Thursday, February 4, 2016

What is a Narrator? - Why Narration Is Manipulation (or Not)

Every narrator is a liar.

Does the title sound like a stupid question to you? After all, a narrator is the one who narrates. And according to the modern "show, don't tell" fashion the narrator should be as invisible as possible. - Why? Because, as avid supporters of the "show, don't tell" philosophy seem to believe, the modern reader is too stupid to deal with the specifics of prose, since they're so different from what he's used to from movies.

Please don't get me wrong: I'm not against "show, don't tell" in general. Moreover, often this is what I wish beginners would do. In many cases the advice "show, don't tell" is appropriate. - But! A novel is not a movie. There are things it can't do while a movie can. And there are many things it can do while a movie can't.

As stated in a former post, the main difference between prose and other narrative art genres is the existence of a narrator. So what's so special about him?

Let's start with a little everyday wisdom: In life it's often not important what you do but rather how you do it. With narration it's pretty much the same. With the right strategy and the right words you can convince most people of the greatest crap ever. The narrator is a manipulation tool which the author uses to guide the reader's eyes and thoughts. - Or not. Because if both author and reader are aware of this manipulation function they can play with it. And this is when reading really gets interesting.

The god of Russian literature Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin for example uses a pseudo-sentimental narrator in his short story Stancionny smotritel (The Stationmaster). The purpose of sentimental narrators is usually to make the reader cry by telling a story which they know in every detail, because their intuition makes them omniscient. The objective of sentimental stories is escapism and is achieved by a strong focus on emotion: You read a story that engages you emotionally, so you end up feeling for the protagonists and forget about your own problems.

Pushkin's narrator, however, isn't a real narrator of sentimentalism but a person influenced by sentimentalism. The Stationmaster belongs more to the very early realism rather than sentimentalism. If you just sit back and allow the feelings of the narrator and his stationmaster friend to guide you you'll read nothing more than a slightly dry and superficial story about a stationmaster whose daughter is seduced by an officer which makes her father drink himself to death after an unsuccessful attempt to bring her back home. Yet if you watch out for little and seemingly unimportant details and question the narrator's and the stationmaster's words you'll read a completely different story: The stationmaster's beautiful daughter is sick of living in the middle of nowhere in poverty and with no perspectives in life, so she flirts with the male guests staying at her father's coaching inn, including the narrator himself. One day a handsome young officer comes by and completely falls for her. He takes her to the city where they live in happiness and abundance. When the stationmaster comes for her to take her home he realizes that the least thing she'll ever do is to return to the middle of nowhere, poverty and no perspectives. Filled with anger and jealousy, he returns home and persuades himself that the officer is just using her, that he'll drop her and that then she'll bitterly regret not staying with her father. Since he isn't able to accept his daughter's choice he becomes an alcoholic and when he meets the narrator for the second time he tells him the story he wants to believe. And the narrator, having been socialized in a sentimental environment, believes every word of his.

(This is, of course, only one possible interpretation. If you're interested in a detailed argumentation, I recommend Wolf Schmid's monograph on Pushkin's Tales of Belkin. I'm not sure whether the book is available in English, though.)

Personally I see many advantages of such kind of narrator: The reader doesn't have to suffer through endless descriptions and monologues; independent analysis allows a deeper understanding of characters and events; the contrast between what really happened and what the protagonist wants to believe stresses his inner conflict; and last but not least, The Stationmaster is most likely a potshot at sentimental prose and specifically at the author Karamzin, since The Stationmaster seems to be actually a parody of his Poor Liza. The disadvantage of such a narrator is that not every reader may be ready or willed to read between the lines.

What the Stationmaster shows us is that it's important to draw a line between "real" (fictional) events and what a narrator tells us. This is only natural: A literary artwork starts with some events happening in the imagination of the author, then the narrator comes and, depending on where the author places him, how much he allows him to "zoom" etc., he gets a particular perspective on what happened. And perception is only the first stage of selection of information: The second stage is evaluation; the third is presentation.

So you see: What a narrator tells the reader is never what "really" happened. It's the result of three stages of selection, and selection is always falsification in a sense. Thus narration without falsification isn't possible. Even if a narrator is meant to be omniscient, he still decides which information is relevant for the story and which isn't, because it's simply technically impossible to tell about every louse and every leaf in the world. Not to speak of how boring it would be.

So, in the end, the art of narration is actually nothing else than the art of lying: Every narrator is unreliable by definition. Use this superpower. And make your artwork more than just another story.

Wolf Schmid: Puškins Prosa in poetischer Lektüre: Die Erzählungen Belkins, München 1991.

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