When a character introspects

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So that on the afternoon when he saw the swallows in the electric wires, he reviewed the past from his earliest memory, he reviewed his chance loves, the countless pitfalls he had been obliged to avoid in order to reach a postion of authority, the events without number that had given rise to his bitter determination that Fermina Daza would be his, and he would be hers despite everything, in the face of everything, and only then did he realize that his life was passing. – Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

While following the travails of Florentino Ariza, I fell into thinking about the instances in which writers reveal in detail the innermost thoughts of their protagonists. These instances appear in many forms – as letters written by one character to another; as journals maintained by a character; in the course of a long dialogue; and occasionally a descriptive paragraph in which the character is caught in introspection. It is this last type that I was thinking about today, trying to remember novels which have devoted many paragraphs to their protagonists as they look back on the past with “the perverse clarity of nostalgia” (García Márquez).

Many of my favorite novels have had such intense and irresistable passages. I remember for instance, the awful moments in The Portrait of a Lady, that Isabel Archer spends, reminiscing near the fireplace, contemplating her fatal relationship with Gilbert Osmond. Towards the end of A Suitable Boy, Lata looks back on the past year and wonders what would happen if she married the man her mother had chosen for her. In more recent memory, Arren in The Farthest Shore, alone in a boat after a long journey with Sparrowhawk, wonders what role he will have to play when they arrive at the end of the world. Or, in The Name of the Rose, Adso wonders repeatedly about the murders in the abbey and about his own inability to reconcile asceticism with the sexual stimuli around him. Or in those delightful stories from the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, in which Mma Ramostwe ponders the state of the world over a cup of bush tea.

These moments of introspection, make the story more personal, more immediate. They make us think about related events from our own lives and, at least in my experience, they are the beginnings of empathy. (In rare cases, they may also be sources of irritation: a case in point being Holden Caulfield’s seemingly arbitrary thought processes in the early parts of The Catcher in the Rye – I understand him, but cannot suppress my irritation.) I wonder whether these broad swathes of a character’s internal thoughts are more responsible for making the novel good, or rivetting, than the actual events of the story itself. Often, it is during these moments in the story that the reader’s audio-visual rendering of the novel is in overdrive. The images of Isabel Archer by the fireplace and of Adso in front of the lascivious painting and of Florentino Ariza in a cemetary full of rose bushes take on a certain sharpness. They serve as anchors in a way, because after the moment of introspection has passed, the images remain in the mind and they color one’s imagining of the rest of the novel.

If you have loved novels in which a character introspects at length, I would be keen to hear about them. Given past experience, there is a good chance that I shall enjoy reading more of them.

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11 thoughts on “When a character introspects”

  1. Most of the Latin American writers of the boom period and after have hinged their novels around memory. Some of the novels where memory (not necessarily introspection though) have been used very effectively are Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.

    ‘Embers’ and ‘Conversations in Bolzano’ by Sandor Marai are novels where the introspection streches into pages and you would certainly like them. Embers is more elegant novel of the two. There is a 5 or 6 word sentence in Conversations… where the writer spends scores of pages to analyse its meaning (I thought it was overdone though)

    And also Garcia Marquez’s ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’, Tomas Eloy Martinez’s ‘The Peron Novel’ and ‘Santa Evita’, but particularly the former.

  2. Introspection is a wonderful thing if done right, I find; for me, it’s the subtle suggestions of personal thought in the comics found in Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay, or the shifting slabs of self-pity and relief in Auster’s New York Trilogy, or the clearest first-person’s voice I have ever read in William Boyd’s New Confessions. To find a well-done self-evaluating voice (particularly one that seems to evaluate itself in terms of the confines of the novel, such as in Embers (mentioned above) is far harder, though. For that, you step further into the post(gulp)modern stuff. And that can be fully worthwhile and fulfilling – Sean Wilsey’s autobiography, Oh The Glory Of It All, despite not being fictional, immediately springs to mind (it reads as fiction for the whole novel, I found), or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (and, to a lesser extent, Cloud Atlas), in the literary (and figurative) twists in the text.

  3. Thanks, both of you, for the list of recommendations.

    Bhupinder: By a happy coincidence, I checked out The Storyteller from the library two weeks ago. This will probably be the entry point into your list.

    James: David Mitchell seems to crop up quite frequently these days. On NPR, they were discussing Black Swan Green, while talking about the possibility that Mitchell could write the next Great American Novel (even though he is British).

  4. It’s a beautiful passage that you quote there (I’ve never read any Marquez but keep promising myself that I will). The only title that really came to my mind was Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. But there is something crystalline and fascinating about the process of looking back with nostalgia. I read The Gret Gatsby earlier this summer and was stunned by the depiction of idealising nostalgia in that.

  5. RE: David Mitchell – I wish he cropped up more and more often. I genuinely believe he is the best active writer today. His writing is absolutely astonishing, and despite frequently falling into the ‘genre-fiction’ typecast frequently defies the boundaries of the genres it exists in. And that’s my favourite thing in the world. I haven’t read Black Swan Green yet, I confess, as it’s sitting on my shelf to be saved as an absolute treat for me. I’ll check out the NPR discussion, thanks.

  6. My two favorite authors are Gabriel García Márquez (I also loved “Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera), and Milan Kundera.

    Both of them I love precisely because of what you’re talking about… that deep trip into the characters’ thoughts and logic. Since you’re asking for new reading material, I suggest Kundera. “The Unbearable Lighteness of Being”, “Immortality” and “The Joke” are my favorites from him.

    Also from García Márquez, I recently read “Memoria de Mis Putas Tristes” (sorry, don’t know the translated title). It’s super-short, but full of character introspective, and of course with that subtle cultural humor I enjoy so much from him (I’m Colombian, so I’m familiar with the characters).

  7. Maria, thanks for the recommendation. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a book I have wanted to read for a long time. I came across the DVD of the movie recently, but don’t want to watch it until I have read the book. I hope to do this soon.

    The book you mentioned is called Memories of My Melancholy Whores. I have it at home since I issued it from my library along with The Autumn of the Patriarch. It is indeed very small – I am going to read it on a plane trip that is coming up this week. You might enjoy this: In this post, Ana María Correa pointed to a very funny entry about Melancholy Whores on McCarty Musings.

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