That old fly on the wall

“Dialogue for me is the most effective and most interesting way of defining character, making it unnecessary for the writer to intrude with any song-and-dance routine of his own,” explains literary journalist Lillian Ross in Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism. “Moreover, as in a play or movie, dialogue moves the action along. That is why so many readers write to me and say that they felt, while reading a piece, that they were right there, with me.”

“A tape recorder gets in the way, too,” she goes on. “I, not the machine, must do the listening. And you must be selective Ross-Reportingin listening to the characters. If I edit the dialogue a bit to make it more truly theirs, I do it in a way that is not noticeable to the talker or to anyone else.”

Ross explains that real, back-and-forth dialogue brought to life her famous New Yorker “Portrait of Hemingway,” later published as a book. The piece caused an uproar because many readers thought Hemingway came off as an egotistical monster, and they condemned him; and because others supposed Ross had maliciously made the writer, then a battered fifty, appear a crazed blowhard. Students, I’ve found, usually like the writer as oracular bon vivant that Ross apparently intended to present. She has explained that she adored Hemingway—they were friends and corresponded—and that he found her account accurate and funny.

What I’ve seen no comment on is the irony that Ross used Hemingway’s own favored point of view: severely limited, direct-observer, third person in which the narrator lacks access to thoughts or emotions and doesn’t interpret or judge, only depicts what can be seen and heard. This “fly on the wall” viewpoint has the effect of forcing readers to stand back and analyze rather than sympathize. Without characters’ inner life or the writer’s commentary, dialogue is crucial to revelation. By careful use of details and dialogue, Hemingway could make you feel awful and sense past, or coming, horror. As it happens, so did Ross in her portrait of the writer. Had she added her own, sympathetic point of view her piece might have read less like a short story and would have made the journalist a more obvious character in it. But it wouldn’t be the same classic profile, for good or ill.

In any case, Ross used limited third-person narration rigorously in her “Portrait.” She showed and did not tell, an aesthetic principle that dovetails nicely with journalism’s ostensible focus on the subject rather than the writer. In literary journalism the existence of the writer is usually at least acknowledged, however. The paragraph below consists of Hemingway discussing my favorite passage in all of literature, the opening of A Farewell to Arms—the novel’s entire first chapter is but two amazing pages—and subtly admits Ross’s presence:

“As we walked along, Hemingway said to me, ‘I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne. I learned how to make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, Hemingway-Farewelland I am pretty sure that if Mr. Paul was around, he would like the way I make them and be happy that I learned it from him.’ He had learned a lot from Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, too. ‘In the first paragraph of Farewell, I used the word and consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint. I can almost write like Mr. Johann sometimes—or anyway, so he would like it. All such people are easy to deal with, because we all know you have to learn.’”

Joan Didion called Hemingway’s heartbreakingly beautiful first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms “thrilling and mysterious,” four sentences which in their arrangement achieve a “liturgical cadence.” Hemingway’s sentences are often said to be “simple” —but they aren’t. They’re  rhythmical, with artful repetition, and their construction is varied and complex. His sentences’ weirdly powerful effect resides in this and in their words, which in contrast to the syntax that carries them are simple indeed, as plain and elemental as earth. Here’s the famous paragraph, rendered in that old fly-on-the-wall point of view; emotion arises from the details the narrator emphasizes and from the rhythm of his telling, rather than from explanation:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

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Filed under dialogue, fiction, flow, journalism, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, syntax

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