Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Is Real Life Narrative? Or Memory And Stream Of Consciousness? Du Maurier vs Faulkner
There is no way to put down My Cousin Rachel, Daphne Du Maurier’s classic romance. The table is set in the first chapter – a beautiful woman with a suspicious past, intimations of foul play, hints of vanity, money, and ambition; a naïve young bachelor, brought up by his male cousin and a complete ingénue in the ways of women and love; suggestions of foul play, and suspicious Italian lovers – and the story continues with intrigue, suspense, and stereotype.
Du Maurier is a great storyteller and is a master of suspenseful romance, a writer who knows the genre and how it must be respected, who can always leave room for doubt, and whose characters are shrewd, canny, and predictable. Every reader knows what Cousin Rachel is about from the first. She has seduced Phillip’s older cousin, Ambrose, a man as naïve and untutored in the ways of women as he. She consorts with a disreputable unctuous Italian rake, plots to be rid of her husband Ambrose, to insinuate herself into the family manor in Cornwall, inherit all the family wealth, and continue to lead a European life of luxury and lovers without the burden of husband or responsibility.
This all is obvious to everyone except Phillip who is besotted by his Cousin Rachel who far from suspicious of her questionable past, is determined to make her the mistress and proprietor of the family estate. It is only the right thing to do, says Phillip, since his cousin’s will – prepared but unsigned – was to leave her and not him – everything. We all know that the will was left unsigned because of his doubts about her fidelity and honesty – fragments of Ambrose’s letters suggest as much – but Phillip is stubbornly naïve. The wonderful Cousin Rachel could never be such a person.
On page after page Du Maurier gives new confirmation of Rachel’s duplicity and venal if not murderous motives; and each one she tells of Phillip’s growing infatuation and naïve belief in her purity and innocence. The reader waits for Phillip to finally realize what he sees and to save himself and his inheritance, is increasingly frustrated at his obtuseness and stubborn vanity, and hopes that Rachel’s insidious plans are exposed.
The narrative momentum is unstoppable, the restrained drama nerve-wracking, and the perfect pitch of Du Maurier’s prose is seductive and compelling.
The story progresses as expected. Rachel is indeed exposed as the manipulative vixen that she is, Phillip is left with nothing, and evil has been vindicated. Except for an unnecessary turn of fate which saves Phillip, Rachel gets the fate she deserves.
Du Maurier is not alone in the start-to-finish manner of narrative storytelling. Nineteenth century fiction is characterized by this technique. Dickens, Hugo, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, George Sand, Thomas Hardy and many others wrote stories which had beginnings, middles, and ends. Great Expectations is perhaps the best and best-known example. Pip is the foster-child of a humble family, has a frightening encounter with thieves and murderers, becomes the beneficiary of an anonymous donor, lives well, becomes arrogant and forgetful of his humble origins and the generosity and love of his family, and finally comes to his senses, realizes the error of his ways, is contrite, and lives happily ever after.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy’s story of moral failure, redemption, and fall from grace; and it tells in narrative, chronological form, the story of Michael Henchard who sells his wife, lives to regret his decision, rises to prominence, and then becomes again dissolute and immoral. The reader – like any of Dickens or Du Maurier – is interested in the main character, Henchard, from the very beginning. The sale of his wife and daughter to a sailor marks him for some fateful end; and although he prospers and becomes a man of fairness, probity, and justice, every reader assumes he will have to pay for his immoral actions.
Dreiser’s An American Tragedy follows in this same narrative tradition and follows Clyde from his unhappy childhood, to his rise in social status, and to his ultimate ignominious fall.
In all cases we are taken with the main character from the beginning of his story whether because of circumstance, character, or expressions of human nature which mark him as familiar and inevitable; and because of our identification with him or our fear for him, we must read to the denouement.
Life of course is exactly as depicted by Hugo, Dickens, Dreiser, or Du Maurier without the melodrama. We all begin as children, mature, err, rediscover our way or stray farther from it, and die with recollections of our beginnings, the events of middle-life, and our ending. We are not fragmented, but integral wholes. Our life is an uninterrupted trajectory from birth to death. Perhaps the character of it is not what we had planned or expected, but it one, uniform, and unique.
So where do Faulkner and Joyce come in? In their view of the world, life is not a continuum of predictable events nor an uninterrupted narrative. In their telling the past is as important as the present and as real. Memory, recollected events and the influential slights, tributes, and kindnesses of our personal history are equal to the edges and corners of the present.
The first two pages of Absalom, Absalom, perhaps the greatest work of modern fiction, are the reminiscences and reflections of Miss Coldwell who, in only a few thousand words, tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, Sutpen’s One Hundred, and the tragedy of her and his family. It is an incoherent narrative, a stream of consciousness that reflects her frustration and anger, her twisted recollection of the facts, and some semblance of narrative order.
The Sound and the Fury is even more fragmented, subjective, and personal. It is a story told by different observers who have experienced the same years in very different ways. For Benji who is seriously retarded, the story has no line but only bits and pieces of color and feeling. For Quentin the story is one of intellectual and emotional disassembly which leads to his own unhappy end.
Joyce makes no attempt to make either narrative or chronological sense in Ulysses. Ordinary, practical, day-to-day life has not interest for him nor meaning. The only reality is in the mind of his characters – Stephen Daedalus, Bloom, or Molly.
Which is the more accurate depiction of the human experience? Are we more narrative or bits and pieces of a partially- and inaccurately-remembered past expressed as a stream of consciousness?
Vladimir Nabokov observed that while the present is infinitesimally momentary and the future only a possibility, the past is real and substantive; and is the only validation of life. He was a self-described memorist who trained himself to remember what he felt would be seminal events in his life. Even as a young child, he made sure he would remember not just summers at the beach, but specific smells, colors, tints, and words.
Nabokov knew that his past would necessarily be cobbled and fragmentary; but he tried to even history out and turn it into a narrative. He was not content with a stream of consciousness in which bits and pieces of the past would occur.
The story of fragmented perceptions – those of Rashomon, The Ring and the Book, and The Alexandria Quartet – and the artists’ dwelling on the meaning of life if life is so subjective and temporal is of little consequence to us. Although memories and the emotions associated with them may come at any moment and return us even for a moment to our distant past, we are still very integral beings. Our lives began as infants, toddlers, boys and girls, and adults; and are inevitably becoming those of elder living, illness and death. Our lives are consistent narratives with interesting embellishments.
Faulkner and Joyce revolutionized the way stories are told in fiction. They were artists in an age of Freud, Jung, and Planck. Their disassembly of ‘reality’ was an inevitable product of their age. Their works are uniquely brilliant for their uncanny zeitgeist. At the same time, they disrupted the norm. No one sees life through such a cracked and distorted lens. Fragmentary recollections are not the same thing as totally disordered perceptions.
Each time I read Absalom I am awed by Faulkner’s insights, his uncanny understanding of human nature and appreciation of the drama in its individual character, his linguistic virtuosity – never for virtuosity itself – and his unique capture of Southern history.
I have never reread Du Maurier, Dreiser, or Hardy. Once one knows the story – the narrative – there is no need to revisit it. The interest of these narrative writers is not their intellectual genius but their storytelling. They have written about us all. Faulkner and Joyce never did.