Sunday, 18 May 2014

Third person, first person?

The New York Times asked Salman Rushdie why he wrote Joseph Anton, his account of life under the fatwa, in the third person. He responded that he felt using the first person hampered his progress.
Each time I tried [to write the book], it didn’t work and so I put it aside. And then I realized that one of the things I was really disliking was the first person, this endless “I,” things happening to “me,” and “I felt” and “I did” and “people said about me” and “I worried.” It was just absurdly narcissistic. So at a certain point I thought, “Let me just see what happens if I write it novelistically, in the third person.” And the moment I started doing it was like the kind of “open sesame” that gave me the book.

Meanwhile James Camp wrote, in The New York Observer, that the third person voice would be the first thing readers would notice. He remarked, pointedly, that it “is not a perspective often associated with self-awareness.”

While the author of Joseph Anton – a book that’s fascinating, thought-provoking and irritating in about equal measure – doesn’t always show himself to be the most dispassionate of self-observers, I don’t think this is either down to, or responsible for, his choice of the third person. 

I suspect it’s more accurate – and consistent with Rushdie’s professed reasons for choosing the perspective – to say that the third person is not a perspective often associated with self-exposure. It’s helpful in evading the confessional, and useful to self-aware memoirists and autobiographers who wish to avoid revealing themselves in their work.

Almost two hundred years before Rushdie, William Hayley – having published biographies of Milton, his friends William Cowper and George Romney, and a memoir of his son, Thomas Alphonso Hayley – wrote his own life in the third person. Somewhat lazily edited by Cowper’s relative/carer Rev. John Johnson, it’s a long book, generally honest and egalitarian to the extent that its publisher complained that Hayley seemed to think that “unknown personages connected with him merely by family ties or juvenile affection” and “his literary career and his intercourse with persons of talent and celebrity” would be of “equal interest” to his readers.*

One of my first steps towards creating the zoeography app was to take around 440 shortish extracts from Hayley’s memoir, and ‘translate’ them into the first person. Finicky and – as I’m sure you can imagine – time-intensive, it still proved a fascinating exercise. There is, I suspect, no better way to explore what’s gained and lost by writing about oneself as ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘I’.

High on the list of benefits has to be status delineation. Hayley often dubs himself “the poet”, as in “The poet of Eartham having finished his life of Milton, in the autumn, took it with him, when he set forth on his second visit to Cowper.” And “The tender gloom which the sudden loss of this memorable man (so long endeared to the poet) had thrown over his mind, prepared him to sympathize in the recent domestic affliction of his noble friend, Lord Egremont”. Using the third person enables Hayley to position himself within his profession and within society much more easily than he could have done using the first person. It’s a significant advantage for someone as concerned with controlling his image, and with posterity, as Hayley was.

But the downside is the loss of intimacy. We may be better placed to perceive the writer’s position within his networks but, there’s a corresponding distancing and dilution of his/her emotions and experiences. Which makes it a slightly odd choice for one of Sensibility's leading votaries.

I’ll be thinking and writing about this more as my research and development progress, and would be interested to read any comments…

* quote from an unpublished letter from Henry Colburn to Rev Johnson.

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