The Innocent/Corrupt

A narrator is a much stranger toy at the novelist’s disposal than is usually thought. It’s not just something as depressingly ordinary as a character—more a vast system of smuggling. And there’s one kind of narrative voice or tone in particular that offers a way to explore that difficult relationship at the hidden center of every art form: the one between writer and reader (or spectator). Although this tone seems to exist most easily in novels, it isn’t only to be found there—it appears wherever anyone tries to figure out what a monologue might mean, or how to talk to a you. It is garrulous, self-aware, hyper, charming, and occurs internationally, but what makes the voice a form is this: Narrators of the kind I mean are adepts of a confessional mode that’s actually designed to exonerate them completely. What could be more dangerous than someone convinced of his own goodness, his own innocence? Someone who believes that what he feels is far more important than what he actually does.

What I like about this sort of voice is that it takes in both the high aesthetic and the dirty political. And in fact perhaps the only route to the dirty political is through the high aesthetic, and vice versa—or at least that’s what this voice makes you think. I have no idea what name to give this voice I’m talking about. It seems to me an as yet undescribed category. So let’s call it something oxymoronic and impossible. Let’s call it the Innocent/Corrupt.

The Fever (1990) by Wallace Shawn

As an amuse-bouche, I’m proposing the wild monologuing voice of Wallace Shawn’s play The Fever. “I've been a student of my feelings since I was nine years old! My feelings! My thoughts! The incredible history of my feelings and my thoughts could fill up a dozen leather-bound books. But the story of my life—my behavior, my actions—that's a slim volume, and I've never read it. Well, I've never wanted to." It’s ruthless in its sweetness, this text. Perhaps that could be another term for this whole category: the Ruthless/Sweet.

Wars I Have Seen (1945) by Gertrude Stein

Wars I Have Seen was one of Gertrude Stein’s last books. It was published in 1945, a memoir of World War II. But since it’s by Gertrude Stein, it is no conventional memoir. Stein spent the war living with her lover, Alice B. Toklas, in relative protection in Vichy France—a particularly strange situation given that they were American, and lesbian, and Jewish. And so this memoir is a record of evasiveness, as it doesn’t explain—no, never—how it was that they managed to live out the war there. Yet its evasiveness is what gives the book its value. This memoir examines to what extent a style can be a form of repression. It is haunted, from its beginning, by death: “I remember being very worried in reading, if anybody in the book died and did not have children because then nobody in that family could be living yet, and if they were not living yet how could they hear what was happening.” Or: it is haunted by a child-like refusal to take death seriously. And while this can create a devastated flippancy, as when Stein wonders about the options left to the men being deported (“they might amuse themselves by learning and reading German and they might amuse themselves by saying that they are going traveling as students…”), it allows her to approach a subject no one else would dare treat: the complications of collaboration. “And now in June 1943 something very strange is happening, every day the feeling is strengthening that one or another has been or will be a traitor to something…” That’s why, I think, Wars I Have Seen is one of the great works of modernism—it represents a moment when modernism addressed its own commitment to style as an amoral value. After all, Stein writes: “Anybody can understand that there is no point in being realistic about here and now, no use at all not any, and so it is not the nineteenth but the twentieth century, there is no realism now, life is not real it is not earnest, it is strange which is an entirely different matter.”

Zeno’s Conscience (1923) by Italo Svevo

Svevo was a protégé of James Joyce’s in Trieste, and that coincidence of history makes me wonder if this innocent/corrupt voice might be a kind of upside-down modernism—the monologue to set against modernism’s more usual polyphony and collage. Svevo’s gorgeous novel Zeno’s Conscience is most famous for its description of the pleasure in resolving to give up smoking. Cigarettes offer Zeno a safe harbor of self-satisfaction: “If I had stopped smoking, would I have become the strong, ideal man I expected to be? Perhaps it was this suspicion that bound me to my habit, for it is comfortable to live in the belief that you are great, though your greatness is latent.” Another of Svevo’s characters reasons himself out of tipping a railway porter the going rate, counting out small coins so slowly that eventually the man “gave up and walked away with a blunt word.” Our hero “could nevertheless pronounce himself completely satisfied,” Svevo writes, because having strung the man along, he could feel that “he had fallen out with an enemy, but not with a stranger.”

Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun

An anonymous narrator wanders around the city once known as Christiania (now Oslo). The reason I love this novel is the delicacy with which it hints that psychopathy might be an everyday category. For this narrator is the great connoisseur of self-pity. “Why did my prospects simply refuse to brighten up? Didn’t I have the same right to life as anyone else, such as Pascha the second-hand book dealer, or Hennechen the steamship agent?” (We never hear about these characters again.) This might seem merely charming. But as the novel progresses, in a downward spiral, taking in an episode of stalking and other manic moments, the reader is forced to consider the possibility of a full self-description that contains not the slightest self-knowledge. The narrator believes in his total innocence. Which is another way of saying that he is mad.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) by Machado de Assis

In 1881, the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis published The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. It was his fifth novel, written when he was 41. But Machado’s earlier books did not sound like this one. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is a pure exuberance of novelty. Narrated from beyond the grave, these memoirs offer a minor confession—Brás tells of his affair with Vírgilia, the wife of one of his friends. But the plot, of course, is a pretext: the novel’s real concern is for the infinite pleasures of privileged self-exposure. (At one point Brás Cubas describes how he decided not to reward an impoverished muleteer who saved his life when he was thrown from a mule on an otherwise deserted road.) He does not believe in shame. “Perhaps I’m startling the reader,” Brás says, “with the frankness with which I’m exposing and emphasizing my mediocrity. Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man… in death, what a difference! What a release! What freedom!... There’s no more audience. The gaze of public opinion, that sharp and judgmental gaze, loses its virtue the moment we tread the territory of death.” Except that, naturally, there is an audience: right there, reading the book.

All of which leads me to think that the two great masters of this manipulative mode are Marcel Proust and Laurence Sterne, those great inventors of small passages and secret channels to the reader, or the you. But then, every syllabus should come with further reading, after all.

Adam Thirlwell’s new novel, Lurid & Cute, has just been published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.