It's a 'bystander' narrative, often first person, concerning a mysterious acquaintance, replete with puzzled admiration, with rumours as clues on the trail of charisma. It's a paeon to the allure of 'personality'.
It's a youthful form, an age-defying treatment. After all, it's a youthful idea that personality can succeed.
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity of the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away." (Scott Fitzgerald on Jay Gatsby.)
As one ages, one comes to see that if there is such a thing as personality, it fails. We let it drop, and accept the rump of commonality with humility. Apart from a few odd traits, we are not so different. 'Personality' lets a person down gently, over many years.
But never mind all that, I love this form. There are some beautiful varieties in which apparent admiration is tempered by disapproval or disappointment. From the pioneer of the form - Ford Madox Ford in 'The Good Soldier' through to Graham Greene's 'The End of the Affair' through to Zoe Heller's 'Notes on a Scandal.'
The Good Soldier (1915) is narrated by John Dowell, half of one of the couples whose dissolving relationships form the subject of the novel. Dowell tells the story of those dissolutions and the deaths of three characters and the madness of a fourth, in a rambling, non-chronological fashion.
The novel opens with the famous line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Dowell explains that, for nine years, he, his wife Florence, and their friends Captain Edward Ashburnham (the 'good soldier' of the book's title) and his wife Leonora had an ostensibly normal friendship while Edward and Florence sought treatment for their heart ailments at a spa in Germany. Nothing in the relationships or in the characters is as it first seems. Florence's heart ailment is a fiction she perpetrated on John to ensure that he did not seek intimacy from her as it would seemingly be too stressful for her heart, and to keep him out of her bedroom at night so that she could continue her affair with a French artist named Jimmy. Edward and Leonora have an imbalanced marriage broken by his constant infidelities (both of body and heart) and Leonora's attempts to control Edward's affairs (both financial and romantic). Dowell is an innocent and is coming to realise how much he has been fooled, as Florence and Edward had an affair under his nose for nine years without John knowing until Florence was dead. The irony is that the focal point - the rumoured hero - is not a good egg at all.
The End of the Affair (1951) is a first-person narrative, explicit from the outset that this is a love/hate story. The narrator is in love with Catherine, but she eludes him. She is married, and it's the Second World War, but she is also unworldly and develops mystical beliefs and sincere devotions to which her cynical, burnt-out lover, Bendrix, is immune.
Notes on a Scandal (What Was She Thinking? in the U.S.) is a 2003 novel by Zoë Heller. It is about a female teacher at a London comprehensive school who begins an affair with an underage pupil. The novel is narrated by Barbara, a veteran history teacher at a comprehensive school in London, is a lonely, unmarried woman in her early sixties. When Bathsheba 'Sheba' Hart is hired as an art teacher, Barbara feels that they might become close friends. Sheba's flimsy allure is detailed with increasing cynicism by Barbara. When Sheba's life begins to fall apart, Barbara thrives on the mess of it, and Sheba comes increasingly to rely upon her.
The most usual farm is hagiographical. The adored hero is lionized at a distance.
“I couldn't have thought of her more. Even vacancy was crowded with her.”
Often these novels begin with suggestions of the hero or heroine's charmed existence.
We have looked in some detail at The Great Gatsby, which was published the same year as the birth of Truman Capote (1925), who went onto give us a female version of the form in Holly Golightly - the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958). As you will recall The Great Gatsby is 47,094 words long. Breakfast at Tiffany's is just 26,433.
There are similarities between the lives of Holly and Capote's mother, Nina Capote; among other shared attributes both women were born in the rural south with similar names that they changed (Holly Golightly was born Lulamae Barnes in Texas, Nina Capote was born Lillie Mae Faulk in Alabama), both left the husbands they married as teenagers and abandoned relatives they loved and were responsible for, instead going to New York, and both achieved "café society" status through relationships with wealthier men.
The slightly out-of-focus subject of these novels is:
If a novel is a moral journey, then the novel does not quite belong to the rumoured hero or heroine, for they are beyond the realm of life's tedious lessons, the humbling that awaits the rest of us, and they 'disappear' or die before they get old.
The real subject of the novel is the narrator, and their flaw, the willingness to suspend one's own journey and be entertained as a way of treading water. The plot of the novel implicates them as the guilty party in the sense we of the modern age are all guilty of 'watching'.
I've always loved this line from 'Being There' the 1970 novel by Jerzy Kosiński. The novel is highly enjoyable as a read, dialogue-driven, plainly written. It's adorable, as if the film of the same name (1979) with Peter Sellers. Watch him, watching ...
This story is in the form of another common hero-trope, the idiot savant, whose innocence has something to say about the way we live now. The middle-aged and simple-minded Chance lives in the townhouse of an old, wealthy man. He has spent his whole life tending the garden and has never left the property. He has spent a great deal of time watching TV to understand the human animal. When his benefactor dies, Chance discover the outside world for the first time. He is struck by a chauffeured car owned by Ben Rand, an elderly business mogul. In the car is Rand's wife, Eve, who mishears 'Chance, the gardener', in reply to the question who he is, as 'Chauncey Gardiner'. Chance rises, by method of his pithy and enigmatic pronouncements to the upper echelons of high society, advises the President and is considered an economic guru in many quarters - in the space of days.
Chance is a blank canvas, and operates at the far end of the spectrum of the rumoured hero, offering those around the opportunity to project onto him their needs and desires. He is, in a way, a television - 'fernsehen' in German. People see what they want to see. It's a great set up.
In 'The Lives of Others' (2006) a film with a screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the Stasi officer Gerd Weisel is under orders to watch, and listen to 'the lives of others.' But as his admiration for the playwright Georg Dreyman grows, he becomes infected by his hero's ability to love another, and this is how he gathers is something he is missing from his life.
The 'heroes' in these works are at a remove from reality, due to their magical qualities, gifts or innocence which separates them from the narrator through whose eyes we see them. The heroes do not endure or persist or age. That is not their purpose, they are ephemeral, a mirage.
“I told you: you can make yourself love anybody.”
The affectionate, indulgent - or a slightly envious - quality of this hero worship, close to voyeurism, is a symptom of abrogation of the true hero's duty - to make a difference by making things better. So the hero's journey in these novels is to move from watching to acting, which may simply be walking away, by not being there, by becoming other. All stories are interested in heroes who dissociate from the spectating morass. In this form, we begin with something worth watching, untenably lovely, and false. It is hard to drag our eyes from the sight of another human being's degradation or failure, but that is what the hero must do.
The narrators of these books walk away with a distaste for their former activities, and those who joined them to watch the show. The form does not seem to offer a happy ending.
“A disquieting loneliness came into my life, but it induced no hunger for friends of longer acquaintance: they seemed now like a salt-free, sugarless diet.”
“Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”
“...what is romance, but a mutual pact of delusion? When the pact ends, there's nothing left.”
“I know nothing - nothing in the world - of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone - horribly alone.”
(These novels are some of the 'hero novels' for our online creative writing courses. The hero novels are chosen for their virtues as novels which teach story structure from the inside out. We ask writers to choose one for their writing journey, to keep faith with during the ninety days of writing and read nightly even just for a few minutes. On the first reading, you'll absorb the structure which we teach in the lessons, on further readings you'll notice techniques in the prose. Keeping faith with one novel mirrors the daily hour's writing of keeping faith with your own, and helps you keep your writing nice and steadily paced. While we ask you to remain faithful to your hero novel during the ninety day's of writing, we do permit afternoon liaisons with other books! Choose the novel which best suits what you love to read and want to write. At your first one-to-one chat with me, when we make a custom writing plan for your novel, we discuss which book might be best.)
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