Magazine article The Spectator

First Person Singular

Magazine article The Spectator

First Person Singular

Article excerpt

The young Evelyn Waugh, it's said, once declared in a newspaper article that the writing of novels in the first person was a contemptible practice. One would like to think he gave his reasons, but, according to Somerset Maugham, 'he threw out the statement with just the same take-it-or-leave-it casualness as Euclid used when he made his celebrated observation about parallel straight lines.' Subsequently Waugh would write his most popular novel, Brideshead Revisited, in that despicable first person. It would have been a poorer novel if he hadn't shown the glamorous Flyte family through the eyes of his narrator, dazzled (if also dull) Charles Ryder.

Few readers, I suppose, care much about Ryder's own story, even though it is integral to Waugh's theme -- 'the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters'. Yet it is Ryder's tone of voice, or rather the modulations of that tone, now nostalgic, now enraptured, now weary, now bitter, finally reconciled, that give the novel its peculiar, and for so many of us irresistible, flavour.

Telling your story in the first person has obvious advantages. You engage the reader's interest and sympathy straightaway. This is why so many writers of thrillers or novels of adventure -- Stevenson, Buchan, Dick Francis, for example -- adopt this mode of telling. The hero-narrator is instantly credible. 'That evening, I remember, as I came up through the Mill Meadow, I was feeling peculiarly happy and contented.' This is how, in the most ordinary way, Buchan has Richard Hannay embark on the wildly improbable story of The Three Hostages, and we sense immediately that his happiness and contentment are to be disrupted. The first-person narrative is a means of making the extraordinary acceptable and believable. You have only to compare almost any of Dick Francis's novels, even the weaker among them, with some of his short stories written in the third person to see how speaking in the first person grants authority to the tale.

It's also a reassuring mode. We know that the hero-narrator must survive his ordeal, even when the author doesn't pretend to be giving us a document written by his hero, or to have him telling us the story as he sits by the fire. In theory the novel might end with a sentence that calls his survival into question.

Something like this, for instance: 'He smiled as he raised the gun and said, "so, Englishman, you are not so smart as you think you are". …

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