07 February, 2010

The Arrogant Protagonist - Conceit or Correct?

One of my pet hates in literature is the arrogant narrator protagonist, often the product of an author who uses their book as a vehicle to reveal their extensive knowledge of some area - the more erudite the better.

I didn't enjoy Alan Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty for that reason - his digressions on the merits of Richard Strauss reeked of oneupmanship, and his protagonist seemed to have inherited his knowledge of antique furniture for one of two reasons: so he had something to talk about with his lorded companions; or so Hollinghurst could tell us how much he knew.

I struggled too with Turner's Paintbox, by Paul Morgan, as I've already recorded in my review. Morgan's special topic was the British painter J. M. W. Turner. Another Australian author, who I refuse to name on this blog - let's just say that his novels alone make up a double figure percentage of annual Australian book sales - has made his career by crafting an ill-gotten, formulaic stories around copious research (not all of which he did), in which he doesn't spare any detail of what his research team uncovered.

Ian McEwan introduces two such 'arrogant protagonists' in his earlier novels Amsterdam and Enduring Love. In the former, his composer protagonist agonises over arpeggios and scores; in the latter, Joe Rose is a scientist happy to critique his partner's doctoral theories on Keats, but who elaborates 'for her benefit' over finer details of the history of discovering DNA.

My problem with these asides (I commented on a similar one in Turner's Paintbox) is that they are extraneous to the plot. The fact that the author includes them means they either want to show their protagonist as a git - not a theory normally borne out by the rest of the book - or they're transferring their patronising tone to the reader.

A common weave runs through these characters I've felt so disassociated from. They're all men, as are the authors. Not that I think this is necessarily a problem exclusive to men; I think I felt similar things about Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, though it's been some years since I read it. The characters are also all indisputably of a particular class - upper middle. Their pretensions normally focus on the arts, or in the case of Joe Rose, another area of academia.

When I came across Joe Rose, however, I began to think differently about this character type. Rather than a conceit of the author, perhaps it is simply an authentic representation of that demographic of upper-class, educated British (or Anglophilic) male. Their lives, though not without sadness, have been wrought amongst what most would classify as privilege. Their country has inculcated them with the hereditary of colonialism, and it's that sense of entitlement that underpins their depiction.

I think that theory could be borne out through a comparison with the protagonists of an American author such as Philip Roth - his are also educated men, though perhaps not always born into such a high class. In Roth's case the defining, inescapable character point is their Jewishness. While this produces a different set of character traits, it's as inseperable to their actions and prejudices as McEwan's colonialism.

McEwan of course has just released Solar, a novel 'about climate change', in that the key character is a scientist with an idea for an alternative power source. It's not a fictional version of The Weathermakers, rather a story wherein that current social preoccupation plays a siginificant role in the plot, as in 9/11 in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I await it with interest.


  1. Yes, yes, agree with all of this (obvs!) Have you read Julian Barnes' "A Sense of an Ending"? I feel like he tread the line very carefully - his characters started out as annoying know-it-alls... but he did it in a very nuanced way. Maybe that's what these guys are all lacking?

  2. I have 'A Sense of an Ending' (and as it's a modern book I'm impressed you have too!). It didn't bug me in the same way...maybe because a lot of it focused on the protagonists when they were younger, so they hadn't quite developed the same pretensions? (What's the line they kept using? 'That's philosophically self-evident'.) You're right, though, it was much more nuanced - to be honest, a bit too nuanced, as I don't profess to have fully understood all the layers of the story