My second example in this series for writers, on negotiating how much presence to give to the narrating ‘I’ in memoir and narrative nonfiction, is from a work by the late American journalist and author Janet Malcolm. Malcolm is most famously the author of The Journalist and the Murderer. In that book and others she analysed the relationship between journalists and their subjects. In both guises of journalist and writer, she asserted that the narrator was an ‘invented I’, not the actual voice of the unmediated ‘real life’ author, long before this notion became as familiar to us as it is today.
Reading Chekhov: a critical journey is a hybrid travel narrative and literary critique in which she spends time in Russia while rereading and thinking about Anton Chekhov’s works and impact. In Reading Chekhov, she moves between three narrating modes— literary critic, biographer, and journalist.
So with this in mind, it’s clear that the presence of the narrating ‘I’ will shift and alter at different points in the text, to best tell the story.
The first scene in the book arises from Chekhov’s much-anthologised and possibly best-known short story ‘The Lady with the Dog’ along with the story’s characters of Gurov and Anna.
Today, I am sitting on that same bench near the church looking at the same view. Beside me is my English-speaking guide Nina (I know no Russian), and a quarter of a mile away a driver named Yevgeny waits in his car at the entrance of the footpath leading to the lookout point where Gurov and Anna sat, not yet aware of the great love that lay before them. I am a character in a new drama: the absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical page of a work of genius and travels to an ‘original scene’ that can only fall short of his expectations. However, because Nina and Yevgeny have gone to some trouble to find the spot, I pretend to be thrilled by it. Nina—a large woman in her late sixties, with short, straight blond hair, forget-me-not blue eyes, and an open passionate nature—is gratified.Janet malcolm, Reading Chekhov: a critical journey, Random House, 2001, p4
This passages opens mise en scène, in the middle of the action. The narrator is at the lovers’ seat, a now literary-historic site from Chekhov’s story. Malcolm describes being there, but also generalises from her individual experience here at this particular place, to literary pilgrimages as a species of discovery and travel. Her attitudes to the situation are expressed obliquely, showing she is holding the experience at arm’s length, so to speak:
‘the absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim’, ‘that can only fall short of his expectations’, and ‘I pretend to be thrilled by it’.
The narrating voice is confident, unsentimental, unafraid to critique, and sometimes a little abrasive.
The narrator’s presence as the narrating ‘I’ is expressed through her literal presence at the seat and her interpretation of the situation. She makes this single incident of encountering the outdoor seat that Chekhov’s lover’s sat on, both significant because it has instigated the situation, but it’s also beside the point. It’s what the seat leads to, such as her encounter with Nina that are more important. She achieves this balance, in part, by not describing the actual seat, sidestepping and withholding the seemingly central element of her visit to the site (i.e. writers are not duty-bound to say the obvious).
In the next passage, still at the same site, her guide, Nina, is now foregrounded. Malcolm foregrounds her by bringing in Nina’s voice directly, quoting Nina when she cheerfully sings aloud, and asks Janet Malcolm, ‘Do you know this song?’
We have direct access to Nina’s words quoted verbatim by the author. The narrator is present, she’s listening, but her narration is there just as a support, in order shares the scene with another character. Another voice and character (‘other voices’) is now made prominent in the narrative, and a portrait in miniature unfolds:
She breaks into song. “It’s a big, wide wonderful world that we live in,” she sings, and then asks, “Do you know this song?” When I say I do, she tells me that Deanna Durbin sang it in the 1948 film For the Love of Mary.
…Nina was born and educated in St. Petersburg and, after studying the languages at the university there, became an Intourist guide, presently moving to Yalta. She has retired, and, like most retirees in the former Soviet Union, she cannot live on her pension. She now hires out as an independent guide and waits for assignments from the Hotel Yalta…JANET MALCOLM, READING CHEKHOV: A CRITICAL JOURNEY, RANDOM HOUSE, 2001, P5
It is the second day of my acquaintance with Nina, the third day of my stay at the Hotel Yalta, and the ninth day of my trip to the former Soviet Union…
A close reading of these passages across two pages of Reading Chekhov demonstrates how the presence of the narrator can come forward and then move to the background deftly, and without complicated techniques.
Malcolm’s personal story (her marriage, parents, work history, etc) don’t have a place in this book. She puts her past life and life at home in the USA out of sight. What dominates is her perspective on things: an entirely appropriate choice for a work on creative nonfiction that isn’t memoir.
In my next post, I look at the narrating ‘I’ when the ‘I’ is near the sidelines in Perl and Schwartz’s taxonomy, with an extract from Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living.