16 February 2007

Bartimaeus’s Voice and Ptolemy’s Gate

Many of the good reviews for Ptolemy’s Gate mention the voice of Bartimaeus the djinni: potent, boastful, and not entirely reliable; complaining and condescending in equal measures; serving up a stew of modern idioms and ancient allusions, spotted with footnoted asides for the (supposed) benefit of our ignorant mortal selves. Author Jonathan Stroud has provided an extra helping of that voice in a short story on his website.

Stroud remarked on his choices in narrative voices in a fascinating interview with author Michael Pryor that the State Library of Victoria, Australia, has made available in both podcast and transcript forms. Stroud told his audience:

I realised quite early on that I think of Bartimaeus as a voice, if that’s possible. Rather than as any kind of physical form. I realised that when the Miramax Disney people, who were hoping to make a movie out of it, asked me who I saw playing Bartimaeus. They wanted Bartimaeus to be played by an adult, so when he takes on the form of Ptolemy as a 12 year old, in the film it would be Ptolemy as an adult. So they could get a famous person playing it. Once I got my head around that idea, which I can see makes commercial sense, I found it really hard, and I’m still quite puzzled, who would I choose?
Bartimaeus’s lack of physical form, even in a Disney movie, makes sense of another nifty element of the narration in his sections of the books: it’s both first-person and third-person. The djinni speaks of himself quite proudly as “I,” but often refers to the earthly forms he assumes as if he weren’t actually inside them: “the crow,” “the boy,” “the frog,” and so on.

And then there are the sections of each book about young Nathaniel and Kitty, both humans. (There’s also a single chapter in the second volume from the point of view of a lesser spirit named Simpkin; Bartimaeus would assure us that we needn’t think any more about him.) Many books have multiple narrators, but usually each can be identified as a character, both to preserve parallelism and to avoid raising questions in readers’ minds. In that approach, Nathaniel would have narrated his own experiences from book one.

Instead, Stroud chose to tell the boy’s story in the detached third person. That not only gives us a respite from Bartimaeus’s mouth (letting absence make us fonder), but it also seems to reflect Nathaniel’s clinical, almost heartless approach to life. In Stroud’s words:
I soon realized that I couldn’t have the whole series in Bartimaeus’ voice because although he is quite charismatic and an attractive guy to be with, if he was talking at you for page upon page upon page you quickly get a bit peeved. A bit like being trapped by an over-excitable guest at a party, you would want to slip away eventually. And it was quite important to bring in Nathaniel’s side of things where it is done in the third person and its much more kind of cool, a bit detached.
I had a little trouble with that shift at first; was Bartimaeus narrating Nathaniel’s story, I wondered, and if so where were all his footnotes? But I adjusted quickly enough. And that approach works excellently at the end of Ptolemy’s Gate when some of the narrative threads we’ve been following will come to an end.

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