on my desk ...

Wood is, really, the only decent literary journalist out there -- thought-provoking, widely-read, readable ... but that doesn't mean I don't often disagree with him. I think with regards to that article he needed to read both EM Forster and William Gass more carefully ... but I want to wait until I read the whole book before I say more ...

wplasvegas said...

Hooray for the sixth grade! If you never thanked Mrs. Hawkins, write her a note now. She's earned it.

krishuck said...

It is very interesting to me to see your work as a sixth grader and to read your book blog. I can see where your passion of literature all began. I enjoy reading your insight on books. You are very knowledgable.

NigelBeale said...

Hi Kate,

Came across your bang on comment about biography over at Dorothy's site.

re Wood. I've read How Fiction Works. My sense is that he's pulling an 'anxiety of influence' thing with Forster...disagreeing with him, in order to solidify his (Wood's)relative standing... "Roundness" he says, is impossible in fiction because, although they
may be very alive in their own way, characters are not the same as real
people. It is subtlety that matters. Chekov's inquiry into the way his soldier's mind works in The Kiss, is more acute than Thackeray's serial vividness." Many of the most vivid characters in fiction are monomaniacs. Henchard, Gould and Casaubon may surprise at first, but their obsessions
soon become predictable. And yet, as Wood puts it "they are no less vivid, interesting or true as creations, for being flat. They are certainly not cartoons, which is implicit in Forster's discussion."