Discuss the relationship between characters’ narratives and characters’ identity in Black Dogs
The narratives in Black Dogs do not solely emanate from the characters to whom they belong as the principal voice and perspective of the novel is given over to the first person narrator, Jeremy. The characters’ narratives are delivered to us through the prism of Jeremy’s viewpoint. Dialogue, speech, opinion and memorial accounts of all the novel’s characters are conveyed through his writing and unique, personal outlook. In this respect, when considering narrative in relation to identity in the novel, observations concerning Jeremy’s narrative must differentiate themselves from an examination of June and Bernard’s narratives as the latter narratives are always viewed through the personal views and voice of the former.
When examining June and Bernard’s identity their “narratives” take several forms, all reported, including direct and indirect speech as well as Jeremy’s descriptions of their attitudes, beliefs, actions and lives.
Nevertheless, the two narratives cannot be inextricably linked together: there is the disparity between the ways in which June and Bernard deliver their narratives to Jeremy. June willingly engages with and is committed to narrating her story to Jeremy for the ‘memoirs’ that he is writing. Bernard’s reportage is less formal; although aware that Jeremy is writing the memoir his account of events is never told to Jeremy in the form of a concentrated and formal session, but rather collected by Jeremy who teases memories out of his father-in-law and learns much of his material though debates with Bernard. The differing ways in which these characters’ narratives present themselves to Jeremy not only dictate how we read their characters, they also ensure an uneasy relationship between narrative and identity in the novel. For example, the narratives are uncorroborated by June and Bernard themselves to the extent that Jeremy is obliged to ask that their ‘ghosts’ will ‘forgive’ him for the ‘liberties’ he may have taken with their confidences and for the fact that he has ‘recounted certain conversations never intended for the record’ (p.21). June and Bernard do not share the privileged position of the authorial voice, they are unable to carefully edit, write and convey their own characters through their narratives, this is Jeremy’s prerogative.
Jeremy sets about defining his character though his own narrative early on in the novel. Indeed the Preface to Black Dogs is given over to an autobiographical preamble wherein Jeremy introduces the subjects of his work, June and Bernard, by detailing the personal events of his own life which lead up to his meeting his parents-in-law. Yet, despite Jeremy’s best efforts to define his own character for his reader through his narrative presentation he undermines himself within the first few pages of his own book: whilst he claims that a ‘formal, distancing, labyrinthine tone’ of speech is one of the characteristics of his youthful self, he subsequently goes on to describe sex in an undeniably formal and labyrinthine tone:
‘Jean had spread her beautiful limbs – to adapt Kafka’s formulation – across my map of the world and obliterated the territory marked ‘sex’ so that I was obliged to voyage elsewhere – to obscure islets marked Catullus, Proust, Powis square.’
Jeremy’s own admission of his unwieldy descriptions is at once endearingly self effacing and yet serves to illustrate that he has perhaps retained more of his awkward, youthful wordiness than he might care to admit to himself. Such unawareness of his verbose evasion foreshadows a narrator who is self-confessedly unable to believe fastidiously in anything, and for whom there is ‘no enduring principal, no fundamental idea with which (he can) identify.’(p.18) Jeremy’s narrative identity is potentially as amorphous as the narratives that his niece Sally concocts through her game where the transition between ‘monster’ and ‘king’ is seamless (p.15). The resulting impression of Jeremy from these initial, introductory passages reveal a narrative voice whose liquid views and uncertainty about the fixity of his beliefs leave us in doubt as to whether the narratives he is describing have been treated with a credible objectivity. Everything, it seems, that Jeremy describes is dependably subjective and his account of June and Bernard’s lives even travels beyond the biographical and into the realms of speculation and imagination. When Jeremy looks at the ‘framed picture’ of his parents-in-law he writes increasingly in the subjunctive mode: ‘perhaps,’ ‘may’ and ‘might’ (p.25/28) invade his descriptive meditation upon the photograph. In this respect his narrative about Bernard and June has the potential to be as creative as it is factual.
Furthermore, Jeremy’s thorough searching, his ‘study’ (p.26) of his parents-in-law, reveals just as much about his own quest for understanding as it does about his subjects; Jeremy is not only searching for an understanding of the century that June and Bernard have inhabited, nor is he simply writing the memoirs of two people: through his enquiry he is delving into his own beliefs, thoughts and memories, and, although his narrative may revolve around the lives of others it is equally as indicative of his own identity as it is of theirs. However, there is an inherent difficulty in plainly engaging with an identity, such as Jeremy’s, which we encounter through memorial narrative – guilt, regret and nostalgia colour the history described and our access to Jeremy is though accounts of his past such as his poignant, troubled description of leaving his young niece, Sally, for university:
‘I put down my armful of books and ran out to the van to sit in the passenger seat and weep.’
Yet it is not only his perspective of the past that tints Jeremy’s narrative and hence his identity. Throughout his Preface Jeremy recoils behind the greats of literature and thought, preferring to allow them to lay claim to the pressing, landmark emotions and ways of thinking that have shaped his life: love belongs to ‘Sylvia Plath’ (p.18), sex to Kafka (p.15) and even his early, formative ways of speaking to ‘Proust’ (p.14). Yet Jeremy is not the only character who appropriates a narrative posture that shapes his narrative identity, June, another writer, does so as well, to the extent that Jeremy wonders whether he ‘was being used – as a conduit, a medium for the final fix June wanted to put on her life’ (p.40). However hard Jeremy tries to ‘steer’ (p.49) June away from her chosen trajectory with his leading questions, ‘what did you talk about’ (p.41), and attempted interjections, ‘so you…’ (p. 42), June’s narrative consistently runs it’s course towards the moment that she sees as the defining instance of her identity, her encounter with the black dogs.
Nevertheless, Jeremy’s last session with June details a significant moment where her narrative breaks its trajectory towards the black dogs, and, indeed, breaks down altogether. When June awakes from a deep sleep after the first part of their session she peers into ‘a chasm of meaninglessness where everything was nameless and without relation, and it had frightened her’ (p.49). At this point Black Dogs proffers the thesis that it is our words are our fundamental way of expressing of our awareness of the world, shaping our identity – without a narrative to project, a story to tell, a name to place us in relation to others, our identity is weakened, reduced to the nothingness which June sees, Jeremy describes and which ‘frightens’ them both. This thought is pitted against another, that there is the narrative we choose to tell people in order to define our lives, and then another narrative, a ‘confession’ that forms the underside of the story that we have chosen to tell: Jeremy’s great moment of personal triumph in interviewing June is when he ‘needles her out of reminiscence into confession’ (p.52). As the novel draws to the end of its first part, Wiltshire, it is clear that the relationship between characters’ narratives and their identity is a complex one, pulled in several different directions by the narratives characters want to relate, by those that are coaxed out of them, and by those that are foisted upon them by another voice and set of perceptions outside of their control.
With the advent of Berlin the reader moves outside June’s narrative and into Bernard’s. As Bernard steps out of the taxi at the airport on the way to witness the celebrations in Germany he is cornered by his taxi driver who attempts to engage him in a political discussion; his response is to ‘flinch’ and ‘fumble for his bag’ (p.73) exiting the conversation as quickly as possible. When Jeremy confronts him about the incident, claiming that Bernard, despite his former Communist leanings, has ‘lost the common touch,’ Bernard responds succinctly and honestly: ‘never had it, dear boy. Ideas were my thing’ (p.74). Later, on the plane, Bernard, reveals that June, when they were still young and newly married, had once shouted at him ‘you don’t even like working-class people! You never speak to them. You don’t know what they’re like’ (p.77). The proximity of these two narratives illustrates how Bernard’s identity, despite the changes of time, has fundamentally remained the same in this particular respect. It also shows how the pervasiveness of multiple perspectives, which dominate our reading of character’s identity throughout Black Dogs, is sometimes unexpectedly trumped, and that certain characteristics and ways thinking remain a part of characters’ identity no matter who is the narrator.
Converse to the revelations about identity that character’s narratives can reveal are the narratives that they are incapable of absorbing: the reader can learn just as much about a character’s identity from what that character is unable to understand as from what they say about themselves and their lives. For example, try as he might to imagine himself into June’s outlook, to Bernard, it will remain a way of ‘magical thinking, completely alien’ (p.79). Similarly, as we move away from direct speech towards reported incident, and witness Bernard taking on a posse of skinhead neo-Nazi youths in Berlin, we begin to understand his particular brand of heroism and his way of thinking. It is one of the only instances in Black Dogs where the narrative moves away from ideas-based conversations, reported speech and memorial haggling and find ourselves in a described situation that is active and dangerous. Here, actions reveal more about Bernard’s heroism, which is laced with propriety and a dispassionate sense of what is right, than Jeremy’s deductions and Bernard’s own discursive logic.
Bernard and June’s narratives are inseparable from those of the changing, twentieth century Europe that forms the landscape to their lives. As Bernard and June cannot firmly sustain and maintain their communist beliefs past their youth, they move further away from each other towards their polar faiths in the “elation and limited certainties of science” (p.19) and the realms of spirituality: ‘June’s black dogs’ (p.50). Europe, throughout the course of their lives, is also shifting and changing in ways that will cease to accommodate the idealism of their youth: wary of extreme politics and conscious more than ever before of the need to promote continental unity. Bernard and June’s personal narratives collide in their child, Jenny, who could be read as the meeting point for the increasingly polar narratives of her two parents. Jenny could also be read as representative of a new generation of idealists, helping to nurture and lead Europe’s search for social unity and solidarity, a child of post war Europe who would ‘one day put up a good fight for a seat in the European parliament’ (p.138). Interestingly, Jeremy meets Jenny at a unity conference in Poland from whence they travel together to the concentration camp, Majdanek. Together they witness and remember the ‘extravagant numerical scale, the easy to say numbers – tens and hundreds of thousands, millions –’ that the holocaust destroyed. The text and circumstances described move for a moment beyond the characters at hand to the nameless victims of Europe’s nightmarish history, Jeremy’s personal narrative, his visit to the camp with the woman he loves, is temporarily subsumed by the larger narrative of a lost generation.
A study of the relationships between characters’ narratives and their identities in Black Dogs uncovers a complex investigation of the functions and responsibilities of the narrative voice. It also highlights the challenges of constructing an identity for oneself and others though narrative alone and the difficulties of assembling identities through retrospective perspectives and memorial writing. Yet at the heart of the novel lies the wide ranging, conflicting and universal narratives: the narratives of a Europe that has barely survived two world wars, the narratives of ideology, or science, of religion and of the scepticism that accompanies each narrative in turn. Whilst these grand narratives both nurture and disrupt the personal narratives of the characters, it is clear in Black Dogs they are inseparable from their identities.