A quick question: which of the following passages do you like better?
1. The Louis Philippe café overlooking the Seine became my favourite restaurant – not because of the food but because of the owner’s statuesque Great Dane, who frequently rests his wet jowls on diners’ tables. We make the mistake of taking visiting friends there, an American fellow and his Finnish wife. They are scandalized. In most civilized countries such a creature wouldn’t get one paw inside a restaurant without the health inspectors arriving, they cry, amazed that we are not scandalized ourselves. I find myself bristling, wishing their horror wasn’t so apparent. Privately, I embrace the laid-back Latin approach to hygiene which doesn’t equate canines with uncleanliness. And, although in other circumstances I would never admit it, I admire the owner’s audacity: if you don’t like his dog snoring beneath your table go eat elsewhere. This nonchalant take-it-or-leave-it attitude is infuriating at times. But there is, at least, something upfront and honest about the French lack of compulsion to please clients.
2. [Taken from a story about the narrator recovering from an illness that temporarily makes her lose her sight.] On my last morning on the verandah between the soft interior of the house and the steep descent of the cliff, I woke early to the sound of Ettie’s feet on the bare boards as she walked to the kitchen. I heard the hiss of steam and the chink of china as she made her morning tea, the gurgle of the steam radiators as she switched the heating on. I heard the spring of the back door screen and her voice whispering to the birds, and to the day unfolding around her. Lying there, contemplating my return to the filaments of a life I’d abruptly left, it came to me that the folded-over intricacies of language and sight in which I had felt myself to be immobilized, were both impediment and blessing: a complicated birthright. The task I faced was not to surmount the impediments as if they were a mountain range to be scaled, nor to refuse them, retreating into a sanctuary that could as well be a prison, so much as seeing them through, and seeing through them.
Of course, you might like them both equally well. But the difference between the voices (and it’s a difference that accumulates over the course of each book) became very apparent to me. The first voice is highly personalized, the character of the narrator very vivid, very unapologetically present. The whole event is portrayed from a point of view dominated by an opinion. In fact the whole point of the event is to present the narrator’s opinion in all it’s glory. Much like the restaurant owner, there’s a take-it-or-leave-it quality at work here. If you don’t agree with her, you can go read some other book. And it’s not exactly unclear what she thinks, or unclear what her lively and loud emotions are doing – she’s bristling, or being infuriated, others seem to her amazed or scandalized. The use of that word ‘privately’ strikes me as perhaps not entirely truthful. This is a narrator who invites us to look at her life alongside her, in solidarity if we agree, in opposition if we don’t.
The voice in the second passage is introvert as opposed to the first narrator’s extroversion. This narrator watches, listens, records. Rather than confronting the life that surrounds her out of her sense of what it ought to be, she is trying to assess and judge what is, to find universal truths and understand them in their complexity. The point of this scene is to draw together (the way that existence draws together, our narrator suggests) the small, the quotidian, the habitual, with the bigger questions of what constitutes a good life. This time, as reader, we are drawn into the inside of the narrator’s mind and invited to view her thinking in a quiet moment of contemplation in a place where she feels safe and soothed. Nothing much is happening, ostensibly, and so space opens up for more abstract and profound thought. We can’t picture the scene so well, but then we’re not being asked to think about it through our emotions and gut reactions; we’re being asked, in fact, to think a little ourselves. This narrator doesn’t want to tackle life head on, she wants to slip gently into its flow, to align herself to something real and fundamental, and we as readers are invited to enter that quest, not alongside her, but inside her.
I wonder whether the way that readers respond to first person narrators is a question of their own individual character? The first book is Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, the story of an Australian who moves to Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman. She is a bold, outgoing sort of person who chafes against the uptight, restrained culture of Paris, charging in to hand drinks out at a polite early evening cocktail party because, to her mind, her hosts aren’t doing it quickly enough (the Parisians find this breach of etiquette rather horrifying). Much as there is a lot to enjoy in this travel narrative, I felt I had to like her, or rather, to be like her, to enjoy the book, and I am not. The second passage comes from Drusilla Modjeska’s book, The Orchard, which I read last year. It’s altogether more academic, more thinky, than the first, which suited me better. But then, that’s more who I am. And I prefer less vivid personalities. I don’t know – what do other people think?