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.