This post is about Charlotte Brontë. Try to guess how.
For fiction to work, the reader has to willingly buy into its conceits. We mostly do so reflexively, which is part of the power of fiction. Kevin, at Interpolations, recently chose to step back while reading Ethan Frome (1911), where he noticed that the electrical engineer telling (by writing?) the story sounded surprisingly like Edith Wharton.* Anyway, he was certainly unusually talented.
Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1955), Charles Kinbote (Pale Fire, 1962), and the narrator of Despair (1936) do not resemble each other so much as they all resemble, and write like, Vladimir Nabokov. They are better writers, actually, since their unrevised first drafts are as well-written as Nabokov’s agonizingly polished novels, and they were all writing under difficult conditions – prison, mental breakdown, police pursuit. Amazing.
And then there’s Nick Carraway, a bond trader, admittedly “rather literary in college” (4),** whose first book, The Great Gatsby (1925?),*** is a masterpiece. It’s extraordinary, as good as F. Scott Fitzgerald. No, better. I haven’t read The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), but the author of the college lark This Side of Paradise (1920) was hardly in Carraway’s league. I don’t even know why I thought to make the comparison. And The Great Gatsby is also a first draft (this requires evidence – tomorrow).
On the one hand, this fine writing from unlikely sources is implausible. On the other hand, the proof is right there on the page. Carraway says he’s writing the sentences we’re reading, and there they are. Should I doubt my own eyes? I think this is the strongest special effect available in fiction. I know that Superman does not exist, and that people cannot fly, but I have seen Superman with my own eyes, flying all over the place. That’s how movies work. But Nick Carraway is somehow, without having seen him, even more real. I’ve read his prose:
The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light. (40-1, at Gatsby’s party)
What addle-pated reader, in the name of empty verisimilitude would want to dispose of the word “yellow” here?**** So we readers, if we’re not fools, swallow it all, collaborate with the writer to make the fiction work. The writer has his responsibilities, but so does the reader.
At the same time, though, I can try to tear apart what the writer is doing – I can read both ways at once. Is that voice doing what it’s supposed to be doing? How far did the author really think through his decisions? For example, doesn’t that wonderful passage sound a little odd in a memoir? Not impossible, on its own, but as the book goes on like this, a little odd. Maybe a little more like something one would find in a novel? What, exactly, is this book Carraway is writing (he says it’s a book – p. 2)? Fitzgerald is writing a novel, but Carraway is writing non-fiction, isn’t he? Aren’t the two things different, shouldn’t they look different? Tomorrow: Nick Carraway’s strange first book. A preview: Fitzgerald is playing a marvelous little trick here.
Page numbers from the Scribner paperback, 2004 of Fitzgerald's novel, not Carraway's book.
* An ensuing argument with D. G. Myers pushed me in useful directions. As usual, the argument began because one of us (me) was actually arguing about something else.
** What did he write? “[A] series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News” (4). But he is certainly a great reader, yes? “And I had the high intention of reading many other books besides.” Besides “a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities”! Someone, Nick or Scott, is having some fun here.
*** F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same title was definitely published in 1925. I’m not so sure about Nick Carraway’s memoir.
**** The word actually tells us something, that Carraway might be, like Nabokov, synesthetic.