Questioning in Fiction

After reading Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon I began to think more seriously about how writers use questions in fiction. Mercier’s novel has an enormous number of questions woven into the narrative that echo both the nature of its story and characters. In part that is probably because Peter Bieri (Pascal Mercier is his pen name) also conducts research and teaches philosophy in Germany.

“How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments? Without joy in thinking?” Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

J. M. Coetzee is another writer whose fictional characters are frequent question-askers. Coetzee’s abundant use of questions in Youth, for example, is not only rhetorical, it is meant to amuse and entertain the reader. At least, that’s the way I reacted to their frequent appearance in a novel that is one of my recent favorites. They literally cascade page after page from the unnamed character’s musings.

For example, in the first three chapters (all relatively short) there are 16, 16, and 19 questions respectively. Each one or each sequence generally takes the following form:

“What are his true thoughts anyway? Some days he feels happy, even privileged, to be living with a beautiful woman…Other days he feels differently. Is the truth the happiness, the unhappiness, or the average of the two?

Is that what one has to do to become a professor of English: read the established authors and write a lecture on each? How many years of one’s life does that eat up? What does it do to one’s spirit?

If one is to be an artist, must one love women indiscriminately? Does an artist’s life entail sleeping with anyone and everyone, in the name of life? If one is finicky about sex is one rejecting life?
” J. M. Coetzee Youth

While novels embedded with questions are bound to appeal to me, questioning is not a critical feature of those I like most. I may enjoy that style of writing and tend to think that way myself, but it probably plays little if any role in my reading preferences.

Henry Perowne, the central character in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a novel that is among my recent favorites, is depicted as a deeply reflective man who spends a good part of that day at least, wondering about a wide range of topics. But his reflections are rarely formulated as questions.

“Questions, ordinary inquisitiveness did not suit her at all. She never insisted on the answer to a question. She might ask once, and if there was no reply, then she would match the silence. There was a pleasing depth to her silence.”
Ian McEwan The Child in Time

It would be interesting to compare writers on this dimension. Do some employ questioning more than others and if so, what might be responsible for their practice? Do they come from a particular tradition or are they, like Peter Bieri, involved in a discipline where questioning is a common practice? Regardless, it reflects a style of writing that is one of probing and wrestling with ideas.

“She communicates largely by asking questions, not personal questions about his life or past history but questions about his opinions on topics ranging from the weather to the state of the world.” Paul Auster Sunset Park

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