Monday 14 August 2017

I pick up my pen. I start writing.

I had not been walking long, when I turned a corner and met her. I tingle again from head to foot as my recollection turns that corner, and my pen shakes in my hand.
David Copperfield, ch. 26

A dread falls on me here. A cloud is lowering on the distant town, towards which I retraced my solitary steps. I fear to approach it. I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on.
Ch. 32

Dickens is clear. David writes David Copperfield at some distant point in the story's future - ostensibly the contemporary reader's present. He recollects the events of his life - though not quite always in tranquillity. At times, as above, we see him at his desk, affected in the here and now by the events of long ago.

Anita Brookner's handling of I-voice narration is, in places, a little less certain. Let's consider the closing pages of Look at Me, where Brookner, like Dickens, 'breaks frame':
After that last sentence, I moved to the bed and switched on the bedside lamp.
Up to that point she had been narrating, from a distance, the events of the story. Now we seem to be invited to see the narrator writing 'to the moment', in the manner of Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe, or the writer of a diary.

But wait - let's go back a few pages. Here we find the narrator wondering whether her tormentors will ring her again. 'Of course, this might not happen,' she writes, and repeats the famous lines from the novel's start: 'Once a thing is known...'

We're unmoored, unsettled. When is the time of writing? The beginning of the novel, with its trenchant, hard-learnt words, suggested a narrative written, like Dickens's, in long retrospect. But the end of Look at Me plays fast and loose with such comfortable notions. We're all with Frances now, temporally trapped - trapped in the thick of the terrible action: like her, we'll never quite leave this moment. The final lines compound our sense of having been cast into a dizzying abyss:
Nancy shuffles down the passage, and I hear her locking the front door. It is very quiet now. A voice says, 'My darling Fan.' I pick up my pen. I start writing.

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