Friday, May 29, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Door in the Wall: The Conversation

Our next story is "The Door in the Wall," by H. G. Wells.

I first came across this story while doing research on Nabokov's Lolita, which I taught in my class, Does Literature Matter?, at Stanford. In his article "H. G. Wells's 'The Door in the Wall'" in Russian Literature,"* Richard Borden shows that this particular tale strongly influenced both Nabokov and another favorite of mine, Yuri Olesha. Nabokov vividly alludes to this story in the enchanting, green-suffused scene in which Humbert Humbert first sees Lolita sunning herself in the backyard.

We'll get back to greenness and enchantment. For this post, I want to talk about the frame for this story. It always amazes me how many science fiction and fantasy stories are portrayed as conversations, or remembered conversations ("The Turn of the Screw" comes to mind, as do many of Poe's stories, Bellamy's Looking Backward, Poul Anderson's stories, and many others). The story is either told directly to the narrator by an acquaintance, or the narrator is recalling how the acquaintance (or friend) told him the story. The narrator himself disappears for most of the tale, but steps in every now and then to comment on the storyteller's emotional state (often distraught or seemingly deranged)--and to wonder whether the story could possibly be true. I've never been quite sure what this convention does for us as readers, but because it's so prevalent, it must have some special power.

So here's the opening of "The Door in the Wall":

One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concerned it was a true story.

He told it me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice, denuded of the focussed shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that wrapped about him and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a bright little world quite cut off from every-day realities, I saw it all as frankly incredible. "He was mystifying!" I said, and then: "How well he did it!. . . . . It isn't quite the thing I should have expected him, of all people, to do well."

Afterwards, as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest, present, convey--I hardly know which word to use--experiences it was otherwise impossible to tell.

Well, I don't resort to that explanation now. I have got over my intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling, that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death, which ended my doubts forever, throw no light on that. That much the reader must judge for himself.

The narrator's musings about truth vs. fiction, and the overall distancing effect of his presence, aren't particularly earth-shaking as devices; in fact I'd venture to guess that even by Wells's time these were cliches. We don't see this set-up too often in contemporary literary fiction, perhaps for that reason. And yet, the narrator's ability to comment on the storyteller, as well as the story, seems like a great opportunity. I also like the notion of creating a setting for the telling of the story, which contrasts with the actual story's setting. The former is usually some tranquil or festive domestic scene; a little dinner, a little wine, a little party. Those hearing the tale are often a bit bored with their staid, comfortable lives, and relish being shaken up--although they generally end up more shaken than they wish to be, and sometimes make themselves part of the story later on by going out to investigate.

So for an exercise, we can try framing a story in this manner. You might even play up, or play with, this gentlemen-after-dinner cliche, as a starting point for characterizing both the narrator and the storyteller. What's the relationship between these two (or more) people? How does our ability to see and hear the actual storyteller affect the story itself? And what kind of story does this sort of frame seem to generate? Would the teller tell it differently on some other, so to speak, narrative occasion?

* The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3. (Autumn, 1992), pp. 323-338.

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