Who Listens?


postcard 1We’re eight of us, at a party and Hayley says, ‘Well, would you believe they do glass bottom boat trips in Scotland? We went last summer, and it was amazing.  Worst weather of the holiday, but I suppose the fish don’t mind.  It was lucky I’d packed two sets of wet weather stuff.  I thought I was never going to get my boots dry. It was worth it though.  I’d never have thought there was stuff like that on our coasts.’

Our attention begins to stray within a sentence or two.  It shouldn’t have.  Hayley’s a patient and attentive listener to our stories, so it would have been polite for us to return the favour.  But we are all reminded of our own sea adventures, and soon there are splinter conversations all round the table.

It might be that we are just the worst kind of friends, with no manners.  Because it’s only as we are debating the best age for having ears pierced, and I happen to notice Hayley’s head’s turning left-to-right-to-left, following the banter between Jean and Harry on either side of her, that I realise Hayley didn’t describe the amazing part of her trip in the glass-bottom boat.

Perhaps she had poor timing.  It was late, and there were more empty bottles on the table than full.   The mood was getting more boisterous, perhaps a little competitive.

Besides, it’s the nature of conversation in a general group gathering to shift through subjects rapidly.  Sometimes we contribute, at others the focus of interest shifts topic and we’re left behind.  Conversation, you might point out, is about interaction, not monologue, and some of us have a better grasp of that than others.

Photo by Betty M. Powell Copyright, Argus Communications.  Harlow, Essex, England.

Photo by Betty M. Powell
Copyright, Argus Communications. Harlow, Essex, England.

Now though, I’ve placed Hayley on the page.  And in case we’ve forgotten, let me remind us that with writing, every mark or gap counts.  Hayley’s experience is no longer something that has faded from consciousness by the next morning, it is now the focus of attention.  That party exists, no matter how sketchy my two paragraph description is, for as long as this page exists.

Hayley, with all her strengths and weaknesses has begun to take form in fiction.  I suppose, in that case, I could allow her to tell you the story of her trip on a glass-bottom boat and the epiphany she experienced.  You could say I owe her that much, for placing her on the page in such an unflattering manner.  Perhaps we all do.  There are times when even the most reticent of us gets distracted from the next person’s narrative, aren’t there?

I could set things right.  I know all the details.  But that’s not what I set out to do here.  Interested as I am in Hayley, on this page she exists only because I’m thinking about how conversation works or, all too often, doesn’t work in fiction.

The plain fact is that Hayley is not good at telling stories, or jokes, for that matter.  Now that I’ve written her down, we can see where she’s going wrong.  Actually, they’re pretty much the same mistakes we all make in live conversation, digression, starting in the wrong place, giving more detail than necessary, pedantry, launching into monologue instead of interacting.

Monologues are fine, of course, in their place.  But unless on stage, or giving a lecture, they’re not a group activity.

So to get back on topic, and state the obvious: conversations are messy, especially when they involve more than two people who know each other well. Trust me to state the obvious, but sometimes we need reminding, that one of the tricks to creating life-like conversation on the page is to break it up.

All too often in fiction I read the kind of focused exchanges that rarely happen to me in real life.  Each speaker takes turns to provide nicely balanced sensible prose following the theme of the story.  I don’t know about you, but that’s yet to happen to me.

Tolstoy and the Reading Group

This week we finished reading Anna Karenina.  My conclusion?  You should read it too.  Sure, see the new(ish) film, it’s great, and manages to include the main themes and majority of the story artfully.  I loved the way the scenes intersected with each other, and the way they used theatre and dance.  The casting was, mostly, great too.

Sorry Kiera Knightly, but you were not Anna Karenina.  You are far too thin.  You should have been cast as Dolly, and wouldn’t it have been interesting for you to be playing against your looks at this stage in your career?

Oops, side-tracked.  What I’m trying to say is that this novel is worth reading even if you have seen the film, and regardless of whether you loved or disliked that.

Read it even if you already know what happens with Anna, because the journey is what counts. That’s true in all good fiction, surely, otherwise we’d just read the first and last chapters of any book: the first and last paragraphs of a short story.  Besides, does any reader begin reading about Anna Karenina without knowing her ending?

Read it because Anna Karenina is a gloriously huge story.  I’m not just talking about how many pages it fills, I’m thinking about how the whole thing works.

Tolstoy is a master puppeteer, controlling characters and balancing ideas all the way through.  He creates a picture of Russia at a moment of change, when its society is still trying to work out what being Russian means.  True, we’re talking aristocrats, largely, but should we dismiss it for that?  After all, what a vast and unlikely collection of ideals they are.

Besides, other great Russian writers will step forward to fill-in the social gap.  What Tolstoy does is recreate imperial Russia with all its fashions, ideas and worries, and he does it so artfully that even though he is criticising, the public mostly loved his story.  Their engagement was such that they waited anxiously for each new section over a period of four years, with long gaps between some of the sections.  Many wrote to him with advice, suggestions and questions.

Okay, Anna Karenina wasn’t written in English, and of course there are technical arguments that can be made about authorship when someone stands between us and the original. However, interesting though that discussion would be, I’m going to count it as something of a sidetrack.  It doesn’t seem to offer much of an incentive to read.

The story remains Tolstoy’s, despite the translators.  If you don’t believe me, compare a few pages.  The structure, the events, the characters and characterisation, those are Tolstoy, and what a joy they are.  From the hedonistic Stiva to that dry stick, Sergei, and all the rest of them, they leap off the page.  Including even, Kostya’s dog, Laska, who leads us on a hunt at the expense of her master’s dignity.

I admit here that there were sections I skimmed through on my first reading. But reading it again for working on with the group I realised I had missed out.    This is a story of many facets.  Tolstoy wrote with care, and edited and rewrote and edited again.  There are sections that could be lifted out and stand-alone as short stories, but they belong within the text.  They are part of a large picture that we, the reader must build.

Tolstoy provides us with scenes so that we can interpret or re-interpret the events.  His is a modern method of teaching, not direct lecturing, but leading us to understand through the questions we ask.

Tolstoy, 1876: “I have noticed that any story makes an impression only when one cannot make out with whom the author sympathises.”

This is a ‘modern’ novel in many ways.  Its subjects are the state of marriage and sex, amongst other things.  It includes a long and detailed description of a woman giving birth to her first child, and an account of breast-feeding at a time when high-class women did not mention pregnancy, but used a series of euphemisms to imply their condition.

What else?  Check out the dialogue.  It’s fresh, believable, interesting and varied.  Conversations flow, not just in one direction, but to include inuendo, gossip and asides.  They deliver information without appearing to clunk, and incorporate actions and descriptions seamlessly.

His descriptions are spare, but telling, and his use of the interior monologue would influence the modernists, particularly James Joyce.  If you want to know more, there are thousands of good criticisms to look at, but don’t take their word for it, or mine, go away and read or re-read it for yourself.