Monday, 16 August 2010

Sarah Waters and Larkin and Unreliable Narrators. Do We Really Know What Truth Is?

I am off to the North East on Wednesday (burglars please note) and am reviewing what to take with me to read. I am two thirds of the way through Sarah Waters latest The Little Stranger which is a post second world war quasi ghost story. It has been discussed in the Guardian over the past four weeks but I have tried not to read the comments and write ups in order to come at the book without preconceptions. One thing that strikes me forcefully is the choice of era; the time when post Second World War everything was changing, the NHS was being formed and council houses rising at a rate of knots. I suppose I was a child that arrived in 1951 in time to benefit from that first hurrah of Labour when the social fabric seemed to be changing, gaining just a tad more texture.My brother who is nine years older bore the full brunt of expectations. Better health, better education raised the bar and becoming successful was just a tad more achievable and thus the pressure to do the high jump over this bar grew. This was a time when many parents who had been born at the end of the depression aspired to get out of pits and factories, aspired better fro their children and the lower middle class opened its arms to them. Education as a means to escape the working class was just a little more available and a grammar school place augured well for something that would set you up in the middle classes for life. A steady job with a pension seemed more open to those who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Even my parents who, whilst economically, would be labelled as lower middle class, by the time I was born contemplated the education of a daughter with slightly more enthusiasm as a means of social mobility and white collar nirvana.

Sarah Water’s book explores the flux in social class that was happening around that time in the late 1940s. The class system was not so much under attack as being sniped at from the higher moral ground of the Bevanites. She mirrors this class system with the fortunes of an old country house and the family that inhabit it in Warwickshire. The house seems to be falling about the ‘toff’ family's ears and the war injured emotionally fargile eldest son and the jolly hockey sticks sexually confused (I had a taste of freedom in the Wrens) daughter are sucked into servicing the needs of the house whilst the mother retreats gradually into the old times when clothes, life, everything was so much better, easier and predictable.

Into this tale of social class is weaved happenings which you can choose to explain away using a mix of cod psychology and objective/scientific reasoning or can take as a sign of things emanating from some dark and sinister ghostly presence or a poltergeist. The narrator, the doctor, working class boy made good by the sacrifice of parents from the servant classes is interesting. He is continually describing things in other terms making leaps of interpretation or connection. He describes behaviour of the daughter or the son of the house in quite minute observational detail and then adds the rider of ‘it is as if…’ then goes on to some explanatory planet where everything always seems as if it is something else.

The unreliable narrator, as I think the doctor is in Sarah Water’s book, is I think an interesting phenomenon. Sometimes you have to woo your readers into trusting the narrator as being objective and then gradually throw in small seeds of doubt about their viewpoint being slightly, if not totally, skewed and altered by their own needs and beliefs. I was pondering this and thinking how it might apply to the ‘voice’ in poetry. So often poetry is seen as either truly autobiographical, especially in its more ‘confessional’ mode. However more and more we come to accept that an assumed voice might be taken on by the poet. I am racking my brains to think of poems where the deliberate unreliable narrator voice is used (suggestions welcome). Where is a poem written in a first person voice and then the reader becomes aware that the voice is totally or waveringly unreliable?

Of course there is the surrealist approach when what happens in the poem is obviously taking us via another kind of reality but are there poems where the I voice has time even in a short poem to draw us in as speaking some truth (not necessarily factual truth) and then is discovered by the end or on re-reading to be viewing that ‘truth’ from an unreliable angle. Maybe it is not useful to think of the point of view in poetry and reliable and unreliable narrators but it is something I am exploring at present. Of course in older works such as The Iliad or The Canterbury Tales the ‘story’ nature of the work allows the reader to explore point of view. However if I took for instance at a modern poem such as Mr Bleaney by Larkin the POV may become important. Because we know Larkin, we probably have things we feel about him as a person stored away in our head we tend to see this as almost autobiographical or Larkin imagining himself as the next tenant of Mr Bleaney’s room. Larkin as the poet brings with it a tremendous baggage that it is sometimes difficult not to haulinto the poem. However nowhere in this poem are we told whether the narrator is male or female for instance, we tend to arrive at the gender from knowing who the poet is and maybe assumptions that only a man would smoke or this landlady would only take in male lodgers. The narrator tells us things about Mr Bleaney that he gleans from the landlady and from the room but what he or she chooses to tell us are perhaps only those things that speak to the narrators own feelings of alienation and ennui with life. He may only be choosing to tell us those things about Mr Bleaney that confirm or lead us to the final question of the poem, do we measure ourselves by our surroundings (social and physical). Perhaps the narrator does not tell us anything about Mr Bleaney that would not speak to that question or prod us in that direction. Mr Bleaney may have been a very jolly, happy man who adored his sister in Stoke and was more than happy to go to Frinton each year and lived a small but content private life.

Is Larkin, as the poet, deliberately making the narrator of his poem unreliable so the reader has to question the whole premise of his approach to Mr Bleaney? Is he , on the other hand, expecting the reader to accept that whilst he narrates facts about Bleaney, the tone and the facts chosen are there to push us towards an assumption that Bleaney lead a small sad life that didn’t amount to much if he at no point questioned his existence. The ‘I don’t know’ at the end seems somehow less than genuine as the whole tone of the poem pushes you to make a value judgement.

Does the poet want us to believe everything he tells us about Bleaney? Are the details of Bleaney’s life important at all and only in so far as they tell us what it is the narrator finds noteworthy. Is the poet just telling us about himself? If for instance we were told that Mr Bleaney was written by Sylvia Plath would our understanding and enjoyment of the whole poem be altered? Can we disassociate Larkin’s personal autobiography and well known lugubrious nature from his narrator? Is the form of the poem saying something about the narrator,the poet, or both? Quatrains rhyming abab, neat strict predictable boxes to mirror the small predictable box room, to mirror the small predictable life. Don’t tell me Larkin didn’t want us to feel hemmed in, claustrophobic, feel a longing to break out of the strait jacket that he places the poem in. He tells us he doesn’t know whether Bleaney questioned his existence but if he didn’t question it he ‘warranted no better’. Is he condemned by his unquestioning state to box-room hell or is he merely held in the limbo of blandness that the narrator believes the undeserving people who exist by routines inhabit anyway? Is the poet or the narrator being rather sneeringly judgemental about Bleaney?

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

I have tried to use the concept of unreliable narrator to interrogate just this one well known poem, shake it up a little. It doesn't add much to the world of literary criticism and is less than scholarly but it made me think just a little harder about what the POV of a poem can covey to the reader and whether unreliability of the narrator is something we don’t question enough in poems or incorporate deliberately into our writing.

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