Saturday, 11 May 2013


Where narrative is the roadway of a story, dialogue is the stream-fed pool where we stop to drink. For new writers, the fatal words their friends will always say is "Your dialogue is great - you're really good at it." This leads the unfortunate writer to neglect the story and plunge into long, self-indulgent runs of dialogue, to which their embarrassed friends respond: "[Oh no, do I have to read more of this stuff, but] your dialogue is really great."
Dialogue, delicately used, is a close-up of character. Here's Vronsky watching Anna Karenina, the first time he sees her, from that old sensationalist Tolstoy's book of doomed passion:

Madame Karenina, however, did not wait for her brother, but catching sight of him she stepped out with her light, resolute step. And as soon as her brother had reached her, with a gesture that struck Vronsky by its decision and its grace, she flung her left arm around his neck, drew him rapidly to her, and kissed him warmly. Vronsky gazed, never taking his eyes from her, and smiled, he could not have said why. But recollecting that his mother was waiting for him, he went back again into the carriage.
"She’s very sweet, isn’t she?" said the countess of Madame Karenina. "Her husband put her with me, and I was delighted to have her. We’ve been talking all the way. And so you, I hear ... vous filez le parfait amour. Tant mieux, mon cher, tant mieux."
"I don’t know what you are referring to, maman," he answered coldly. "Come, maman, let us go."
Madame Karenina entered the carriage again to say good-bye to the countess.
"Well, countess, you have met your son, and I my brother," she said. "And all my gossip is exhausted. I should have nothing more to tell you."
We see Anna through Vronsky's eyes - warm, impulsive, and, of course, resolute. Then we have his mother mischief-making - and Anna letting him know that she knows full well, and making a little intimacy with him against his mother.
And look at how Ernest Hemingway uses dialogue to describe love at first sight:
They were all eating out of the platter, not speaking, as is the Spanish custom. It was rabbit cooked with onions and green peppers and there were chick peas in the red wine sauce. It was well cooked, the rabbit meat flaked off the bones, and the sauce was delicious. Robert Jordan drank another cup of wine while he ate. The girl watched him all through the meal. Every one else was watching his food and eating. Robert Jordan wiped up the last of the sauce in front of him with a piece of bread, piled the rabbit bones to one side, wiped the spot where they had been for sauce, then wiped his fork clean with the bread, wiped his knife and put it away and ate the bread. He leaned over and dipped his cup full of wine and the girl still watched him.
Robert Jordan drank half the cup of wine but the thickness still came in his throat when he spoke to the girl.
“How art thou called?” he asked. Pablo looked at him quickly when he heard the tone of his voice. Then he got up and walked away. 
Nothing is said - he just asks her what her name is. But the sensual description of the simple meal, followed by that question - a question that is really a declaration - immediately tells the reader what's going on here. More doomed love.
Dialogue, if it's used right, shines a light into the character you're writing about. Dialogue is the lamp Diogenes carried: it reveals an honest man in daylight.
It should never be trimmed around with the author's instructive adverbs - we should never write:
"Oh, yeah?" he laughed sarcastically.
because if you write that, you're stealing from the readers, who should be discovering the character of the people whose story they're following, by the tone and content of their speech, not through a big authorial finger pointing down from above, saying: "Looky, this is what I mean."
And remember that dialogue doesn't have to be the truth. Sometimes the most powerful words are those your readers know to be lies. In Casablanca there is a scene where a naive English couple is approached by a helpful stranger on the street. He puts his arm around the man's shoulder and says:
I beg of you, Monsieur, watch yourself. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere, everywhere.
Naturally, when the Englishman pats his pocket, his wallet is gone. A wonderful piece of dialogue. A beginner would have had the earnest warning, but Casablanca's writers whip it around and give it a spin, by making the very man who's warning them be the thief. Fabulous.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Not listening to Irish radio

Note: after writing this, I suddenly realised that the tweeter may have meant the other A word of the day: Abortion, not Austerity. Same thing is true of this, mind you: people unlikely ever to experience something sitting comfortably telling the poor and unfortunate how to live their lives.

"Might we get through without mention of the A word?" a young woman tweeted on Sunday. "I have 14 coming for lunch and am really not up to it."
The A word is Austerity. She didn't want to hear about poverty, debt, fear, people losing their homes - a constant topic of discussion on Marian Finucane's Sunday morning discussion programme, where well-heeled members of the middle classes chat for a couple of hours each week. The tweeter's attitude is pretty typical of middle-class people's feelings, though they don't necessarily express them with such brutal frankness. They have learned to put a nice veneer on their distaste, disguising it under the traditional Catholic middle-class surface of charitable pity.
The attitude is why I hardly listen to Irish radio any more. Well, I do - I listen to Lyric, which drenches the house with beautiful music, or in the car to RaidiĆ³ na Gaeltachta and Radio na Life, whose discussions in Irish are by people nearer to the pointy edge of that A word. But mostly I listen to them for the music too.
For talk radio, it's BBC World Service. There are two advantages. The first and more serious is that the World Service takes journalism seriously. There are hardly any of the programmes that are the core of RTE's oeuvre, the groups of well-fed folk sharing their similar opinions. There is little propaganda, and when there is propaganda, well, it's from a foreign country and I can mutter "Codswallop!" and ignore it. The core of the World Service's programming does what it does best, what it has always done best: the kind of journalism that comes out of the stringent, scholarly academic training of the great English and Scottish university.
The BBC has stringers in every obscure corner of the world: educated people who are also get-down-in-the-dirt journalists. If there is a political scandal in Bhutan tomorrow, you can be sure that there will be a BBC journalist opening out its layers of complexity on the airwaves within seconds of the scandal breaking. The journalist will be an insider in Bhutan, but will have no axe to grind.
On the A word, the BBC is superb. They interview the well-heeled slavemasters in the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission, and the robber barons of the trading houses. They also keep listeners up with the latest research and theory in economics - the BBC loves academics, especially if they're fluent.
They don't do much of the Talk to Joe moaning of RTE's Liveline, where the presenter presides over a series of woeful people wringing out their handkerchiefs in public over truly terrible misfortune. Instead, the World Service has phone-in programmes where experts of one sort or another answer questions from around the world, on every subject conceivable. The brilliance of these programmes lies in their absolute sense of egalitarianism. The world's greatest experts on a subject - and sometimes just well-informed and -educated amateurs - sit in panels, and the questions and comments from listeners are often as deep in their scholarship as the answers from experts - I was practically eating the radio during a wonderful recent hour-long World Book Club on F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
So, no RTE for me, or rarely. I read the papers - online, I have to confess - for news about each new horror that strikes Ireland: the brutal greed of Irish politicians and their friends the developers and bankers; the latest revelations about the rape of children and the bishops' actions as accessories to the rapists in concealing their crimes, bullying their victims and sending the perpetrators on to new parishes with fresh victims and unwarned parents; the lies, the endless lies, about the enormous wealth of the Catholic church and the protected wealth class that grew out of the big farms that survived the 1840s Famine. I can't take the way Irish radio pretends - or perhaps believes - that we are the republic of equals that the republicans of the early 20th century dreamed up. I can't stand the way that salaries are growing at one end of society while at the other end people are terrified and losing everything - and we're still pretending. I absolutely can't stand the way that Irish radio - and it's not just RTE, I should say - is so deeply based in the world and worldview and accents of the well-heeled.
RTE is particularly bad in this way: people paid hundreds of thousands of euro pontificating on the lives of those living at the officially poverty level. Do they not see how brutal this is?
So for me - and, I increasingly find, for many of those I know, Irish radio is an irrelevance, an unpleasant buzzing in the ear. They listen, like me, to world services from the BBC or the American NPR stations, or they listen to French stations, or to the wonderful classical stations from Belgium or Canada or Latvia or America.
It's so sad seeing the divisions coming in Ireland. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they were always there, and I didn't see them.