why dialogue is scalped in legends of the fall

If you enjoy the ravishments of dialogue, Legends of the Fall will likely disappoint you.

Searching for reported speech in this finely built novella is like tracking a snow leopard in the Himalayas. One trembles in excitement at its mere appearance. It’s almost as though Harrison doesn’t deem words action. They’re simply not worthy of record. He doesn’t report motes in the air, either.

Is this a challenge to the role of dialogue in storytelling? Or collateral damage in an epic with its need for compression?

For a while I found this last idea attractive. Reading Legends is a lot like watching a Blu-ray in fast forward—scenes zip by in no time flat. But I don’t think the idea has any merit.

Examine this passage from Legends.

After dinner they played pinochle all evening with Pet and Isabel winning owning to the wine and brandy Ludlow and Decker had consumed. Ludlow announced that Decker must take tomorrow off and they would take the setters and go grouse hunting. Decker said he expected that One Stab would be back in a few days. Pet served a pudding….

What effect(s) is lost by re-writing the passage thusly?

After dinner they played pinochle all evening with Pet and Isabel winning owning to the wine and brandy Ludlow and Decker had consumed. “Take tomorrow off,” Ludlow announced to Decker. “We’ll take the setters and go grouse hunting.” “I expect One Stab to be back in a few days,” said Decker. Pet served a pudding….

Surprisingly, the second passage is slightly shorter. But something else must have changed in the passage, some semantic property or aesthetic effect. Otherwise Harrison could just as easily report direct speech. But he doesn’t—why?

At least two things change in the revised passage. In the first one, we get the gist of what Ludlow and Decker said but not the details, the exact wording of their exchange, whereas in the second passage we get the details but not the gist. There’s a telescopic specificity to reported speech that runs counter to the narrative sweep of Legends and the illusion of vast distances it creates.

Further, the first passage reads like a legend passed down from one generation to the next, with the inevitable blurring of details. Whether Ludlow said “setters” or “pointers” or “grouse” or “pheasant” is beside the point. What matters is the broad outline of the story. This gives Legends the feeling of an oral tradition whose authority is derived, not from any one author, but from a long line of narrators who have gifted the story to other future narrators who will then gift it in turn.

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5 Responses to why dialogue is scalped in legends of the fall

  1. khalidmir says:

    Interesting observation, kevin. I wonder if that worked for you? I got a similar feeling reading Kadare’s ‘Broken April’. Lots of lyricism, and a beautiful book. But, I dunno, it sometimes feels as though the individual, the personal is lost or not fully there in the ‘oral tradition’. And that’s precisely what we want to hear.

    • I wouldn’t have predicted that it would work for me, but in this instance it does. The story is very good, for its kind. I suppose I qualify it that way because the story, from a strictly compositional standpoint, is superior to Revenge, but I actually like Revenge better, because of the ideas it explores, and not just its treatment of them. It’s a curious experience reading Legends, curious yet positive. As for your last remark, I see what you’re saying. I suppose you lose the personal but gain a narrator’s intimate voice, which must sustain interest if you’re going to continue turning pages. Cheers. K

  2. nicole says:

    In the first one, we get the gist of what Ludlow and Decker said but not the details, the exact wording of their exchange, whereas in the second passage we get the details but not the gist. There’s a telescopic specificity to reported speech that runs counter to the narrative sweep of Legends and the illusion of vast distances it creates.

    Now I think you’ve nailed it! And, in turn, helped me figure out why I really like it. I love reported speech in something like what I’m reading now, Lucan’s Civil War, where it’s clear that a poet is writing me monologues on behalf of people he couldn’t possibly “report” on the sayings of (and I don’t mean to limit this to poetry or to historical fiction or anything; I see something like Mardi the same way—reporting of normal, realistic speech is absurd to me, so you either have to be over-the-top and totally unrealistic about it or go a route more like Harrison does here).

    Unless, of course, you’re writing a pretty traditional Victorian-style novel with a nice omniscient narrator who knows not just what everyone is saying but even what they’re thinking, and as such is just a different breed of narrator entirely. But here I think the spareness of dialogue-less prose makes me trust the narrator more in some way–even though by telling us the content without the message itself I must rely on the narrator to correctly interpret the message’s content! It’s a tangle. But I like it.

  3. […] Interpolations gets why Legends of the Fall is short on dialogue. […]

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