The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
B. Matters of Technique
B. Matters of Technique
Type: What type of novel is this? Is it a realistic, feet-on-the-ground novel (Galsworthy), or is it poetic and symbolic in its approach (Virginia Woolf), or is it nearer to fable, satire or allegory? (Butler, Orwell, Golding). What is the author trying to do?
Structure: How exactly is the story told? In the first person? In the third? Does the author himself openly handle the story, being there to chip in as required, to chat, to philosophise with his readers, as do Scott, Thackeray, George Eliot? Where is the reader placed— at the author's elbow, or beside some character? If the latter, is he at the angle of vision of one character (as in The Young Have Secrets) or of different characters in turn?
Clearly in a first-person story the viewpoint is that of the speaker, as in The God Boy, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, The Greenstone Door, Spinster. How rigidly is this viewpoint adhered to? Are there matters discussed of which the teller could not at the time have known? If so, what device does the author use? His own open intrusion with the facts? The teller's later explanatory comment? Letters er a diary? (Consider Frank Sargeson's That Summer, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, John Lee's Children of the Poor). If the author filters everything strictly through the point of view of the teller, how consistent is his control? Whatever the point of view, how is the story handled? In chronological sequence? With flashbacks from present to past? In blocks of action linked in some page 133 arbitrary way? What balance is observed between dialogue, narrative, description, etc.? Most importantly, how is the passage of time suggested?
Exposition: A great test of an author's skill is his management of the exposition. How does he convey the information which readers must have as to who is who, what is what, and when and where and why and how? Do the facts appear in indigestible chunks, or do they slide in easily as the story moves along? (In particular, amateurs have difficulty with the past perfect tense—had been, had seen, had gone, had . . . had . . . had . . . )
Thoughts: How does the author deal with the inner thoughts and feelings of his characters? By direct statement, "She thought that . . . "? or by interior monologue? Diary entries? Letters? Poetic suggestion through imagery, recurrent phrases, or references to poetry, music, etc.? (Consider Virginia Woolf, Janet Frame, Frank Sargeson.)
Plan: Is the book divided into books, chapters, or other divisions? If so, why? Are such sections related to the movement of the novel? Is each named, or given an epigraph, or in any way marked to show the author's intention? Is there thematic linkage of any kind, such as persistent quotations from a special author, Biblical references, key images, key phrases?
Is there a "unity of time", or "unity of place"? (i.e. a restriction of the focus in any way as in classical drama).
Dialogue: How is speech managed? Is it an element in characterisation? Does it seem to be real? If not, is this a deliberate artificiality, and why?
Setting: How is the setting in time and place handled? Since most New Zealand writers have felt the pressure of our background or history, scenery and facts have been serious problems. How relevant is local colour to the author's purpose? If it is relevant, is it managed with economy, with subtlety? Is it presented openly as author's description, or evoked through a mind in the story?
Characterisation: The traditional English novel created convincing individual characters; not all contemporary novels do so, especially those which make a poetic or symbolic approach. Writing about character drawing, Mauriac says "the novelist is not an observer, but a creator of fictitious life. It is not his function to observe life, but to create it". For such creation, truth of fact is not enough. An artist must select and heighten his facts to make a credible picture. Watch the methods of characterisation. Are we told about the person, or do we learn by inference from his actions and speech? Or in both ways as in a play? Which characters are "flat", which are page 134 "round"? (This distinction is discussed in E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel.) Is a balance between characters kept? Are plot and character drawing related?
Not all these questions can be asked with profit of every novel. But they should start readers off on useful investigations of their own.
The notes which follow on six New Zealand novels are designed to draw readers' attention to structure and technique as a preliminary to discussion of themes and final values.