This next passage in my series is from the contemporary British author Deborah Levy’s memoir, The Cost of Living: a working autobiography. It’s a brilliant example of how much presence the narrator can have as an observer, on the sidelines.
‘As Orson Welles told us, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. One January night I was eating coconut rice and fish in a bar on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. A tanned, tattooed American man sat at the table next to me. He was in his late forties…He was talking to a young English woman, perhaps nineteen years old, who had been sitting on her own reading a book…At first he did all the talking. After a while she interrupted him.
Her conversation was interesting, intense and strange. She was telling him about scuba-diving in Mexico, how she had been under water for twenty minutes and then surfaced to find there was a storm…
He said, ‘You talk a lot don’t you?’
…It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character. In this sense, she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rituals.Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living, Penguin, 2018, p1-3
Levy is literally on the side-lines, sitting at an adjacent table, eavesdropping. It happens to be a wonderfully natural position for the narrator to be in, needing no frame other than having a reason to be present, at the site, (on holiday), listening to the people around her. It also works very well as an instigating moment for the memoir; the memoirist is implicitly saying this was an incident that propelled the writing.
In this contextualising Chapter One, Levy is the older woman observing the younger woman. In Chapter Two she will become the older woman observing herself. The young woman’s experience is then revealed to be the ‘frame tale’ for Levy’s own story. But for now, we are still in Chapter One. The narrator summarises the girl’s story (about a half page of text) and quotes some of the American man and English woman’s conversation verbatim.
Yet Levy’s stance, her perspective is ever-present, guiding the reader towards what is interesting and notable, critiquing the familiar scene of an older man telling a younger woman that she talks too much. The remark that pulls the whole passage together to its organising principle, its focus, is this one: ‘that she might not consider herself to be the minor character’. Everything that Levy has been saying about power, gender, who has the right to speak (or write) and to be listened to, culminates in that italicised emphasis, the irony of ‘minor character’.
Chapter Two opens with another storm at sea, and another surfacing in the ocean — the narrator’s own. Now Levy is the central character, she is the I who takes centre stage. The new imagery, of being in the ocean, with its suggestion of drowning and surfacing provides the transition from the first chapter to this next chapter’s topic: the end of her marriage at age 50.
Chapter Two opens with another storm at sea, and another surfacing in the ocean — the narrator’s own
What the writer can do with this schema
Across the three posts on this topic so far, I’ve discussed how the narrating ‘I’ character can inhabit different levels of presence in the narrative. The position of the ‘I’, from centre stage to observational need not be fixed, but instead can move around in order to draw attention to the narrator’s internal experience or to make connections and focus on the social/political/physical world the narrator inhabits.
Look back over your own work and think about where your narrator is at any particular point in the narrative, using this schema. It will help you to focus on what is working well and why; and also prompt revision and refocusing of weaker parts of the draft.
Fiction writers can also use this framework for considering degrees of focalisation of characters in both First and Third Person narratives.