The grappling with the tension between classes

The narrators and narratives inJohn 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 Victorian 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 a small town in France, 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, the 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” (Fowles 96), and that the characters “exist, and in a reality no less, or no more, real” (Fowles 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” (Fowles 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.” (Talbox 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” (Fowles 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 tries valiantly to reverse back to the safe narrative waters by imploring “All I ask is to be allowed to understand” (Fowles 356) to which Sarah much later replies, “The damsel had broken all the rules” (Fowles 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” (Fowles 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, do not erase the ending like aforementioned scenes but rather deliberately fork 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” (Fowles 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.We have another basic problem when dealing with love stories – the divide between lovers as a consequence of self consciousness or reflection. Anyone observing two lovers taints the story and their account of it is colored by their own vision. Yet, a narrator is essential for the tale to be told. Balancing out the need to see and the need to tell in a narrator is extremely artful and can be problematic, even voyeuristic if tipped too much on the scale. While the narrator in The French Lieutenant’s Woman does not come across as the discomforting – perhaps because of his flamboyant self awareness – Salter’s narrator has a voyeuristic edge to him.In A Sport and A Pastime, the narrator, an unknown man older than the protagonist, living in the small town of Autun and harboring unrequited feelings for a woman in love with another, clarifies from the very beginning that he is not aware of most of the story. Like Fowles’ narrator, he interacts with the readers on occasions and is aware of their consciousness as they proceed. Early in the text, he warns the readers to take heed. “I am not telling the truth about Dean. I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” (Salter 85) By declaring the story a fabrication of his own imagination, while taking the seat of the observer, the narrator makes the novel unique outright. In a Paris Review interview by Edward Hirsch in 1993, the author mentioned how he had to pick between three possibilities of narrating the story: “This book would have been difficult to write in the first person – that is to say if it were Dean’s voice. It would be quite interesting written from Anne-Marie’s voice, but I wouldn’t know how to attempt that… Having a third person describe it, somebody who is really not an important part of the book but merely serving as an intermediary between the book and the reader, was perhaps the thing that was going to make it possible.”Yet, as subtle as he is, the narrator becomes more than just an intermediary. He evolves, over the course of the text, from a caricature voyuer to a character of ambiguity. Furthermore, he pulls shade over his own prowess of observation. By sporadically mentioning how the lovers “vanish into hotel rooms – one cannot follow. There are long silences filled with things I ache to know,” (Salter 46) he moulds himself as “an agent provacateur or a double agent, first on one side – that of truth – and then on the other.” (Salter 57) The way it comes leaps off the pages, the lovers and their meetings become invisible to every eye except the narrator, reinforcing his voyeuristic nature and allowing him the liberty of being the dark messenger to the readers. While not directly involved in their sexual acts, the agency of the narrator is pivotal. His mind is alight with observations but the essence of those observations are dual – he sees what he wants to see. Before we even meet the lovers or realize Dean is the protagonist, the narrator takes us on a descriptive tour with the people and places he sees, almost rendering it impossible for us to guess who the lovers will actually be. His role, as the observer, is not completely detached as there is a grain of search for his own self in all the people he sees. Yet, he is detached. That very omniscience renders him incompetent in Dean’s role of the lover. Even though initially his delicate sensibilities stops him from directly watching the lovers, he allows himself to intuit and gradually sift through.Salter’s ‘everyman/anyman’ narrator makes us collusive to the fabrication he has created while also becoming our accomplice – he acts as both the agent and the witness. Though it is Anne-Marie he objectifies and desires for his fevered dreams, his fixation is with Dean. He is sexual embodiment and it is his body, his physicality that is essential and as driving a force to the narrator as Anne-Marie’, so much so that the reader’s knowledge of Dean’s body is as intimate as a lovers. That is what also gives the story subliminal tones of homoeroticism and envy. The narrator – as the active character – seems to be haunted by another man’s prowess and his lover. As a consequence, he remains neutral even as he ponders upon eligible lovers in town for his own gratification but rather talks about the “fragments that were able to part my flesh.”(Salter 17) The pleasure he derives in discussing Dean’s sexual life is much more prominent than any thoughts he ever has for himself. Salter, when questioned about this oddity in the narrator, stymied the question by iterating, “The question of the novel’s narrator is often posed, and how much of what he relates is invented or imagined. Very little, in my opinion. I am impressed by his powers of observation and tend to trust his description of scenes.” Thus, in essence, the narrator becomes both a first-person character who tends to emote and express, talking about him and Dean, as well as a third-person authorial voice who distinctly reiterates the sexual encounters between Anne-Marie and Dean.Similar to Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, Salter’s narrator is steeped in admiration towards the character of Philip Dean. The power difference between them is blatant and makes way for the almost obsessive inclinations in the text. While the narrator photographs and knows France through the eye, it is Dean who penetrates and pillages its essence. The narrator sums it up perfectly, aware that he is : “I can never anticipate. It is he who moves first. I am only the servant of life. He is an inhabitant. I breathe to the rhythm of his life which is stronger than mine.” (Salter 58)Like D.H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where the lovers came from different classes and pursued pleasure to break barriers, Salter follows the footsteps but pleasure between Dean and Anne-Marie ultimately ends up being simply for the sake of it. The two are “united by a bloodstream which carries the same sensations,” (Salter 128) by a sensual rather than emotional bond. The female body, that is almost given a Byronic level of worth, is also brought down to animalistic levels of description. And the narrator, who does put Dean on a pedestal worthy of a Byronic hero, becomes filled with a “delicate hatred” when the former decides to end his relationship to Anne-Marie and wishes for the readers to be just “as resigned as he was”.Via the narrator, the duality of solipsism and sentimentality are introduced, explored and discarded. Physical synchronicity and emotional imbalance tug and battle for dominion, and though fabricated, the account of the lovers – their flaws, their selfishness, their cruelties, their fantasies, their hopes, their sins – are all stripped and laid bare in brutal gratuitousness. As Sarah Hall wrote in an article, “we are not benign creatures in love, but angels of pornography.” The narrator, by watching the lovers and making us complicit in that fabrication, makes the readers voyeurs themselves, makes them look into their own bedrooms and wonder about their own desires. Narrators, I believe, are one of the most crucial aspects of any story. What Steve Almond said about the lack of a proper narrator resonated with me as both a reader and a writer. As a writer though, it is much harder to balance the line between too much and too little when it comes to narratives. The questions do not cease – whether to use multiple narrators or not, which perspective to place at which point, how much agency to give to the narrator, keeping the narrator distinct from the protagonist, so on and so forth. Yeats called it the fascination of what’s difficult. Difficult, in this case, in pivotal. Narratives create consensual realities, alternative universes and collective memories. From ancient oral traditions to the dawn of technological progress, the merging of the society and self has given rise to narrators. Or, as Jameson puts it, the text of Desire is reached only through the text of Necessity (Jameson 101). A writer’s battle with narrative is beautifully put by Salter: “I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.”Disorienting works like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and A Sport and a Pastime prod us with numerous queries about ourselves, multiple things to imagine within our potential, and expanding that said potential to above and beyond. It is works like these, that make the readers pause and the writers think that map the terrain of narrative evolution. They influence the  direction and shape of that evolution. They inspire and produce, in result, a diaspora of evolving writers and evolved readers-turned-writers who further push their narrative limits and feed the cycle. It is works like these that feed and inspire literature.ReferencesAlmond, Steve. “Once Upon A Time, There Was a Person Who Said ‘Once Upon A Time'”. The New York Times Magazine. Jan 11, 2013., Sonya. “All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interview with James Salter”. The Millions. Aug 14, 2003., Pamela, and Linda Hutcheon. “THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN.” The Fictions of John Fowles: Power, Creativity, Femininity, University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa; Paris, 1991, pp. 103–142. JSTOR,, William. “A Final Glory: The Novels of James Salter.” College English, vol. 50, no. 1, 1988, pp. 74–88. JSTORFowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Boston: Little Brown.Fitzgerald, F Scott. The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Classics. 1993.Hall, Sarah. “Beautiful and Brutal: How James Salter set the standard for erotic writing”. The Guardian. Feb 2017., Edward. “James Salter, The Art of Fiction No. 133”. The Paris Review. Issue 127, 1993. Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London. Routledge Classics. 2002.Lawrence, DH. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Wordsworth Classics. 2005. 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