My Curious Reading: The Baron and the Bulge
Dialogue must be the most powerful type of writing.
Most of us, I think, leafing through a book, see dialogue sequences as welcome action; we get from these a little pleased anticipation. Things are picking up. It doesn’t take that form of narrative known as the historical present to make dialogue function as real-time. Conversation is an exchange, and the exchange, for its duration, is all. The character is not flashing back, weighing his choices, riding a bus, having his city and its history explained by an intervening omniscient narrator. Half a dozen straight pages of exposition tend to look, by contrast, a little freighted with their potential boredom.
Dialogue is, of course, entirely artificial. The daydream of a muse-ridden, “natural” flow of words, does crop up…however, writers use devices, and we know what they are. We know how to hold back information, how to mislead, how to stoke dramatic tension. And we have a number of things to convey with dialogue. This is the character’s voice; it is her life. She has inhibitions and boldnesses, words she is embarrassed to use; she has an education, she has a family—one that encouraged or rebuked her. She has a personal wish: to persuade, to be liked, to avoid being caught out.
Even the between dialogue business: “She refused to meet his eye”; “She paused, then went on”, flavors the scene—and all of that affects us as though we were watching, rather than reading.
There is a challenge in which writer and reader engage together, offering and accepting a sort of literary magic trick; this is seen in works of translation, in writing done in English (as many journals require), from those whose work takes place in a non-English speaking country. Writers of English (of course these things apply to all languages, the relationship altered) make characters who both speak in another language, and speak English inexpertly.
Here are two excerpts with dialogue, taken from my own book, A Figure from the Common Lot. In the first example, Honoré speaks to his mentor, Broughton, in English; in the second, his own language, to the couple he shares a room with.
(1) Thinking of this, he could see the complications in Broughton’s question. These were greater than he had realized. “I could give no information,” he began, finding his way. “But I would not like to refuse help. And then”—another picture came to his mind—“the windows in the front are open to the street. I mean…” He stopped, thinking he had not phrased this well.
“You mean to say,” Broughton prompted, “that one standing outside the house sees the interior quiet completely through the windows; they spanning the house-front as they do.”
Honoré nodded. “How foolish it would seem. But then, I understand, I would belong to the house…I would be as though I were at least of the household, if not knowing the business there.”
(2) “That is the tinsmith, the Sicilian.”
“Ha! True enough.” Her eyes shone with the pleasure of giving dismaying news. “But his friend there, that one has been watching you. And him you don’t know.”
“No, he never followed you here,” Garond preempted Honoré’s question. “He knows you live at this house. No, he does not follow you at all. He waits along the street where you walk each day. He is ahead of you, not behind. He allows you to pass him by. He uses the eyes of others to keep informed. But he will not allow another to make the arrest. Then, he would not be paid.”
Honoré’s limitations are not only ill-health and poverty, his self-education, those lessons he has learned by which he defines his relationship to the world—to trust this person, lie to that person, avoid this one altogether—but also his times, the 1870’s. To get the language and speech habits of second empire France, you must read the publications of that era…better, if you can do so in French. This, for me, takes a fair amount of application to the Google translator, and my dictionary, but my object has been to read the untranslated le Constitutionnel, Figaro, several of the Belgian papers, some reference works; one, the Mémoires du baron Haussmann—a man arguably the era’s defining character.
Memoirs are written to answer critics. A British view of the baron is shown by a correspondent to the London Daily Telegraph, commenting in a report circulated July 4, 1868:
“Criticism, even of the most inimical nature, M. Haussmann does not disdain. He rather invites it, and seems well-nigh to covet it.”
The Comte de Persigny, Minister of the Interior, Haussmann’s chief who recommended him to Napoleon III as architect of the Paris renovations, said of him:
« …il aurait parlé six heures sans s’arrêter, pourvu que ce fût de son sujet favori, de lui-même. »
He will speak for six hours without cease, provided this be on his favorite subject, himself.
Whereas Haussmann, of Persigny, said:
« Quant à M. de Persigny, j’achevai si bien de gagner son estime, de conquérir sa confiance, qu’à la fin, il me parlait de toutes choses à coeur ouvert. »
As to M. de Persigny, I will complete so well the winning of his esteem, the conquering of his confidence, that at length he speaks to me of all things with an open heart.
He may have been unaware of Persigny’s private opinion, or considered the (posthumous) complimentary insult the most unanswerable riposte.
The memoirist has control of his own material, and can employ novelistic dialogue without having to prove its veracity, while the biographer typically can quote only transcripts, letters, diary entries, interviews. Haussmann’s style is free with long paragraphs of speech, which, excepting the above sources, can be only his re-creations…but give to his work a lively character, and to the researcher, if not a perfect historical document, something, at any rate, of value—a sense of the social manners of the era: who could address whom, and how.
Stephanie Foster, 2017