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.
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.”
“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.
Anti-war WWII novels are rare. Ones written in the 1950’s probably amount to a handful. Possibly not. When I am researching, I like to go as close to the source as possible. There is a meta-value, one might say, in reading participants’ accounts of history. They write in the vernacular of their times; they mention incidental detail, things now lost, that give roundness to a human being inhabiting a world. This is the era’s true voice, which a writer of fiction wants no less than she wants facts. And the second world war was not an homogenous time of heroism. It was a time of labor unrest and race riots, these frequently at military bases.
I go to the NYT archives, and check the book section, when I’m looking for a history or novel from a particular decade. The book I’m about to recommend won’t be easy to find. (And so, of course, we don’t know how many more such books may be going extinct out there.) It’s fun, though, to snare one of the last available copies of a work nearly forgotten.
A Time to Go Home, William C. Fridley (E. P. Dutton and Co., 1951), got a lukewarm treatment from the NYT’s Charles Poore (“Disquieting for the Infantry”, July 21, 1951).
Fridley’s handling of dialogue can be fairly stagey, as Poore notes—if by this he means that the G.I.’s have an ironic, declamatory, reference-laden habit of speech, and that when they speak, they tend to sound alike. Fridley is much stronger on internal dialogue, where his people are reacting and intending, and in personal accounts, where they are providing information, than with chit-chat, where they seem to be showing off. (Likely enough, but each still should have his individual turn of phrase.)
I don’t, as a reader, find philosophical breaks objectionable, on the grounds, merely, that the construct is un-lifelike. I doubt people ever speak this way. Even the articulate talk-show guest will string perhaps five or six sentences together—on the page, a paragraph. And every writer who has crafted a lengthy speech knows how much tinkering goes into a satisfactory draft. A number of writers (Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse), make novels to expound their philosophy; they surround the quester/instructor formula with a storyline, but are otherwise comfortable enough in having pages of dialogue that are really prose.
Fridley’s Lieutenant Potnik, then, survives to progress through the Ardennes campaign from the book’s start to its end, meeting types, hearing what each has to impart—the meat of which remains entertaining, a feat with which to credit an author. Huxley’s Island has long been a favorite of mine (the hero’s vision of other people as maggots had a lot of resonance for me as a teenager), but I consider it also a template for too much philosophy.
An author’s intentions, however, should be discoverable in the text.
Fridley had an editor at Dutton, so no doubt chose consciously to make the narrative perspective of A Time to Go Home that of war itself, as did Émile Zola in La Débâcle (Franco-Prussian), and as authors will, at times, tell a story from the point of view of one who is not a protagonist. Thus, Fridley introduces players who are there and gone, as soldiers, refugees, resistance fighters, Red Cross workers, do meet in wartime for an hour, never to see each other again.
Only when a point isn’t made, the reader can’t really be left to assume it.
Poore seems, though, to have misread or misremembered the Belgians’ story, or I think he would not have reduced their talk to “the merits and demerits of the European and American ways of life.” The scene describes the torture of a man and woman, his crawling to the street and sitting there, while others pass him by, until he has the strength to move on.
Fridley’s book has the virtues of reportorial detail, boldness of dissent, and evenhandedness of viewpoint—in short, I call it a pleasing find.
I will mention briefly The Death of Hitler’s Germany, Georges Blond (The Macmillan Co., 1954, translated by Frances Frenaye). This history, which has a chapter on the Ardennes campaign, has an innovative style for its time, and is based on documents taken from English and German, into French; then, for this American release, English. Blond has chosen a novelist’s presentation, casting his scenes in dialogue, sometimes in thought, a portion in the form of an imaginary diary. Blond was himself a veteran, and interviewed some of the former Nazi officers. He was allowed to view the interrogation records of the American officers.
Stephanie Foster, 2017