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I am always alike

Without intending it, I seem to have produced a companion piece to my comments on Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It comes from having just read Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears.

Now Stone’s Fall is not a novel in the manner of Wolf Hall, it is more conventional for a start, and uses its historical setting (London in 1909, Paris in 1890, Venice in 1867) not so much as something to be explored in its own right as the setting for a mystery. If I say that the revelation at the end (which I had actually guessed fairly early in the first part of the novel) doesn’t really justify the expenditure of nearly 600 pages of hand waving and misdirection, don’t take that as condemnation of the book. It is an entertaining and engaging read, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Pears is a fascinating writer. Mostly he writes fairly conventional little police procedural novels set in the world of art crime, but every so often he produces something much bolder and more ambitious. The first of these, An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997) was, to my mind, one of the finest and most intriguing novels of the decade. If you haven’t already read it, go away and do so right this moment, we can wait … There, I told it was worth doing.

If the others (The Dream of Scipio (2002), The Portrait (2005) and now Stone’s Fall) have not matched that first in achievement, that is not to deny their ambition or their readability. In the case of Stone’s Fall it is an experiment in structure. After a brief, scene-setting prologue set in 1953, the first part of the novel is a first-person account written by a journalist of events following the mysterious death of financier John Stone. The journalist, Matthew Braddock, is hired by Stone’s young widow ostensively to write his biography but actually to uncover the truth behind a provision in his will to support his unnamed child. These investigations reveal the extent of Stone’s business empire, expose what looks like a massive fraud, and end up involving an anarchist attack on the Prince of Wales and the Tsar of Russia. This section also recounts the growing affection between Braddock and Stone’s widow, Elizabeth.

The second section is an account by Henry Cort, a leading figure in the British secret service who plays a shadowy role in the events of the first part. This account covers events in Paris in 1890 when Cort, newly recruited to the secret service, uncovers an elaborate plot by European banks to bring down the British financial system, a plot that is, in the end, only defeated with the help of John Stone. This section also tells how Stone met Elizabeth, and reveals rather sordid secrets about her past, revelations that undermine our understanding of events in the first section.

The final section takes us further back, to Venice in 1867, and is an account by Stone himself of how he first took on the role of business wheeler-dealer. These events are intimately connected with an affaire that Stone has with the wife of a fellow Brit, who goes mad and murders yet a third Brit. Inevitably, these events are revealed to cast yet a different interpretation on events in both the previous sections.

In a sense this structure, each section undermining the version of events given in the previous section, is not new, it is essentially the structure of An Instance of the Fingerpost. However, the progression backwards in time is a novelty (though not that new, given that it is similar to the backwards motion of, for instance, Christopher Nolan’s Memento.)

But it is not the structure, or the historical setting, that bothers me about the book, but the narrative voice. We have three first person narrators, two of whom (at later points in their lives) appear in the accounts of other narrators. When we see Cort through Braddock’s eyes, he is a very distinctive character, hard, confident, forceful. When we see Stone through Cort’s eyes, he is also distinctive, self-assured, manipulative. Yet when we see them through their own eyes, it is impossible to tell them apart; Stone sounds like Cort who sounds like Braddock. There is no confidence, no self-assurance, someone who reads little will still pepper his account with literary references. Each feels like the author’s voice, because there is such a unity of tone throughout the novel.

Two thoughts occurred to me as I spotted this. First, I thought it was a consequence of Pears reproducing something of the Victorian literary style, but in fact there are many Victorian mannerisms that he has avoided so I don’t think that is the case. Then I wondered if he has making an elaborate and subtle point, that we all see ourselves the same way however differently we appear to other people. Or maybe, a variation on this, that everyone starts out like this as a callow youth (each first person narrator is at the very beginning of their career) but takes on their distinctive characteristics later as a matter of experience. This latter I could support as an argument, there is a sense in which each narrative recounts the moment that changed the narrator; yet it feels rather too subtle even for as clever and thoughtful a writer as Pears. And besides, if I was going to write something as oblique as that, I’d spell it out somewhere just to be sure my readers didn’t miss it, and Pears doesn’t do that.

No, I think the problem is with the first person. I think it has a tendency to flatten the voice. Writing in third person you can capture what is different about the behaviour, the vocal mannerisms, the style of the person. Writing in first person only really makes sense if we try to give access to the thoughts, feelings, sensibilities of the character, the unseen parts of a person; and in reality we only have access to one set of those characteristics.

More and more I’ve been noticing that I get more satisfaction from reading third person rather than first person narratives. That may be why.

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