Speech in Bernhard

The Chagall Position has an interesting post on the use of speech-attribution tags in Bernhard:

With a scanner and the right software program, of course, it should be possible to arrive at the exact number of overall tags in the entire Bernhard corpus, and thus also to calculate the precise numerical average of tags per page (tpp) for the entire Bernhard corpus.  One might arrive at a figure such as 4.85tpp, for instance, rounded up from, say, 4.8489tpp. . . .

In more conventional fiction such tags exist only to be elided.  Their traditional function is to anchor the enunciation firmly in the narrator or character, to ensure the seamless procession of the “vivid, continuous dream,” the flow of vicarious experience and psychological identification.  They are lowly markers which do not enjoy the status of the other elements on the page.  When reading to oneself, they’re to be almost skipped over, registered by the eyes but not necessarily by the mental tongue.  Read aloud, the voice drops and gives their syllables a matter-of-fact little shove out into the cold, as if they were asides.  Less than asides: stage directions.  They are like the inert substrate in pills, the delivery system but not the stuff that is supposed to kill your pain or make you sleep.

But what happens when they metastasize?  When they proliferate and threaten to disrupt what they were meant to enable?

In Bernhard, the tags become pronounced, in both senses of the word. . . .

This brings to mind the recently translated novel Tranquility, by Attila Bartis. Although the vast majority of the book uses speech tags in the conventional way, certain sections (usually about one page in length) make pointed use of he said, she said, and I thought, in a somewhat similar way to what’s described above.

I’m particularly thinking of a certain legnthy paragraph in which Bartis concludes every sentence with ", he said" or ", she said." This scene comes right after a passionate sex scene, and the prominent use of speech tags, along with the removal of quotation marks, gives the dialogue an extraordinarily intimate feel. Rather than make the text choppy, it provides for a certain flow and rhythm (which must have been difficult to translate correctly). In the end, the feel is more akin to two consciousnesses seamlessly and directly exchanging thoughts than two people lying in bed talking.


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Your take on that scene sounds sensible; oddly enough, however, when I think of dialogue that creates a sense of intimacy, I think of some of Iris Murdoch’s scenes, wherein she uses almost no identifying tags. The effect frequently is to make the reader feel as if he’s eavesdropping, which feeling is perfectly suited to the secrecies and machinations of Murdoch’s characters and plots.

I’ll have to read that Bartis, I thought.
Thanks, Scott!

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