I finally recovered, somewhat the worse for wear, my copy of Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav. I got to finish the last twenty pages, and now I get to talk about how Morris uses dialogue.
Like I said in that other post, the object is to understand how dialogue is used in fiction not driven exclusively by plot and character.
Letters from Hav is a travel narrative about a fictional city located somewhere along the south Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor. My edition includes a two-page spread of kickass high fantasy style maps of the city. In terms of content, I would say the book is about 80% worldbuilding, 15% character, 5% plot. Stylistically, it is beautiful, deceptively simple. Here’s the opening:
I did what Tolstoy did, and jumped out of the train when it stopped in the evening at the old frontier. Far up at the front the engine desultorily gasped, and wan faces watched me through crusted windows as I walked all alone down the platform to the gate. There was no pony trap awaiting me of course (Tolstoy’s reminded him sadly of picnics at Yasnaya Polyana), but a smart enough green Fiat stood in the station yard, a young man in sunglasses and a blue blazer beckoned me from the wheel, and in no time we were off along the rutted track towards the ridge.
Characterwise, we get the slightly fictionalized, nearly-transparent POV of Morris herself, functioning, as in the best travel writing, largely as a vessel for the eye. Gradually one acquires the impression of a quiet escapist struggling to drown her own questions of identity and self through immersion in alien experience. She rarely speaks except to ask questions; often she will opt to narrate her own part in a conversation while delivering explicitly the dialogue of others. This emphasizes that the focus is meant to be on the city and its inhabitants, rather than on herself–without every quite managing to divert us from the fact that there is no such place as Hav, allowing us, through implication, to come eventually to an understanding of the city as a metaphor for Morris herself.
The denizens of Hav, in their mode of speech and purpose, fall into three categories: outspoken intellectuals, opinionated, idle people in positions of power, and those of the working class. From the working class people we get the flavor of the dialect. Morris is referred to almost universally as “Dirleddy”–a mashing-together of “Dear lady”. These characters appear fleetingly, often in crowds, and speak briefly and to the point–often with jocular good humor.
I wore my toweling hat from Australia to go to the Serai. “Başinda kavak yelleri esiyor,” a passer-by said without pausing, which being translated from the Turkish means “There is the springtime in your hat!”
Both the intellectuals and people in power are prone to long, not-very-plausible speeches relating anecdotes about Hav’s history, politics and culture. Hav has a complicated history of colonization and occupation by many of the world’s military powers: Ottoman, French, British, German, Russian. Each culture maintains a presence in modern Hav, and each is represented by at least one eloquent mouthpiece. In this way, Morris creates an impression of overwhelming diversity and cultural complexity contained within one city. As I’ve said, some of these diatribes are long and not very believable as anything an individual could spontaneously rattle off—even from an intellectual or politician. She does make an effort to break them up with narration, granting some impression of a more spontaneous, realistic conversation recounted from notes. But it’s certainly not the kind of dialogue that would generally be considered “good” from the perspective of ye plot-oriented genre writer. But it’s not like all these people are just convenient mouthpieces for info dumps either: every one of them has a discernible agenda to get across and a personality that shows through in the details they choose to provide. On the other hand, the style of speech doesn’t actually change much from diatribe to diatribe. Intellectuals can be distinguished from political figures in that they’re more willing to break from formality and more open about inserting their opinions into the story they’re telling. Other than that, sentence structure and delivery remain surprisingly consistent among representatives of the three categories. And yet somehow it works.
Coffee arrived, flavored with camomile, together with biscuits on little scallop-edged plates, and the Caliph asked if I would like to see something of the house.
“You know its history, I dare say? Count Kolchok built it for his mistress, the dancer Olga Naratlova, who came to Hav with Diaghilev. Everything was taken from the house when Kolchok died, but I have had her portrait painted in memoriam“—and he showed me on the wall above our sofa a large and sickly representation, doubtless taken from a photograph, of a dark turn-of-the-century beuaty, full length, leaning in a dress of satiny red against a truncated column.
“What became of her?”
“Ah, you must ask the Bolsheviks. She went home to Russia in 1918, and was never heard of again.”
Poor Olga. She sounds a lonely figure, hidden away here in such secluded luxury, and she is lonely still, for hers is the only portrait in the whole of the Caliph’s house—“and just think what the Ikhwan would say, if they knew I had her!”