Okay, I’ve indulged in two weeks of behind-the-scenes process talk. It’s time to get back to chatting about writing—other peoples’ writing—oh, my droogs.
For my money, the greatest first-person narrator in literary history is Humbert Humbert, the verbose and punny and myopically-perverse chronicler of Lolita. It’s not that I like Humbert. He’s a villain of the worst sort. Rather, I enjoy the puzzle created in the tension between Humbert’s story and reality—all that repulsive and criminal behavior. The reader reads at multiple levels: following Humbert’s narrative and decoding it, getting behind the gloriously polished language into the “facts” of his story. The prose is gorgeous. The facts are heinous.
Alex, the narrator of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, offers more evidence for the power of first-person narration. Unlike Humbert, Alex doesn’t really veil his actions. He’s frank about his violence—although it is described in playful, euphemistic, and musical language. The tension in A Clockwork Orange is between Alex’s actions and intentions. What makes the novel work (in ways Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation never does) is this tension: readers cohabit Alex’s mind, knowing that the external narrative is not always a reliable description of Alex’s inward reality. It’s something of the mirror image of Nabokov’s Humbert.
For Lolita and A Clockwork Orange, first-person narration is essential. It’s what separates both from being merely good books. They are great works because the narrators are great characters who show us two realities simultaneously. In this way, for the careful reader, either book offers two stories for the price of one.
Do you have a favorite first-person narrator? How does that character’s perspective add another dimension to the novel?