Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ludwika's perspective

Another way of doing this blog -- another point of entry into narrative theory -- might be as commentary to fiction that I'm reading. I have already used The Blood Oranges and Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs as examples -- but maybe I should take a closer look at short stories. I think more than 60% of all the reading that I do involves reading short stories in online and print magazines. They should provide plethora of examples.

Take this story, for example, "Serce Szopena" by Olga Tokarczuk, published in the English translation by Jennifer Croft as "Chopin's Heart" in eXchanges, a Journal of Literary Translation from University of Iowa. It is a powerful little piece that manages to weave the posthumous Chopin mythology into a story about his sister Ludwika, who had to transport his heart (the physical organ) so that it could be entombed in a church in Warsaw. (Indeed, when we were in Warsaw earlier this year, the church was pointed out to us).

The story is told by a narrator who exists outside the story space (heterodiegetic) and is dissonant in time from when this story takes place. But limited or omniscient ("authorial" or "figural" in Franz Stanzel's terms)? The narrator displays a certain degree of personality: first, she cites a Wikipedia page (I find it interesting that the translator chose to substitute a French quote where in the original Polish text there stands a quote in English), and later in the same paragraph accuses one of Chopin's biographers of lying. On the other hand, most of the story starting with the second paragraph ("Now Ludwika, freezing and exhausted, is driving off in a stage coach") is told as seen through Ludwika's eyes. The narrator has access to Ludwika's interiority, her thoughts and feelings: "Ludwika felt no sadness, having used up and cried out all her sadness already—but she did feel anger."

Suzanne Keen writes: "The most central fucntion of a character in narrative situations, ..., lies in a character's role as a 'reflector' (Genette's 'focalizer,' Chatman's 'filter')."

Is Ludwika's consciousness -- the only one that the narrator has access to? Is the narrative limited to her perspective? Good question. Halfway into the story, there's an episode where Graziella, one of the singers at the funeral in Paris, recounts how she lost her leg. Her story is narrated as reported speech, not as direct dialogue. Who's providing the commentary, such as: "Graziella's misfortune was being in the wrong place at the wrong time"? Are these Graziella's own words, as heard by Ludwika? Is this information filtered through Ludwika's consciousness? Or is this the editorial commentary by our narrator who has already accused another character of lying? Does our narrator have direct access to Graziella's interiority? What is the degree of her omniscience?

I am leaning to the opinion that the narrative sticks to Ludwika's consciousness even in the episode with Graziella. I find nothing in Graziella's words that could not have been said in direct speech -- and the main purpose of using indirect speech here is, perhaps, condensation of information that in dialogue form would take up a lot more story time. I believe that the heterodiegetic narrator of Tokarczuk's story (as translated by Croft) uses a single focalizer, Ludwika, throughout the story. The story is told from Ludwika's perspective.

Keen comments: "Discussion of a narrative fiction's perspective adds the dimension of character-centered perception that is implied by the popular term 'point of view.' In addition to the colloquial slippage between 'point of view' and 'opinion,' the term has other limitations. At least metaphorically, it makes a priority of the character's eyes and gaze that may not adequately capture the matrix of thoughts, sensations, memories, preoccupations, and interests that comprise a 'reflecting' character's 'perspective,' though perspective (and focalization) both also suggest lines of sight. (44-5)"

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