It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.
—Julio Cortázar, Blow-up (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn in Bestiary)
As introductory paragraphs go, explicit indecision about point of view comes high on my list of attention-grabbing gimmicks. Especially when stated so honestly. The last thing a narrator wants to do from the onset is state their own ineptitude.
Unless the clumsiness, the cluelessness, the fracturing of character is a game of deception relevant to the message. And boy do I want to hear that message! It’s likely to be bold, deep, and disruptive—otherwise it wouldn’t survive the bruising journey through opaque linguistic waters.
It screams metafiction.
But before you get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
But before we get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, let us consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
But before one gets all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, one should consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.
The pronoun game is real even for the puny blogger.
Each version slants the statement differently: you addresses you, dear reader; we puts me, the author, and you, the reader, on the same side; one tries for neutral and formal.
If blogs have the freedom of choice, other specialised areas have accepted norms. For example, scientific texts mostly eschew I, as too personal and biasing, and often resort to we, which can mean we, the author(s) of the text, or we, as in me, the author, and you, the reader.
Of course, an ocean or two separate Cortázar’s we hurt me at the back of my eyes and the convenient swapping of you-we-one-I every few paragraphs, but it’s worth remembering that even prosaic texts have to resolve this issue (and often do so unsatisfactorily).
Before moving on, I’d like to sort out a possible confusion in terminology: point of view, shortened to POV, and viewpoint (character) are not the same thing to a writer.
(Sloppiness, or editing for elegance and word count, often equates the terms. I’m as guilty as the next person.)
It’s easiest to demonstrate the difference.
Situation: a mother is buying her young son a treat at an ice cream stall.
You can write in first person (a point of view) from at least four different viewpoints:
- Mother: I think he’s been a good boy, he deserves an ice cream.
- Son: I’ve been a good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
- Vendor: I’m glad the strawberry ice cream is selling so well, the new recipe is definitely an improvement.
- Ice cream: Why was I so lovingly made, only to be torn to scoops repeatedly? Oh, Food Gods spare me!
You can also write from the same viewpoint using first person, second person, third person, and omniscient (four different points of view). My viewpoint character is the little boy:
- First person: I’ve been good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
- Second person: Your mother is treating you to an ice cream because you have been a good boy.
- Third person: He has been a good boy, so he knows he deserves an ice cream.
- Omniscient: The boy did his homework that Saturday morning, so he could deserve the treat he’s enjoying now. Little did he know that this would be the last ice cream he would ever have.
(Grammatical tenses are a complex tool in a different toolbox.)
The ice cream example illustrates that point of view and viewpoint character taken together exert a freakishly strong—and frequently underestimated—influence: they deliver varying facts and opinions in varying tones. They define the reader’s experience.
Let me unify point of view and viewpoint under the term narrator-slant.
Returning to the Quote and its dilemma. In the first paragraph of his story, Cortázar seemingly alerts the reader to his insecurity, but actually states the thesis of his story: narrator-slant is one way to explore reality, watch me do it.
If you were worried about a raucous party of pronouns obfuscating the storytelling in Blow-up, don’t be.
Last time I discussed a story of Cortázar’s that kept up the exotic we point of view throughout, but switched between the two constituent viewpoints (him and her). That was soul-splitting.
In Blow-up, it’s the other way around.
Cortazár drops the pronoun debate after a page and then consistently alternates between two points of view, first person and third person, while sticking to a single viewpoint—that of the protagonist Michel. This is soul-searching (I’m me on the inside, then I’m me from the outside).
The sentence level flipping between points of view creates a unique, blended narrator-slant that Ursula K. Le Guin warns us about in her book on the craft of writing. 1 The Godly Americanism of this quote always surprises me anew—but that’t not the point.
You can change point of view, of course; it is your God-given right as an American fiction writer. All I’m saying is, you need to know that you’re doing it; some American fiction writers don’t. And you need to know when and how to do it, so that when you shift, you carry the reader effortlessly with you.
Shifting between first and third person is enormously difficult in a short piece. … So my general feeling is, if you try the first-to-third shift, have a really good reason for doing it, and do it with great care. Don’t strip your gears.
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft, Ch. 8: Changing point of view
I don’t know about the God-given rights of dead Argentine writers who had lived in Parisian self-exile, but Cortázar knows what he is doing, does it in a short piece, and has a good reason.
Yes, so what? I can hear you hankering for plot and existential relevance.
The protagonist of Blow-up, Michel, photographs an outdoor scene involving a teenager talking to a woman, while a man surreptitiously observes from his car. Michel interprets the scene as a solicitation of a certain type, is spotted by the participants, and therefore becomes involved in the, ahem, frame of the shot. Later, when he develops the film and blows up the shot multiple times, he is absorbed in reinterpreting the plot and affecting it all over again.
The soul-searching narrator-slant addresses a number of rifts and discrepancies of life. At only eleven pages long, the story packs in a surprisingly long list of ideas (and it’s not exhaustive):
- photographer as observer,
- photographer as intruder,
- viewpoint of man vs viewpoint of a machine (typewriter, camera),
- machine vs nature,
- context vs frame,
- first impression vs insuperable evidence (is there such a thing?),
- first impression vs second impression vs memory vs reinterpretation,
- fleeting vs permanent.
Aside from the experimental aspect, Blow-up contains some of the most beautiful quotes I’ve encountered in Cortázar’s stories.
[On why we tell stories about curious, unusual events, like this one]:
…after all’s done, nobody is ashamed of breathing or putting on his shoes; they’re things that you do, and when something weird happens, when you find a spider in your shoe or if you take a breath and feel like a broken window, then you have to tell what’s happening, tell it to the guys at the office or to the doctor.
[On taking pictures]:
I raised the camera, pretended to study a focus which did not include them, and waited and watched closely, sure that I would finally catch the revealing expression, one that would sum it all up, life that is rhythm by movement but which a stiff image destroys, taking time in cross section, if we do not choose the essential imperceptible fraction of it.
[On the eyes of vamp]:
…her eyes fell on things like two eagles, two leaps into nothingness, two puffs of green slime.
[On the quality of sky in a picture]:
…the sky as sharp as the stone of the parapet…
Michel is guilty of making literature, of indulging in fabricated unrealities.
In Blow-Up, clouds are a persistent parenthetical leitmotif, as well as the backdrop. Their presence keeps questioning how much we can ever truly capture a moment in a still frame (or any frame). Do you capture a cloud’s essence, if you capture one of its outlines?
Clouds also aptly cap the story.
Now there’s a big white cloud, as on all these days, all this untellable time. What remains to be said is always a cloud, two clouds, or long hours of a sky perfectly clear, a very clean, clear rectangle tacked up with pins on the walls of my room.
Before you go, I should say that it’s actually the type-writer—yes, the machine—who interjects these comments about clouds into the narrative of Blow-up.
Or maybe it isn’t.
That’s the charm of such a rich narratorial-slant: no matter what anyone else says, you still have to read the story for yourself and weave your own interpretation.
- Ursula K. Le Guin passed away last week, on the 22nd of January 2018. We’ll miss her. ↩