A Question of Style

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?

23 thoughts on “A Question of Style

  1. Like 1. Understand your POV analysis. The first communicates to me – the second is a “display of words” and the message and POV are lost there. Of course we all have styles in our personal preference array. Style not-with-standing, isn’t the art of communication “da business we’s in,” in the final analysis? One dog’s opinion- Visit me at http://www.SandySays1.wordpress.com

  2. Sandy – your avatar (which I can see although maybe others can’t) shows a lovely dog, which kind of gives it away. If you like dogs, or indeed are a dog, you’re going to like the first passage, no?

    Incidentally, I edited this to add a sentence of context to the second passage, as it struck me that it might not be so clear on its own.

  3. For me POV depends upon the type of story. I’ve read third person that still gave me a great sense of psychic closeness. I think it’s up to the skill of the author to pull it off.

  4. That’s an interesting question. I liked the 2nd better. I found it more evocative than the first and it drew me in more. I wonder if that is a matter of personality. I’m more introvert than extrovert (though I can mimic extroversion if need be). But I found the first to be not as well written, a bit jerky (rhythm not attitude), which distracted me from what was being said. But also the inherent situation of the first one I don’t find especially interesting unless it’s especially insightful. It’s the same reason I’m not as picky about non-fiction as fiction. If I’m learning something new I’m more forgiving of how it’s written.

  5. I prefer 2. To me this clearly reflects someone who is more attuned to sounds than sight because of her temporary loss of vision and I like the thoughtful tone. But then maybe I’m influenced by the image of a dog’s wet jowls slobbering on the dining tables and the lack of consideration for others! Oh, and I do like dogs.

  6. I think my preferences change depending upon the circumstances under which I am reading the book, and the mood I’m in at the time. For example, I’d rather read the first author if I’m waiting for my car to be serviced; it would be easy to follow in a distracting atmosphere, and since I feel a little displaced in such locations, I would enjoy my sense of being pleasantly superior to the writer, who strikes me as the kind of woman at whom I would roll my eyes in real life.

    I’d enjoy the second writer better at home, if I wanted to get out of my own head for a moment and visit someone else’s.

    This propensity of mine is reflected quite well in books I carry with me in my car, vs. books on my bedside table at home. On the run these days, I’m reading “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis; before bed, I’m reading “Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood.

  7. Fascinating stuff, litlove. I think you must be right about being more comfortable with writing personalities that are more like ourselves – writers are asking for empathy, after all, and whether or not a book works for a reader will depend on it.

    Good timing you should quote Modjeska. My current reading trail has led from Modjeska to her fellow Australian academic and broadcaster Robert Dessaix (do you know his work?) and with whom she collaborated on a book called Secrets. His Corfu: A Novel takes the theme of wandering and returning home, (the plot has some startling parallels with my Songs of Blue and Gold with a little-known Australian called Kester Berwick standing in for Lawrence Durrell…)

    But the book of his I think might be right up your street is Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. It is just wonderful: a personal travel memoir through Baden-Baden, Paris and environs, and Russia, but accomplished with such grace and insight into the many different kinds of love, including Turgenev’s for diva Pauline Viardot and her family. He writes in a similar way to Modjeska – many transforming passages.

  8. I must admit I really enjoyed both and for different reasons – but hey you know me. I’m a chameleon at heart. The first is kick-ass and in-your-face and (being a redhead) I always respond well to that. The second appeals very much to my meditative side and is a book for a quieter, more reflective read.

    So I suppose it depends on what sort of reading matter I’m looking for at that moment.

    But thinking round the subject (and thank you for making me think at all!), I do find that I become – or try to become – a little like the book I’m reading, or indeed writing. My mother still remembers my Jane Austen phase in my teenage years when I was terribly polite and caring (with a wicked hint of cynicism), and rather regrets my Antony Powell Dance to the Music of Time phase (say no more) … so never let it be said that books don’t influence the reader!!!


  9. I much prefer the first. The second narrator is in two places at once, outside and in her own head, and I fear I will be ambushed and tortured by her eventually, the more profound she thinks she is getting. I am uncomfortable with this kind of confessional narrator. I prefer entertaining narrators, who are confident, even if deluded; I don’t know where the first narrator is going, but I would keep reading.

  10. I like the first one more although I don’t like the way it is written in the present tense. That always seems artificial to me, somehow. Still the first one seems more dynamic in form (not just in content) than the second one which strikes me as over-written. I don’t know if this is a deeper personality thing but, in general, I do tend to prefer writing that is not too “ornate.”

  11. I like both of the passages, but I like the second one more. I love to get inside the mind of characters. I want to know what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, etc. It’s much more intimate, and I can connect with them more easily.

  12. All right, here’s the uptight editor/grammarian: the way she switched tense in the first paragraph didn’t work for me. Often it does work, but this time it seemed forced. However, in an odd twist, I think I liked the first one better, because she did seem so extroverted, something I’m not in real life, and I think I sometimes like to read about those who are not like me, so I can see what makes them tick. The second one gave me too much information I just didn’t care too much about, which is, truthfully, what goes on inside my own head all the time. (Then again, it might just be the dog, and the restaurant owner who is disdainful of public opinion that I like. However, they’re not at all like me, either.) Funny, I should come to this conclusion, because I’ve always assumed I like to read things about people who are like me, to whom I feel I can relate. As always, I’ll have to think on it some more.

  13. Sooo different… But immediate points deduction for contestant number one: the shift in tense from past (‘became my favourite restaurant’) to present (frequently rests his jowls’) is the reading equivalent of knowing you’re about to land badly on the trampoline. It just throws you right off. Having said that, ‘scandalized’ is clever, because it’s clearly a criticism of the couple, and we’re therefore drawn into her confidence. We, very cool and Euro-literate and so forth, would never be scandalized, that’s only for dumb Americans and their blandly Finnish spouses. Isn’t that right, Sars? The other passage is somewhere else entirely. And certainly much more introspective. It’s a very restful description, too, which I like very much, perhaps because I sometimes need to remind myself to pause and listen to the sounds of the world, which our narrator does here so acutely.

  14. Loving everybody’s reasoning here!

    Bluestocking – yes, I agree that the writer’s skill is a huge part of it. Lilian – I think that’s true for me, as well; often non-fiction needs to keep its style quiet and transparent for good learning to take place. But your choice bodes well for me, as I’m expecting one of your novels to drop through my letterbox soon. I was very intrigued to read a book of yours! Care – you are SUCH a sweetie! And that’s very diplomatic of you and generous to like both! Booksplease – I take it all back; one may love dogs and not be biased 🙂 David – this made me laugh! I think you would have plenty of eye-rolling opportunities in the first book. I would dearly have you read it just to hear what you had to say about it, but that’s not fair. I know what you mean about needed different kinds of books in different places, and I’m enjoying the split in your fiction reading. Although both the Easton Ellis and the Isherwood are powerful pieces of writing, in very different ways. Deborah – hello, and lovely as ever to hear from you! I have never come across Robert Dessaix, so thank you very much indeed for the tip. Twilight of Love sounds wonderful, and exactly the kind of hybrid book I’m looking for at the moment. I’ll be checking amazon very shortly after writing this! Anne – you chameleon, you 🙂 I am fascinated by your ability to enter into the skin of a book so completely – it sounds like a novel in itself, just waiting to be written. I did laugh at the thought of your Anthony Powell phase. And I’m just glad that reading the amount of Agatha Christie I did as a teenager, didn’t switch me into a life of crime! Big hugs! Lloyd – I did enjoy your reasoning here. Alas, you describe the kind of thought patterns inside my own head and suggest a good reason why they torture me sometimes 🙂 Ms Make Tea – it’s certainly fair enough to prefer less ornate writing. We can put it down to the lawyer in you, if you like? 😉 Lisa – I agree, I feel like that too. I do like to be close up to the person thinking, and for them to be considering their own thoughts. Emily – how intriguing! It’s so interesting to think you might actually be attracted to narrators that are different to you. And I can quite see how that would work. There are many times when I feel like ditching my own thought processes in favour of something simpler! 🙂 Doctordi – loving your analysis here. I might just cut and paste that paragraph into the body of the post 😉 And I agree that both passages have much to recommend them in their different ways. Emily – LOL! How you make me laugh.

  15. I definitely prefer the second passage. Yes, it’s closer to my personality, but I do like narrative voice in the first passage too – I dislike its jerky sentences and the use of the present tense, which just doesn’t feel right to me.

  16. I can see a reader becoming more easily enamored with the first “type” of narrator (perhaps not this narrator in particular) because they make it easier. The second narrator asks the reader to go slowly, wait it out, look around. In a sense, it could be considered less compelling. I’m with you, however, that it probably depends on the personality of the reader. I might fall for a narrator like #1, if they are wonderfully wordy and flamboyant, if they seduce me over to their opinion, but I am much more likely to instantly get along with narrator #2, who invites me in but leaves me to my own thoughts.

  17. I like both of them. For me, it is a matter of my personality and character, but not so much to tell whether I will like #1 or #2, but whether I respond to the personality that is on offer in the writing. I liked the first passage, but I suspect I might like the narrator, and so I’m responding to it positively. I like strong extroverted narrators — sometimes. I’m often attracted to writers and characters who are very different from me. But I also like the more introverted types, or at least I like many of them.

  18. Great question, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I get further and further into my novel. After reading Love Falls I’m beginning to think I may have to switch, upon revision, to third person because I like the distance it provides, but at the same time for me the first graph here is really immediate and more vibrant.

  19. I’m with Dorothy on liking both of them, for similar reasons. I’ve read the Modjeska and enjoyed it so I could relate to it better. And I agree with Lilian about the rhythm of it being easier on the ear. I also love that last line about seeing things through, and seeing through things. That finding your way through the steady build-up of impressions. But I’d be interested to read the Turnbull if it comes my way too!

  20. I like both passages as well. For me it depends on what mood I am in and whether the narrative style fits the story. I think I tend to prefer the first kind of narrator to the second though because I need all that description to be in the service of something other than filling the page and sounding pretty. I need it to help create a character or set a scene otherwise I tend to lose focus and my mind drifts away while my eyes keep reading.

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