Monday, November 21, 2016

howled in unison and singly

Witnessing a suggestion made in the comments thread for the review at ANZ LitLovers of Christopher Butler's Modernism, a Very Short Introduction, 2010, that the "non-stop extravagant talk" in The Man Who Loved Children, 1940, might be "aiming for … getting to the essence of a person", I thought I would say something about the nature of speech in The People with the Dogs, 1952, since this was the book I had said I would read for Lisa's Christina Stead Week.

It seems to me that the words depicted as spoken in this book are not being treated like meaning-rooted revelations of personality or with surprise we discover that the person secretly feels such and such, so much as material substances that a character can regard like wood, cloth, marble or anything else that can be made into a participatory, functional, chairlike shape for other fictional phenomenon to observe, ignore, and sit on. Conversation is a sculptural object. Speech reiterates the person's position in the crowd and the form that their participation takes, and is less concerned with any idea of an inner, ineffable self; or else the connection between these two things is constantly stressed by the author until the sense of refraction between them is almost automatic.

Speech's function is to form an act of transition that adds to what Kate Webb refers to as Stead's method of dialectics, the multivalenced collisions of her atmosphere, or what another LitLovers comment on Man refers to as the book's way of making you feel as if you're living next to noisy neighbours. The character Lou remarking "H2O or K9P?" as he looks at a puddle of water from the boiler is not making himself known by saying interesting word-meanings but by creating a playful shape.

He is the only character who is associated with this letter-number way of speaking. And is also reasserting himself as the one in the family who dislikes dogs. This is not news to anybody, but the reassertion itself is part of his role in the larger symphonic arrangement of the family's tics. Then the weather is symphonic and there are dog-symphonies: "The dogs let out a roar, and howled in unison and singly in the hills." Victor-Alexander has lived among birds and his voice "hurried out of his mouth like their trilling." A bird chooses a tree by the window so that it can sing back to Mozart being played on the piano. Many characters engage in performance, the very poor puppeteers and amateur theatre companies, the famous singer Vera; Solo and his band, the brother who is known as Suttinlay because he "once acted a Southern gentleman in a play and said, "Sutt-in-lay, suh," Lydia the actor, Edward with his stage dialects, and this idea of performing, acting, and presenting oneself among people. Victor-Alexander adjusts his presentation whenever someone outside the family can understand him. "If anyone came who understood him, he spoke faster and faster." 

The characters don't necessarily speak to one another. Lou is not saying "K9P" to anyone. They have conversations directed at the conceptual idea of an audience, even when actual people are present. Where is the locus of meaning when Lou says K9P? The terror scene near the end of Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman, 1951, is created partly through a sudden recalcitrance of information. Why is it being stolen from us? In Max Jacob a series of events become dreamlike by the retraction of the source of change between one state and another. The lodging of that change somehow deep within the text, unspoken, as between shots in a montage. See also, election promises.


  1. I am now very much looking forward to your review. I love the idea of speech moving beyond meaning to have shape and sound, speech as sculpture, speech as symphony. In Cotters' England, which comes next after People with Dogs, Nellie controls those around her with endless, meaningless talk, but now I will have to go back and look at the talk itself without thinking about the meaning.

    1. Isn't she described "crooning," a number of times, or "wheedling", "coaxing"; other words like that? Speech in her case is primarily persuasive, as I recall. She's like Victor-Alexander in that she uses it as a kind of defensive substance.

  2. Intriguing analysis DKS of how sound and talk behaves and what that conveys besides the meaning of the words. "his voice hurried out of his mouth like their trilling" is a wonderful description that tells us as much as if not more than the actual words he might say.

    As for election promises, you clearly haven't heard the Trump Camp say that theirs were not promises, it was just rhetoric, in which case it makes great sense not to listen to the words but to think about those non-textual implications or senses of his speeches. And it ain't any prettier than the words I fear.

    1. She's got a constant sense of song, and I think Dogs is one of the books that brings it out in a very onrushing way (compared to something like the stiff blaps of angry monologue in A Little Tea, a Little Chat). One thing I didn't mention was her way of getting excitement out of multiple verbs or variations, as children's books do: "It was the milkman's cart. It rattled, crashed, skimmed and flew."

      None of my colleagues supported the Republican candidate and the mood at work the day after the election was shellshock. Nobody can tell which parts of the rhetoric will end up being taken seriously and which will be discarded. Who will be persecuted? What will be destroyed? At the moment it's all potentially both text and subtext. Giuliani's presentation of campaign lies as part of a "tradition" makes me grin, as if fooling people by saying what you don't mean is on a par with the migration of elk: "There is a tradition in American politics that after you win an election, you sort of put things behind you, and if that's the decision he reached, that's perfectly consistent with the historical pattern".