f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of Dialogue – Three Random Authors Sitting on My Shelves

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, January 10, 2005

Day 4 of Dialogue – Three Random Authors Sitting on My Shelves

What do Chaim Potok, Anne Tyler, and Mark Salzman have in common? They’re all authors who have books sitting on my office shelves. Which is convenient when I ignore my own plans to bring in other books. At least it gives me something to write this post on.

First, a section of My Name Is Asher Lev.

My father spoke English, Yiddish, or Hebrew into the telephones. But the second week I was in his office I heard him use a language I did not recognize. On our way back to the apartment for lunch, I asked him what language it had been.

“That was French, Asher,” he said.

“I never heard my papa speak French before.”

“I use it when I need it, Asher. I don’t need it around the house.”

“Does Mama speak French?”

“No, Asher.”

“Did you learn French in Europe, Papa?”

“I learned it in America. The Rebbe asked me to study it.”

“Didn’t the Frenchman on the phone know Yiddish, Papa?”

This is fairly representative of Potok’s writing throughout the book. Asher’s dialogue matures as he matures, but Potok keeps his attributions to a minimum. I saw one adverb used—“quietly.” Potok’s skill is to give a sense of the Yiddish dialect without resorting to accent or weirdly spelled words. For him, it seems all in the syntax. (The above doesn’t show what I mean, but trust me.) We’ll talk about dialect later this week, but remember that it’s not all in spelling words weird.

Second, from Saint Maybe.

Ian invited his parents to a Christian Fellowship Picnic.

“To a what?” Doug asked, stalling for time. (Who cared what it was called? It was bound to be embarrassing.)

“Each of us invites people we’d like to join in fellowship with,” Ian said in that dealy earnest way he had. “People who aren’t members of our congregation.”

“I thought that church of yours didn’t believe in twisting folkses’ arms.”

“It doesn’t. We don’t. This is only for fellowship.”

Again, very standard stuff. Normal but minimal attribution. Later in that section Tyler has Ian say something “mildly.” So there’s no ban on adverbs. The interesting part of Saint Maybe is that it’s told through multi-perspectives. And so different characters speak and are heard in a multitude of ways. For instance how a child hears you will vary greatly from how your father (the section above) hears you. All must be true to the character speaking and listening at the same time. Tricky stuff. Which is why Mrs. Tyler has won big awards and I haven’t.

Third from Mariette in Ecstasy


-- Were you surprised bythe tone?

-- She did seem cold.

-- Were you hurt?

-- Oh no! I was so pleased to see our dear God using my sister for my own holiness and good. Everything seemed to be saying to me, She will be a grace for you.

I’m cheating a bit here. Hansen does use unattributed dialogue. But also normal, minimal attribution as well. The interesting point of his unattributed dialogue is that it’s set apart. The above is it’s own brief scene. You’re given little context for the speakers. It’s a puzzle you piece together throughout the book. Who is talking? Why is this important? It works somewhat like voice-over narration in films, giving you information you might not otherwise get.

So that’s just three not too different examples. I’ll try to find others that go a little further afield for tomorrow.
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Continue to Day 5 of Dialogue.