A Dialog on Narrative Voice, Complicity, and Intimacy

by Ada Palmer on April 18, 2017

Between Jo Walton and Ada Palmer.

Continuing from Jo’s essay “Complicity and the Reader

Jo Walton is a good friend, and there is little we love than sinking our teeth into a fascinating aspect of the craft of writing.  We’ve discussed questions of narration, voice and complicity in Terra Ignota many times, so much so that much of what I would say in response to Jo I already have, and she’s already addressed it in her essay.  So I thought that the best way to bring something really new, and to round out this delightful seminar, was to have a fresh dialog with Jo about the subject, and to share it—in all its rawness and discovery—with you.  And once again, thank you all for reading so deeply, thinking, discussing, sharing your thoughts, responding, and reading more—discussion like this seminar the happiest fate that can befall a book.  And an author.

Ada: In your piece, Jo, you brought up Graves’ I Claudius. I think that was the first work of fiction I experienced which had the story told by an author who had a strong and self-conscious idea of writing for a particular audience. A fictitious author, that is, an author who is a voice within the text.

Jo: And not only that, but Claudius is explicitly addressing us, Posterity, his potential future readers, in a way very much like what you have Mycroft doing. I read I Claudius when I was very young.

Ada: Me too. But Claudius’s posterity is very much us, 1900 years later. Whereas Mycroft’s is in his future.

Jo: Yes, in his future, even though we the real readers are in his past. But Mycroft has the same kind of anxiety about Posterity and desire to explain to it. It’s a neat trick.

Ada: Although Claudius, in the TV series at least, at the very end does that moment of switching who his “You” is addressing — it had been posterity for lots of it, but then he’s talking to the Sibyl.  I have Mycroft do things like that too, sometimes. When his mind is slipping, he’ll briefly address Kohaku Mardi, or address Apollo Mojave.

Jo: And it’s very moving when he does it.

Ada: There’s an intimacy to it, to seeing when someone imagines an addressee.

Jo: I talked a little bit about the evolution of writing in first person, because it is something that has evolved. And the first instances of it are epistolary novels. So there’s a sense of intimacy of reading over somebody’s shoulder, reading something with an addressee. Like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was written at exactly the same time as as Diderot’s Jacques Le Fataliste/

Ada: Interesting how there can be a greater sense of intimacy from seeing the hidden inside of a relationship between two people than there often is in just first-person, even first-person where you see someone’s thoughts.

Jo: It’s the breaking the fourth wall thing, I think drawing the reader in.

Ada: Sometimes it is fourth wall, but sometimes it isn’t, not when you’re reading, for example, letters between two people. Which aren’t addressing the reader at all, the reader is never identical with either of them. But it still feels intimate.

Jo: Yes, it does.

Ada: You’re not just seeing the interior of person, you’re seeing a facet of that person that is normally private and only shown to one other specific person. Like seeing the facet of a mother that she only shows to her children, or of a lover that is normally reserved for the beloved.

Jo: There’s a way in which art is constructed, and letters aren’t. Eliot has a line “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. When we’re reading letters it’s a less public face, and a more specific one.

Ada: Yes, well put.

Jo: So with Mycroft, it’s that same kind of intimacy, even though it is deliberate art.

Ada: Yes. So there is a very different kind of intimacy when the addressee is a specific character who isn’t the reader from when the addressee is the reader.

Jo: But it’s still showing a different kind of face.

Ada: But, for example, when we see Martin Guildbreaker address things to J.E.D.D. Mason, that has the kind of intimacy that Les Liaisons Dangereuses has.

Jo: Right.

Ada: and that Claudius addressing the Sibyl has. Which is different from Mycroft or Claudius addressing the reader.

Jo: And we, the real reader, are eavesdropping on the first, but being addressed in the second. Though sometimes we are also eavesdropping on the second, where there are dialogues. I love those dialogues with the Reader!

Ada: The former has a transgressive edge, or an edge of privileged access, while the second is the intimacy of relationship.

Jo: Were you thinking about breaking the fourth wall?

Ada: I don’t tend to use that phrase in my mind, though it is involved. I wanted a feeling like I Claudius, or Jacques the Fatalist. I wanted that intimacy. I wanted the Bernini effect. At one point I was in the Museo Borghese in Rome, looking at Bernini’s statue of Hades carrying off Proserpina. It’s an absolutely stunning sculpture, impossibly lifelike, but also emotional overload, with his huge hands digging into her thighs, his horrible grin as she tries to push him away, tears on her cheeks. Time vanishes in that room, while you’re looking at it, an hour will go by and you don’t realize it. Spellbound is the only word. One time I was there and noticed the light reflecting off of a spot on her shoulder. I wondered why it was shiny there, and I thought “Ah, it’s wet, because her tears dripped on it.” Count three… two… one… “Wait, no, it’s not wet, those aren’t real tears, that’s stone!” But for about five seconds I actually forgot, the logic-working part of me actually forgot it was stone and believed it was water. It became real. For just a few seconds I existed, intellectually, in the same reality of Prosperpina–one where her tears were real water–instead of a different level, where I was more real than her, and she was only fiction. A later Platonist would say I forgot we were on different hypostases, and temporarily it was as if we were equally real. Just for a few moments. But great art can do that. And the experiences I’ve had reading prose that have come closest to that have been moments like I Claudius, where he was writing the history for me. Where it’s the reader who gives the character vindication, that he gets his happy ending through my act of reading and remembering.

Jo: There’s a wonderful scene in Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo where the character, who is an actor, and the son of an actor, is a child, onstage acting Astynax in Women of Troy, and Hekabe says “the men to come” and he realizes “We are the men to come!” I certainly felt that with Claudius, that I had a responsibility to him, to remember, to care. A personal relationship.

Ada: Jacques the Fatalist achieves that a lot, but it’s odd — I find it very challenging to articulate precisely how it achieves it. With I Claudius he’s writing to the reader–that’s simple. I think it’s because Jacques the Fatalist contains so much vulnerability. Jacques is a Fatalist yet but he isn’t actually confident in his own Fatalism, he lapses, and worries, and doubts himself, and acts inconsistently, in precisely the way we often try not to show to others, and that we rarely depict in literature, where we admire confidence and clear action. When we depict people who are uncertain it’s usually in a narrative where they have character progression and achieve confidence by the end. But Jacques doesn’t, he remains uncertain and struggling, in precisely the way that we as real people are also uncertain and struggling, and find ourselves sometimes doubting things we wish we were confident in, or failing to act on principles that we hold dear, and are unable to articulate why. He has the kind of weakness we ourselves experience every day and he doesn’t grow out of it, he just continues to have it, and shows it to us in exactly the way we try not to show it to others. And in addition to Jacques showing us this, Diderot himself shows us this, the vulnerable inner not-quite-certainty of his ideas. I’m trying to think of other literature that shows that, inner uncertainty without a process of resolving that uncertainty. Inner uncertainty shown with the general message that the natural state of humans is to experience inner uncertainty.

Jo: I can’t think of anything that does that. You get things like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, but it’s distanced. Mannered.

Ada: Does my description align with your experience of reading Jacques the Fatalist as well?

Jo: Oh yes, very much so! The vulnerability, and also part of it is I think the way it invites you into the debate — which you do as well. You read it and it makes you think about new things. Or think about things in a new way. And it’s part of the experience, and you’re in dialogue with it.

Ada: And it feels as if you’re making suggestions and Diderot is responding to them. He’s asking for suggestions and making suggestions, and you’re coequal in it.

Jo: I don’t want to digress too far, but I was recently reading Hobbes and asking myself why I liked Hobbes and Plato and hate Locke and Aristotle. And I think it’s the way of inviting the reader to participate. Hobbes and Plato are laying out steps as if they’re just thinking of them themselves. Not showing you how clever they are. With Diderot there’s the sense of warmth and vulnerability and it draws you in.

Ada: I think Locke’s tone is pretty close to Hobbes’s, but you’re right, it’s also close to Descartes’s — let me show you my masterful solution. Plato varies, since there are those dialogs that really feel like dialogs (we usually call them the early dialogs) and then the ones that are just a lecture with a person saying “Yes” every few lines.

Jo: Oh yes, especially The Laws.

Ada: And the later Republic.

Jo: But in some of the “early” ones Socrates is bested by other people, or they all decide they don’t know anything and go home.

Ada: It’s fun to discuss Plato just in terms of genre. Rather than the content thereof. Rarely done, I think. Voltaire has some moments with vulnerability like Diderot. Martin in Candide in particular, and also Zadig. But he is often playing the role of Author as Clockmaker God of a fictional universe, and in those moments he’s more distant. He zooms in and out from the human scale to the distant spectator of the Earthly pageant scale. Diderot feels like Voltaire only always zoomed in to 100%.

Jo: What a great way of putting it. Before we leave Diderot, I just wanted to say that I’d never heard of him before the first time I read Too Like The Lightning, so you made me go out and investigate him. I think that would make him happy.

Ada: I’m glad. And you’re right that spontaneity is an essential element of the writing in Jacques the Fatalist, the kind of spontaneity that differentiates early and late Plato, or Hobbes from Locke.

Jo: And as I said in my piece, I think you presented him in an amazingly science fictional way. Preserving civilization. “Can you imagine a nobler act, reader?”

Ada: Yes — the epic stakes of a single book, the book that brings immortality to the whole world. A messianic book. But you’ve given me a thought. Diderot, as you know, often pulls narrative tricks, sometimes very annoying ones, like asking the reader whether the reader wants to turn left or right, and setting it up so you inevitable pick right but he insists on left. When I describe that to people they often say “You mean, like trolling?” Because when we think of that kind of trick we tend to think of it as a planned, distanced, top-down thing, a thing that involves the author manipulating and exercising power, so it feels as if the author is sitting back and gloating while the grudging reader admits, “Yes, you got me.” But Diderot never feels like that. And I think it’s because it never feels as if he’s distantly weaving a trap for you, hiding things from you to get you where he wants. It feels much more like he’s telling a story the only way he can figure out how to tell the story, doing his best, and these elements are part of that process. Like when you’re telling a story to a friend and you realize you skipped a part and say, “Oh, wait, I have to tell you about what happened on Thursday first!” and then you do, and you end up creating cliffhangers and interwoven layers of suspense, but it’s spontaneous and human, your best way of telling the story, rather than “Wahaha.”

Jo: Yes, exactly. There’s an equality… which is strange, because there isn’t really.

Ada: Yes. Because of course he could edit it.

Jo: Really he’s writing it and we can’t change it, it was written then. But we can’t. But it feels…

Ada: But it wouldn’t have been itself if he’d changed it since it’s the sharing of an exploration.

Jo: Right. Amazing.

Ada: Removing it would be like telling the story of your summer vacation and leaving out the part where you got foolishly lost. I think that’s one of the elements that I tried hardest to duplicate with Mycroft Canner’s narration. Because he does lots of strange, unreliable things, even concealing information from the reader, but I try to make it always feel that he’s sincerely telling the history the best way he can figure out to tell it, and that he’s making all the choices as best he can to try to help the reader.

Jo: But people often do leave out the part where they got lost, because they don’t want to be seen as foolish or vulnerable. It’s very brave to be so open. Mycroft’s sincerity really comes through. And his vulnerability.

Ada: It’s interesting. Some readers immediately accept Mycroft’s sincerity as sincerity. Others spend a long time wondering whether the sincerity is a deception, staying wary. Though I hope that his vulnerability comes through to everyone by mid-book-2.

Jo: I find myself getting quite indignant and wanting to defend him when people say he’s an unreliable narrator.

Ada: I think there are a lot of kinds of unreliability. There’s the unreliability of intentionally manipulating something. And there’s the unreliability of not succeeding at something. When an unreliable friend doesn’t show up for an appointment for coffee, it can be because the person coldly decided to stand you up, or because the person is bad at telling time. Similarly with an unreliable narrator, the narrator can be engineering the narrative with the intention of manipulating the reader, or the narrator can just actually be unreliable, unable to do better. With Mycroft Canner I think what a lot of readers wrestle which is figuring out which kind of unreliability it is. Or how much of each of the two is present.

Jo: I really want to be present when you and Steve Brust talk about this!


Though you’ve also reminded me of the work of art that is the debate in the Wikipedia editors’ comments section arguing over whether or not and to what degree Severian is an unreliable narrator in the Book of the New Sun. The debate itself is, I think, proof of how powerful a work of art Severian’s narration is. And I hope people debate similarly about the various and diverse ways Mycroft’s unreliability is hard to pin down precisely.

I’ve just realized Plato paints himself as an unreliable narrator, since he’s seen the world outside the Cave and says that you can’t describe it coherently to people who haven’t, that you end up just being confusing and incomprehensible — unreliable in the not-quite-capable-of-telling-the-story way.

Jo: And in the Phaedrus, the same thing, Socrates swears to tell the truth and then gives a giant allegory.

Ada: Unreliable narrators because direct narrative is impossible, or at least beyond their capacity. Which is exactly what Mycroft says about why he’s using an 18th century style. Maybe if the god Apollo appeared before Socrates’ interlocutors he could describe the world of Forms clearly without resorting to allegory. And similarly maybe if Apollo Mojave — who had the unique skill of describing Utopian projects to non-Utopians — were there to describe the Days of Transformation he could do it without resorting to 18th century style. But we don’t have Apollo, we have Socrates and Mycroft. Doing their best.

Jo: And Mycroft is sincere — and right — that everyone is aware of the influence in their world of the bright side of the Enlightenment, but they’re peculiarly vulnerable — in the ways Max discussed so brilliantly — to the dark side. And to tell the story, in the only way he can, it has to use that mode. It’s integral. It’s the opposite of affectation.

Ada: Especially when he’s trying to articulate character motivations. Because so many of the motives are that people do things because they’re thinking of them in 18th century terms, or stuck in 18th century relationships. Example: in the backstory of the book young Ganymede came of age and wanted to leave Madame’s, to gain autonomy, but he can’t just walk out, he has to set things up so he can live as a prince when he does so. Why does he have to do this? Why can’t he just leave like a normal kid who comes of age and wants to move out? It makes no sense without the 18th century people, and power dynamics.

Jo: And Danae… Yes, it doesn’t make any sense without that. They’re living in a double world in a way, Madame’s children.

Ada: It reminds me of sometimes when I’m introducing students to Renaissance things. I’ll say that Florence had no nobility so they had to hire a foreign nobleman to command troops for them when they needed troops. “Why?” Because you had to have a nobleman command troops, a non-nobleman couldn’t do it. “Why?” Because troops wouldn’t obey a non-nobleman, that’s just the way it was, it was a social thing, as real as iron to the people in the period even though it’s nonsense to us. We could ignore that rank barrier, walk through it like nothing was there, but to them it’s a real wall. And so it is to Ganymede and Danae. And that makes sense to the reader of Mycroft’s history because of the way Mycroft introduces them, through an 18th century voice. If he hadn’t used that voice, I would have had to do a lot of explaining to get across why it had to be that way, whereas since you get to know the characters the way you do, as soon as I hint that way, you suddenly see it, how difficult it would have been, and how absolutely necessary. In Ganymede’s own mind.

Jo: I forget the exact phrase but “the transition from art object to world leader”.

Ada: Yes.

Jo: He had to do that.

Ada: All the interactions of the characters, and backstory, in book 2, it all makes perfect sense to the reader with practically no explanation on my part, because of the 18th century terms in which Mycroft introduced them all. Their anachronistic and insane behaviors are instead sane and necessary, because of the narrative lens.

Jo: Even Thisbe being a witch. SO CLEVER!

Ada: Thank you.

Jo: This different kind of mindset, this immersion into not just a physical world but a mental and emotional world, is one of the things good science fiction and good historical novels have in common.

Ada: Yes!

Jo: It’s one of the things I read for, and one of the things I enjoy most, and one of the reasons I love these books so inordinately much.

Ada: And one of the things that makes me love historical documents, as well as SF. And great fantasy, which sometimes has it too.

Jo: Fantasy can have it, but it’s rarer. We were talking about Graves and I mentioned Renault’s The Mask of Apollo, I think those two things, Claudius writing to *me* and “we are the men to come” gave me an actual sense of history, of time. As a child, reading them, understanding how far the Trojan War was before the time of Plato, and how much further back it is now. And the same with Claudius, that we were the people of his future, with a need to hear his message. I think when I came to read actual documents I did it with a better understanding of time and history than I could have otherwise.

Ada: The long collaboration. People who worked so hard to pass things forward, trusting us to work hard to do the same.

Jo: Right, being passed hand to hand. And we are part of the chain, and the future is part of it.

Ada: Agreed, I think I learned to think about history from historical fiction, and from SF (especially the Book of the New Sun) and it helped me on my path to being a historian. But not from historical fiction that’s just about the period — historical fiction that’s about historical memory, about relationships between times and earlier or later times. Trans-temporal relationships.

Jo: Exactly.

Ada: Alexander the great’s relationship with Achilles — Charlemagne’s with Alexander the Great’s. Claudius’s with Thucydides, and with us. Because we do have real relationships across time, with people who are important to us, and whom we are important to. Even if our lifetimes never overlapped.

Jo: I have written a poem about how I am Petrarch’s posterity. I might not be what he wanted, but I’m what he got.

Ada: I have a student who screamed in the middle of a bookstore in her excitement a few days ago upon discovering Chris Celenza has written a biography of Petrarch. She is as important to Petrarch as Cicero was. Because she’s the third part of paying it forward.

Jo: Wonderful.

Ada: And stories like I Claudius, and, I hope, like Terra Ignota, remind us that we’re part of that trans-temporal conversation, and how important we are in it.

Jo: And that question of whether it’s the world we would have wanted to build.

Ada: Yes. How would we — who are working so hard to build a better future — feel if the future we ended up building was the future of Terra Ignota? Probably a lot like Petrarch or Diderot or Voltaire would if you could show them 2017. Mixed. It isn’t everything they wanted. It isn’t everything we wanted. It’s lots we never imagined, lots we didn’t want, some things we’re shocked by, some things we weep for joy at. It isn’t what we want, it’s something more plausible than getting what we want—getting a mixture: victory, failure, surprise, and stasis wrapped in one.  And hopefully it is enough.