Tag Archives: Katherine Mansfield

Character and consistency

Most novels and short stories operate largely within the conventions of realism, and so their fictional worlds are inhabited by lifelike ‘characters.’ But what makes a character credible and interesting?

Dickens with his characters

Charles Dickens dreaming of some of his characters (detail from a painting by Robert W. Buss, 1875; public domain)

Although we know that characters are artificial creatures, illusions created entirely by language, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief in them as long as their attributes seem quasi-human. (Of course it’s more complicated than that. There’s a sophisticated theoretical analysis of ‘the centrality of fictional character – and, by extension, of social models of personhood – to reading of almost any kind’ in John Frow’s book Character and Person, newly published by Oxford University Press. My own book Narrative Exchanges, recently reissued in the Routledge Revivals series, also has a chapter on theoretical aspects of characterisation.)

When we read a work of fiction in the realist tradition, we want to be convinced that its characters are lifelike. But believing in them isn’t a simple matter. It often requires a reader to hold in mind two different things: on the one hand a sense that the actions, thoughts, words and attributes associated with a particular name (Heathcliff or Cathy or whoever) hang together credibly enough to represent an individualised personage, and on the other hand a sense that not everything about this personage is perfectly consistent. Total consistency would imply the repetitiveness of a robot, the flatness of a caricature. This may be appropriate for some minor characters in certain kinds of hyper-realist fiction (Dickensian figures such as Uriah Heep, for instance) but not otherwise.

So usually – unless the story is feeble – a major character will turn out to be less homogeneous than first impressions suggest. Readers can miss much of the point if they assume that a character in a story represents (or should represent) an entirely unified personality, a stable set of coherent and consistent traits. In reality that’s not how we ourselves are, and sometimes the point of a story may be to reveal incoherence and inconsistency within a character’s sense of self.

‘To thine own self be true…’ says Shakespeare’s Polonius – but let’s not take this long-winded old codger’s sententious advice at face value. Quoting his remark in her Journal, Katherine Mansfield comments scornfully:

True to oneself? Which self? Which of my many – well, really, that’s what it looks like it’s coming to – hundreds of selves? For what with complexes and repressions and reactions and vibrations and reflections, there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor, who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests.

One of the Australian novelists I most admire, Kate Grenville, has some astute remarks on characterisation in The Writing Book, an excellent practical how-to manual which is well worth the close attention of any aspiring author. Here’s part of what she says about consistency: 

Consistent characters run the risk of being boring characters. People aren’t consistent and characters don’t have to be either. Inconsistencies can make characters interesting, as long as they’re inconsistent in a way that adds something to the story.

While perfectly consistent characters may be boring, perfectly inconsistent ones may be frustrating to a reader: they never add up to a coherent personality. Inconsistencies can add depth to a character, but they have to be carefully controlled by the writer.

Exactly a century ago, while working on the novel that became The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence wrote a letter to Edward Garnett in which he tried to explain his view of characterisation. His aim, he declared, was to move beyond ‘the old-fashioned human element – which causes one to conceive a character in a certain moral scheme and make him consistent.’ He went on to say, ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states…’ The analogy here is with different states of the same element, just as diamond and coal are forms of carbon.

Even in classic nineteenth-century realist fiction, what looks like inconsistency is sometimes just the gradual development and disclosure of a character’s complexity. Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is introduced to us as an idealistic young doctor propelled by an ambition to reform medical practices. But time goes by, and under the weight of an unhappy marriage, he abandons his high social purpose and behaves in contradictory ways towards his wife. So in a sense the later Lydgate may seem hardly consistent with his previous self. But the change in him is credible because there have been early glimpses of a fundamental flaw: from the start his altruism is tinged with an arrogance that makes his attitude to the common people ‘benevolently contemptuous.’ There’s a Reader Alert when Lydgate first enters the story and the narrator advises us not to jump to conclusions: ‘For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown – known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.’

Think, too, of Dickens – not in the cartoonist mode he employs for minor characters but when he traces the intricate workings of a fully rounded personality as it moves this way and that in response to different pressures. David Copperfield, telling his own story from the vantage point of maturity and looking back at his younger selves with their incomplete self-knowledge, remarks: ‘These, with their perplexities and inconsistencies, were the shifting quicksands of my mind…’

Copperfield’s reflection sums up the topic nicely for me. When I read or write fiction, what interests me above all is an engagement with those same aspects of character: perplexities, inconsistencies, the shifting quicksands of the mind.

 

 

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 2

photo

This is the second and final instalment of a retrospect on books I read last year that continue to impress me months afterwards. The previous post discussed several works of non-fiction, but most of my reading in 2013 was fiction – mainly Australian. A few novels from other parts of the world still stir my imagination, most notably Herman Koch’s The Dinner with its unforgettably creepy narrator; Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with its strong narrative momentum and troubling theme that comes much closer to home than the exotic setting led me to expect; Susan Abulhawa’s heartbreaking evocation of Palestinian suffering, Mornings in Jenin; Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a powerful psychological study of World War 1 experiences; and Julian Barnes’s witty and cunning The Sense of an Ending. Nevertheless it was Australian fiction that attracted most of my attention, and several novels (plus some short story collections) have kept a tight grip on me.

It would be hard to forget the narrator of Toni Jordan’s lovely story Addition: hilariously and sadly compulsive, intelligently self-aware, Grace almost manages to wreck her chance of happiness – but despite the shadows of mental instability this is a comic romance, after all. Comparable in its affiliation with true romance, though focused on a less quirky protagonist, Deborah Burrows’s A Stranger in My Street blends the love interest with a murder mystery and an historical setting (Perth in the WW2 years) that is convincingly rendered. Lynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper is similarly set in Western Australia and partly in the same period, but its narrative structure is more complicated than in A Stranger in My Street, and what has imprinted itself most distinctly on my memory is the nostalgic elaboration of its descriptive detail.

The genre of Kathryn Heyman’s Floodline seemed at first a satirical blend of a Hollywood disaster movie with a Deep Southern evangelical morality play – except that the muddle-headed self-thwarting characters and the emotional troubles generated by their poignantly dysfunctional family relationships soon compelled me not only to believe in them but also to want the best for them. Convincing characterisation is also the main thing that sticks in my mind from Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, a well-researched story of Norwegian whaling and Antarctic exploration in the 1930s: all three women at the story’s centre are distinctive and entirely credible.

The fine achievement of M.K Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans stems largely from its devising of an outlandish situation that is fraught with moral conflict and insoluble dilemmas, so that everything that unfolds from the brilliant narrative premise carries a sense of almost inevitable doom. ‘Brilliant’ is also an apt descriptor for Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, in which sentence after polished sentence sparkles with a mordant wit that often reminds me of Patrick White – though in retrospect that bright hard surface is more memorable than the interactions between characters.

During 2013 I read a number of short story collections, which by their nature are difficult to summarise although I still have a precise recall of several individual stories. Some of them were first published long ago: Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand stories (which I re-read every two or three years, and which I’ve discussed in a chapter of Narrative Exchanges) belong to the early 20th century, and Shirley Hazzard’s Cliffs of Fall goes back half a century. Mansfield’s are full of startling imagery, Hazzard’s are full of subtle perceptions, and both writers remind me that even the most economical form of narration can be capacious in its implications. The best pieces in two short-story volumes by Perth-based writers also made an impact on me last year and won’t be forgotten for a long while: Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky and Amanda Curtin’s Inherited. I’ve commented on both, along with Alice Munro’s Dear Life, in a previous post titled Brevity with Scope.

Amanda Curtin’s latest book is the outstanding novel Elemental, which for me (and many others, I’m sure) provided one of the most memorable reading experiences of 2013. Much of its enduring power comes from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch, but there is a great deal more to admire in the language of the text as a whole – every word counts, every sentence is perfectly balanced – as well as in the clever structure and in the vivid rendering of historical detail. Last year I also read Amanda’s previous novel, The Sinkings, which had been on my shelf since it appeared five years ago. (I’d delayed my reading of it when I became aware that its subject matter appeared to have something in common with a novel of my own that I was working on, and I didn’t want to be distracted or influenced by seeing how she had handled her story. As soon as I finished mine I read hers, and it turns out that I needn’t have worried: despite some similar ingredients, our novels are quite different from each other.) The Sinkings is a haunting tale; it depicts hardship, cruelty and loneliness unforgettably; and in my mind its most remarkable quality is the way it combines its unblinking realism with a deep compassion.

The main thing that sticks in my mind from Iris Lavell’s novel Elsewhere in Success is its insight into what can lie beneath the seemingly banal surface of suburban Perth. Most of the story’s foreground action is unspectacular and the characters are (as one of them says) ‘just ordinary people’ – which poses a considerable narrative challenge. But as deep currents swirl under them they thresh around, gasp for breath, and struggle towards something close to redemption.

I read a couple of novels by another Western Australian writer in 2013, and both have continued to give me plenty of food for thought. Nicholas Hasluck’s Our Man K and Dismissal are fine examples of political fiction grounded in historical fact – a genre that few novelists in this country have successfully grappled with. The central figure in Our Man K is Egon Kisch, a real-life Czech journalist who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Hasluck’s portrayal of Kisch emphasises his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (with whose own character ‘K’ Kisch becomes associated), and with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Dismissal is an absorbing tale of espionage, ethical dilemmas and personal disloyalties in Australia during the period from the 1930s to the fall of the Whitlam government. I can’t think of any other novelist so well equipped to write this kind of work.

So there it is – a mere glance back over my shoulder at residues of a year’s reading. The retrospect doesn’t extend to every publication I consumed last year but takes in about 30 books of various kinds (including those mentioned in the previous post) that for different reasons have lodged in my consciousness more than other things read during the same period. Two-thirds of them were written by women.

I wonder whether I’ll still recall the same aspects of the same books a year or two from now.

 

The Heads in the header

Someone has asked me about the header image (above) that I’ve chosen for my website. Although it looks abstract, it does represent in stylised silhouette a specific place: the meeting of land and sea at Wellington Heads, the harbour entrance near where I was born in New Zealand. This image is an enlarged detail from the cover of my book of poems The Shifting Shore, taken from a screen print by Wellington artist Malcolm Warr with his kind permission.

I like the blurriness of those looming shapes, suggesting the deceptive weather and sombre light often found there at the edge of Cook Strait, where from time to time even big ships come to grief. One of my earliest memories is of being taken as a small boy by my father to a hilltop above our home in Island Bay to look down at the Wanganella, a liner from Sydney that had gone aground on a reef at the harbour entrance and remained stuck there with its 400 passengers for more than a fortnight before being refloated. Years later the larger and more hapless Wahine struck same reef in a ferocious storm and 51 people drowned.

Katherine Mansfield

Wellington’s most famous writer, Katherine Mansfield, evoked its harbour scenes in several of her stories, such as ‘The Voyage’ –

Silently the dark wharf began to slip, to slide, to edge away from them… The strip of water grew broader, darker…

– and ‘When the Wind Blows’:

A big black steamer with a long loop of smoke streaming, with the portholes lighted, with lights everywhere, is putting out to sea. The wind does not stop her; she cuts through the waves, making for the open gate between the pointed rocks that leads to…

Mansfield also wrote memorably about quieter inlets and beaches enclosed within Wellington harbour. In a chapter of my book Narrative Exchanges I’ve analysed the opening passage of her story ‘At the Bay’, drawing attention to the way it accentuates misty indistinctness, obscuring the margin between sea and land and the margin between domesticated areas and the surrounding bush. Here’s how it begins:

Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone…there was nothing to mark which was the beach and where was the sea.

In large measure At the Bay is a story about the blurring of boundaries, the unreliability of natural and social demarcation lines. Its imagery is infused with a strong sense that coast-dwellers (almost all New Zealanders live near the coast) have only an insecure temporary footing in their landscape.

I’m reminded of an eloquent sonnet by Charles Brasch (founding editor of the premier NZ literary magazine Landfall) called ‘The Islands’, which begins: ‘Always, in these islands, meeting and parting / Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air…’ The poem ends like this: ‘Remindingly beside the quays, the white / Ships lie smoking; and from their haunted bay / The godwits vanish towards another summer. / Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring / Shadow of departure; distance looks our way / And none knows where he will lie down at night.’

I wish those lines were my own invention. But I’ve written other lines that try to express similar feelings, and they’re in this book:

photo-17