In the text, some of the names have been changed to protect identities (Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport)
Most of the names in the book have been changed (Roger Green, Destination Nowhere).
Minor Characters and Travel Writing
We’re all familiar with this disclaimer – or something similar – that appears at the front or back of certain works of non-fiction.
On the one hand, it is a way of reminding us that this indeed is a work of non-fiction. It would sound ludicrous in a novel, at least a highly imaginative one. ‘Harry Potter (not his real name)…’ It is saying: the people who appear in this book are not made up, they really have an independent existence. People who know them – friends, enemies – may well be reading this book.
On the other hand, by admitting that their names have been changed, the writer (or publisher) is already alluding to a process of fictionalization. And one which, we must assume, does not stop at names. In order to protect the privacy of an individual, it is likely one must adjust their place of residence or their job title, remove distinctive features of speech or appearance, and so on. A whole textual witness protection programme would seem to be required.
The practice of changing names is common in investigative journalism, where whistle-blowers need to be protected, or in certain kinds of confessional writing. In travel accounts, we come across it less often. For here, the first-person protagonist cuts a rather lonely figure. The minor characters who appear in the narrative are often very minor indeed, their purposes crudely instrumental. Even when the narrator explicitly engages them in conversation, the sense that they have life histories or powers of observation that would match the writer’s own is conspicuously lacking. The idea that other people might travel often seems particularly threatening.
One kind of travel narrative in which other people feature more strongly is the one in which the first-person protagonist remains stationary and focuses his or her attention on the comings and goings of everyone else. A genre that might be called travellee writing. Here, at last, perhaps, the minor characters may have a greater claim on our interest.
In this post I want to explore the the different ways transit-ing passengers, customers, guests – and their backstories – are brought to life on the basis of a very brief (and sometimes indirect) acquaintance, in three books of this type:
- A Week at the Airport (2009) by Alain de Botton. A short book about a week he spent as writer in residence at Heathrow.
- Destination Nowhere (2004) by Roger Green. A diary recording multiple visits to South Mimms motorway service station north of London over a year and a half.
- L’Hôtel (1984) by Sophie Calle. Another diary, this one full of a housekeeper’s observations of rooms in a Venice hotel.
The first two of these (as I have indicated) employ such disclaimers. Sophie Calle’s book does not, but her text does redact the surnames of the hotel guests, which is a related practice.
I’m going to take one example from each book to indicate some of the ways in which minor characters are presented: the evidence on which their personality or history is – or is not – extrapolated; and the extent to which this involves some imaginative embellishment.
But, drawing on Alex Woloch’s richly suggestive study, The One Vs. the Many, I also want to insist that minor characters can’t really be understood on their own; their relationship with the protagonist is important.1 The protagonist needs minor characters in order to be, well, a convincing protagonist. How well they meet this need is an open question.
Alain De Botton
De Botton gives the people he meets quite detailed backstories. Sometimes these mini-biographies are explicitly hypothetical (where the intention seems to be simply to evoke a ‘type’ rather than accurately identify an individual). Occasionally the stories are more developed and idiosyncratic, suggesting that they derive from an actual conversation with the person in question. But it’s often hard to tell the difference.
Let’s take this passage.
A full 70 per cent of the airport’s departing passengers were off on trips for pleasure. It was easy to spot them at this time of year, in their shorts and hats. David was a thirty-eight-year old shipping broker, and his wife, Louise, a thirty-five-year-old full-time mother and ex-television producer. They lived in Barnes with their two children, Ben, aged three, and Millie, aged five. I found them towards the back of a check-in line for a four-hour flight to Athens. Their final destination was a villa with a pool at the Katafigi Bay resort, a fifty-minute drive away from the Greek capital in a Europcar Category C vehicle.
The detail here is so excessive, and though this family and their holiday are entirely plausible, it is difficult to imagine an interview that would yield so much information, unless it took place in a police station. It seems likely that if de Botton did meet someone matching the description of David and Louise, at least some of the ‘facts’ here have been supplied by the author. He continues:
It would be difficult to overestimate how much time David had spent time thinking about his holiday since he had first booked it, the previous January. He had checked the weather reports online every day. He had placed the link to the Dimitra Residence in his Favourites folder and regularly navigated to it, bringing up images of the limestone master bathroom and of the house at dusk, lit up against the rocky Mediterranean slopes. He had pictured himself playing with the children in the palm-lined garden and eating grilled fish and olives with Louise on the terrace.2
We have long since left behind anything that might have come out of a conversation and de Botton has entered the realm of the fictional with a third-person omniscient narrator who renders David’s thoughts and feelings in the language of an Anglo-Swiss philosopher (rather than reporting it in direct or free indirect speech that might have conveyed the more colloquial idiom Dave himself might have used).
If one can reconstruct a multitude of different stories from A Week at the Airport (from the businessmen who occupy the executive lounges to those who clean up after them) (and this is the one of the book’s great merits), they remain rather indistinguishable at the level of discourse. Their accents, idioms and idiolects disappear in the uniform narrative voice that is used to paraphrase them.
De Botton’s antithesis is Roger Green. While there are some silent encounters, by and large Destination Nowhere is a cacophony of different voices: sentences he overhears, dialogues in which he participates, and longer sections where he transcribes (and presumably abridges) the confessions of a few customers and staff who agree to be formally interviewed.
Here’s an extract:
‘He’s got the fucking key. Why can’t he open up?’
‘It’s what I’ve been telling you.’
‘He can’t do it.’
‘His company, his money.’
I arrive at the end of a mobile phone conversation.
The man in an olive-green shirt with a matching dark tie, and carefully groomed jet black hair, speaks directly at the man sitting across the table to him and down his mobile simultaneously. The second man in a dark off-the-rail Burton’s discount suit is quiet.
The ‘mouthy’ one reminds me of a younger Dave Bassett when he was manager at Wimbledon. You know, always up for it, talks bollocks, and is oblivious to those around him.
Lots of arm waving and ‘fuckings’ as they leave.
Sometimes I feel as if I am on the set of The Truman Show with Jim Carey [sic]. Is this an artificial world I am in?3
No names have been changed here, although one of the anonymous characters has been lent the name of a former football manager in an attempt to convey his manner. The phone transcript, the arrangement of the two men and their clothes, lightly suggest a possible backstory (or rather several possible backstories), but the scene more forcefully invites the reader to imagine what it feels like for the narrator-protagonist to observe and listen to them, well before the enigmatic closing paragraph. The scare-quotes around ‘mouthy’ suggest he is aware that a more sophisticated term might be more appropriate but cannot call it to mind. But then he throws caution to the winds in the strikingly vernacular gloss on his Bassett comparison that follows.
The passage well captures, I think, the slightly smug tone of the book’s narrator. But I think the documentary impulse gives us enough detail, gives the characters enough space, to make us wonder if Green isn’t being unduly dismissive here, drawing our sympathy to two men, particularly the silent companion.
Sophie Calle also adopts the diary format, but her entries are much more measured and meticulous than Green’s. First and foremost they describe rooms, almost as if they are unoccupied, like the opening directions for a scene in a playscript. But in this example the narrator’s presence is evident from the start.
Monday 2 March, 10.30am. I go in to 24, the pink room. The twin beds are unmade. A strange feeling of deja-vu. Images are jumbled. Days and guests blend into one another. Had I not already seen to these people? The first things I notice are the books on the table: The Colour Orange by Alain Gerber and a French-Italian dictionary. In the wardrobe: the ordinary clothes of a banal couple, camera equipment in a shoulder bag, an empty suitcase. The drawer is stuffed full of handkerchieves, insulin medication, Gauloises Caporal.
‘I enter’ and then – without using the first person – her subjectivity inflects most of the suceeding sentences (a sense of deja-vu, the way the days merge into each other) and we follow her gaze around the room (the books on the table, the clothes in the wardrobe, the contents of the drawer). A precision (make of cigarettes, the title of the book, the type of medicine) indicates a particular level of attention, and only the words ordinaires and banal betray any sense of judgement; they stand out from what seems to be a dispassionate inventory.
I empty the handbag on the floor: sachets of sugar, tampax, pink lipstick, postal orders in the name of Paulette B., old tickets for a Xenakis concert and a diary.
Calle, we might have guessed by now, is no ordinary housekeeper, and indeed appears to spend very little time actually cleaning the rooms, preferring, in fact, to search them. And of course the diary is too much to resist. So in her own diary Calle transcribes extracts from another:
On the first page I read: ‘In the event of my decease, everything I own is at the sole disposition of M. Francois G.’ and the signature of Paulette B., childish, touching. Under the heading ‘Notes’, this figure: 23, 485.68, the address of a retirement home in Versailles, a sentence: ‘A chamois of between a year and 18 months is called an éterlon,’ and a quotation from Malraux, which I decipher with difficulty. I think it says: ‘It was the first white civilization but it was also the glittering lagoon of a Maori world […] For us there is difficulty in associating the Iliad, or even the Odyssey, with these courts in which naked princes wearing ostrich-feather headdresses bowed their lances before Phedra-like grandes dames exhibiting their breasts above chastely billowing flounces of fine linen.’ A. Malraux, NRF, 1954, page 93.4
And the text continues a good while beyond this. Fragments from which one might begin to construct a character, but there is too much that is inscrutable. Calle makes no attempt to extrapolate Paulette B from these fragments; nor do they seem to be chosen in order to prompt readers to draw their own conclusions. In a sense, the actual contents of the diary – or indeed of the handbag – are irrelevant. The main point is Calle’s shocking willingness to pry: to exceed the bounds of what might be thought to be acceptable conduct on the part of both a housekeeper and a travel writer.
The Limits of Fabrication
The thing is, though. By the time she enters room 24 we’re more than half way through the book and have grown accustomed to her modus operandi. The way she opens drawers and luggage, and arranges belongings on the bed or floor in order to photograph them. The way she registers subtle differences from one day to the next, prompting the kinds of speculations one might expect from a private detective.
That she reports her investigations in such detail seems to be governed by the need to convince her readers that she actually did act so improperly, for her project is to expose and unsettle our preconceptions about the public and private. But the detail nevertheless exceeds this purpose.
The hotel guests, like Paulette B, remain elusive figures, but they occupy a disproportionate space in Calle’s discours than any histoire we might try to reconstruct from their fragments. Indeed, as you read on, Paulette B begins to nag like an unsolved crossword clue – as if, once her mystery has been cracked, she could be called on to appear in an alternative narrative in which she is the protagonist. (And Calle runs like hell once Paulette discovers she’s been reading her diary).
I think this is true – to a greater or lesser degree – of minor characters more generally. In other words, minor characters often seem to serve a merely instrumental role (providing local colour, acting as a mouthpiece for some contextual history, assisting or obstructing the traveller’s progress), ‘flat’ in order that the protagonist can be ‘round’. But at the same time, there is always a possibility that they are given too much space, that we get carried away by David and Louise or intrigued by the man in the green shirt – partly because we might feel that the text has been a little unfair to them. At which point the authority of the protagonist begins to falter.
In an interview Colin Thubron was asked about the role of fabrication in travel writing. In his reply he makes what is – I think – a fairly commonplace distinction.
On the one hand, he insists that a certain kind of fabrication is inevitable, even necessary in travel writing. He talks of himself of having ‘jumbled people’. Part of this is due to the imperfections of memory, but of course even if accurately remembered, a writer must choose what to leave in and leave out, to describe and interpret events in a particular way that betrays one’s ‘sensibility’ or ‘personality’. He also suggests that a deliberate falsification can be ‘useful in some ways. In the China book,’ he says, ‘I wasn’t sure if some people or myself were not being watched, so you displace them in the narrative to somewhere else.’
On the other hand, pressed by the interviewer, who asks about rather less acceptable forms of fabrication – specifically (and rather economically) ‘the temptation to make things up, or fudge quotes’ – the point at which, we might say, the novelistic techniques of characterisation have gone too far. Thubron admits the temptation but has never succumbed because he doesn’t think he could carry it off. ‘If someone were to say I’ve got to make up somebody I met, I wouldn’t know where to be begin – it would stand out like the most obvious fake.’
I’ve got one or two friends who write about cultures that they really know – the States, for instance. And one friend – quite a well-known travel writer, I won’t mention his name – says it’s just a change of gear. He writes the facts, and then he goes up a gear and starts imagining from there on, and claims it’s fact. But for me, fiction is like getting into a different car. My imagination is working in a completely different way.5
We might note Thubron’s reluctance to make a moral judgement here. Making things up and fudging quotes are not wrong, just not the way he personally likes to work. But they are not quite equivalent alternatives, matters of taste. He feels compelled to introduce this minor character – whom he declines to name (which of course only makes us more curious) – who precisely does make things up and fudge quotes and claims it’s fact. In order to give his own way of doing things more integrity, he conjures up this reckless, speeding driver who breaks the limit with impunity, while casting himself as a more law-abiding motorist who – when he allows himself the thrill of speed – does so in a more appropriate vehicle, presumably in a safer place (like a race track).
A contrast which is highly moralistic. And yet, like any story that requires a villain, it is hard to stop that villain becoming lovable. After all, fast cars are frighteningly popular.
Based on a paper first presented at the Travel and Truth conference in Oxford, 16-18 September 2011.
- Alex Woloch, The One Vs The Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
- Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary (London: Profile, 2009), pp. 37-38.
- Roger Green, Destination Nowhere: A South Mimms Motorway Service Station Diary (London: Athena, 2004), pp. 117-18.
- Sophie Calle, L’Hôtel (Paris: Actes Sud, 1998), pp. 92-4. My translation, except for the quotation from Malraux, for which I used Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Metamorphosis of the Gods, London, Secker, 1960, p. 41.
- Colin Thubron interviewed by Alec Ash, The Browser 22 July 2011.