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The Case of the Unreliable Author
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Francis Sparshott THE CASE OF THE UNRELIABLE AUTHOR Narratology, as the study of narrative in its most general sense, has made great advances in the last decade, ranging from the rhetorical and syntactic study of narrative forms to an interpretation of human life as a fabric of stories we tell ourselves and each other. I do not keep up with these studies, and the intention of die present article is not to add to them. The standpoint from which it is written is not that of the literary theorist, but that of the relatively plain reader. I write as someone who reads stories that people have written for relatively naive people like me to read, though I have fortified myselfwith a handful of appropriately down-to-earth theoretical works to help me out. The article presents some reflections prompted by a novel that I have found disturbing, not as a special sort of being called a reader and correlated with an equally special writer, but as someone who has been reading a book and has had to come to terms with the fact of being transformed into a person who has read it. In 1966, the English novelist Anthony Burgess announced his intention of writing a novel "of Tolstoyan proportions."1 In 1980 it appeared, under the title Earthly Powers, and was duly described by some reviewers as his War and Peace.2 But why? Perhaps it was just the size of it, 649 pages. Perhaps it was the way the novel combined a story of private life with a background of world history. But perhaps what the reviewers found relevant in Tolstoy was not only the length and the epic scale but also the way his novel conveyed a view oflife, partly in the story invented, partly in the opinions of favorably presented characters, and partly in the way he supplemented his story with comments directiy addressed to the reader — or should we rather say, projected into the readerly void. As for Burgess himself, he probably had nothing more specific in mind than the narrowness he elsewhere complains of in English novelists, whose interests remain typically domestic and suburban when they could be "expanding the 145 146Philosophy and Literature resources of literature to find out more about die whole human complex, the roots on which societies are built."3 Suppose we take the parallel with Tolstoy seriously. War and Peace reads as if told in a voice which is that of the implicit author, a distinctive and cranky character represented for us by the name "Tolstoy" on the title page. A distinctive character, but not a character in the book; it is just the putative owner of a voice projected by the tone in which the book is written . However, much of the special effect of War and Peace comes from our tendency to identify this highly personalized voice-bearer with a real person . The authorial voice ofthe book becomes that ofthe person who wrote it, Count L. Tolstoy himself, quite widiout regard to who this person was in real life and what the real life was that he was in. The book reads like a communication, and mat is how many ofus read it. As it happens, the actual person Tolstoy was himselfat least sometimes prepared to read books that way. Our first question to a new author, he said when writing about Maupassant, is: "What sort of a man axe you? Wherein are you different from all die people I know, and what can you tell me that is new, about how we must look at this life ofours?"4 That is, a book is not only a text to exercise our readership on, and a story told for us to follow in delight or suspense, but also a message from a real person who writes, to real people who read, about the world they all share. Note that we do not have to read War andPeace that way. Fielding's Tom Jones is written in a comparably distinctive and insistent authorial voice, as of someone buttonholing the reader and sharing a joke about the world; but I, and many other readers, take mis to be a...