The narrators of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime In his essay in the New York Times, Steve Almond employs a style used by his creative writing students to make a larger argument about the passive consequences of viewership of mass media on our ability to comprehend historical and modern cultural narratives. His discussion, since pertaining specifically to creative writing students, made me ponder upon some of the conscious and subconscious effects of technology on writers. One of the most frequent problems with his students being the fairly modern use of non-linear narratives and dependence of images over plot, Almond believes that the elemental ingredient missing in most stories is an efficacious narrator.
In a classical sense of the term, a narrator has the function of establishing the setting, introducing the characters and narrating the story. With the dawn of postmodernism in the literary world, the classical way of doing things was subverted. The role of the narrator, in that momentum, changed – grappling with its existence in some stories while being the driving force in others.
It is this that I shall be exploring in this essay with two novels of different lengths, set in different eras and different cities, sharing nothing more than distinct narrators, the same decade of publication and something French.Narrative is “a singularly potent discursive form through which control can be dramatized, because it compels belief while at the same time it shields truth claims from testing and debate..
. Symbolic resources that serve the ends of control are realized through practices of storytelling and listening.” (Mumbry 100)The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, published 1969, tells multiple stories within its narrative, the major arc surrounding Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson.
Set during the Victorian era, it is an enigmatic tale that begins with the canonical “whore” of the time, sets a story for her and portrays how she parodies the stereotype. While grappling with the tension between classes and genders, between the rich and the poor, between the enlightened and the ignorant, the novel goes on to completely subvert the typical novel of manner, giving it a postmodern edge. A Sport and A Pastime by James Salter, published 1967, on the other hand, deals with only two major characters – Dean and Anne-Marie. Set in Paris, the story is an overt discovery of “bourgeois green” places vis-a-vis the discovery of flesh.
At its core a love story, the rendezvous transforms its relatively plain protagonists into the center of the cosmos. The reason both Fowles and Salter succeed so effectively into not only giving their respective stories and characters more layers but also giving the readers a pause to catch their breaths is their use of their narrators. While they are both active in the story to the verge of being characters themselves, hence, as many critics have argued, unreliable, they manage to be passive enough to be effective. One of the main traits of unreliable narrators, though, is their lack of knowledge about the story. What we have, in both the above mentioned texts, is the exact opposite of the unreliable narrator – we have narrators who know too much. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, this narrator is unlike any Victorian narrator, with the knowledge of Freud, Darwin, Steven Marcus’ The Other Victorians, and sociological concepts and ideas that the traditional tellers of Victorian tales were not supposed to possess. He jumps in and out of the narrative, interacting directly with the readers.
Fowles merges metafiction, i.e. writing self-conscious about the fact that it is written and imagined, and the conventional Victorian love story to underline the act of storytelling itself. The narrator is one of the strongest metafictional features of the tale and his commentary on the plot and making up characters tugs the readers towards seeing storytelling as less representative and more manipulative. The narrator elucidates that by saying that writers “wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is” (96), and that the characters “exist, and in a reality no less, or no more, real” (97) than actual reality. In a manner, then, Sarah imitates the narrator by creating a fictional past, authoring a story about Varguennes to control other’s reactions to her, and making herself more legible to those around her.
Furthermore, she spears her way into Charles’ imagination, imprints her face, her being, her existence on it. Ontologically, she’s deliberately dual in the novel, both inhabiting and haunting him, proven by the way he “feels as if he… a visitor from another world” (289). She effectively manipulates him into positions where he has to act out the world of story within the story, reenact her own exile and Varguennes abandonment of her through Ernestina. He becomes, in essence, the “the seducer, the seduced, abandoner and abandoned, hero, heroine, victim, and villain all in one.” (Katherine 98) Gradually, she sinks the knife further and states, “Do not ask me to explain what I have done. I cannot explain it. It is not to be explained” (355).Those words are telling, especially with the energetic narrator explaining and recounting historical facts, extravagant exegesis and analysis throughout.
It can be inferred that by mentioning those words, by defying explanation and its need, the ground for storytelling itself has shifted. “It seems that narrative logic itself, with its forking binary paths, is being denied, in favor of the experience of aporetic illogic.” Charles attempts to scramble back to safe narrative ground: “All I ask is to be allowed to understand” (356); “The damsel had broken all the rules” (445).
I mention this because what Sarah does to Charles parallels what the narrator subjects the readers to – one mirroring the other’s methods, using bona fide narrative syntax, genuine trajectory, and then erasing it. It generates a double entendre effect – the erased or struck out matter leftover as an echo that once was but never could be again. This is most effective in the reunion written-unwritten scene of Charles and Ernestina in Chapter 44 after he resists the siren call of Sarah in Exeter.
Though it is struck out, it lingers as a ghost haunting the novel, an uncanny what-if, a choice of sense in the later anarchy of Charles and Sarah. The narrator, conscious not only of himself and the characters, but the readers as well, simply says he “take both sides in it” and does not feel a need to “fix the fight” (406) as narrators conventionally ought to do. Writing, to him, is not fixing fights. It is imperfect, conscious and ever-evolving, with a diaspora of choices for the characters, the readers and the writer himself. The most unnerving of all, though, is the dual ending in the novel. Despite the narrator and his unconventional personality that leaps off the page, the reader, up until that last page, still held on to the ultimate tradition of singular endings. The fact that Fowles and his narrator, both impesarios, did not erase the ending like aforementioned scenes but rather deliberately forked the conclusion is baffling. For once, the readers can have the choice along with the characters to choose between split paths, between the road not taken and the travelled miles.
That shift of power is almost restorative of the logic the novel defied throughout. The dual ending feels like the ending. As the narrator mentions in his diatribe against fight-fixing, the fight between dualities is a “dilemma (that) is false” (406) and due to the alphabetic nature of language, he “cannot give both versions at once”.
This leads him to insist that the reader should not infer either opposition as more “real”. The first ending he writes, then plays with time and superimposes the second over it, creating a palimpsest with dialogue like deja-vu and shared contrary realities. His experiment with metafiction plays with metafiction itself, creating layers upon layers of stories, a picture emerging with every added sheath.In A Sport and A Pastime, “The fascination of what’s difficult, as Yeats said. Narrative creates consensual reality. It gives rise to the storytelling practices, such as history and science, that create collective memory and being, out of which a sense of “society” emerges along with an “I” who navigates its mapped terrain. We must turn to culture and its practices in order to find ways to transcend its limits.
Or, in Jameson’s terms, the text of Desire is reached only through the text of Necessity (101-02). The concept of limit is itself a concept produced by narrative mentality. If we can arrive at and negotiate with narrative’s “other” we might return with ways to mediate our narrative habits. Disorienting work like The French Lieutenant’s Woman gives us different questions to ask about ourselves, different things to imagine 101 This content downloaded from 82.44.
245.126 on Thu, 07 Dec 2017 08:25:56 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms TWENTIETH CENUY LITURY LITERATURE ourselves to be capable of, and more to dream and desire.
Judging from the millions of copies that have been sold, it is a pleasing narrative construct. But it has also been a watershed of a different sort; it has been enormously influential in precipitating the kind of evolutionary process it posits. In effect it has produced a generation of evolved readers-turned-writers, a generation of young British (and other English-speaking) writers who have been inspired to push the limits in their own narrative pract