This is one of my favorite techniques. It was employed by W.G. Sebald in The Emigrants. It is used to drift from one 1st person point of view into another 1st person point of view. And it’s not as simple as it sounds. For one thing, he doesn’t use quotation marks to demarcate dialogue. Also, paragraphs come rather infrequently, so it’s not as simple as indenting. He uses a couple of techniques to do this. Here’s one:
He stood up, not without a certain embarrassment. Though he was tall and broad shouldered, he seemed quite stocky, even short. Perhaps this impression came from the way he had of looking, head bowed, over the top of his gold-rimmed reading glasses, a habit which had given him a stooped, almost supplicatory posture. His white hair was combed back, but a few stray wisps kept falling across his strikingly high forehead. I was counting the blades of grass, he said, by way of apology for his absentmindedness. It’s a sort of pastime of mine. Rather irritating, I am afraid. (5)
This example is pretty straightforward. The logic of the scene focuses the reader quite naturally on the curious old man by well chosen details, and then almost as if putting your finger through jello, a touch more pressure and we’ve penetrated his point of view.
Gradually, Paul Bereyter’s life began to emerge in the background. Mme Landau was not in the least surprised that I was unaware, despite the fact that I came from S and knew what the town was like, that old Bereyter was what was termed half Jewish, and Paul, in consequence, only three quarters Aryan. Do you know, she said on one of my visits to Yverdon, the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets,and even, I sometimes think, really did forget, is nothing more than the other side of the perfidious way in which Schoerferle, who ran the coffee house in S, informed Paul’s mother Thekla, who had been on the stage for some time in Nuremberg, that the presence of a lady who was married to a half Jew might be embarrassing to his respectable clientele, and begged to request her, with respect of course, not to take her afternoon coffee at his house anymore. I do not find it surprising, said Mms Landau, not in the slightest, that you were unaware…(50)
When one thinks of the utter complexity of this passage it is astounding that Sebald should maintain a logical and natural pattern of discourse. In this passage, there is more than just two people speaking of course. The phrase “with respect of course” is the free and indirect dialogue of Schoeferle.
In any event, it’s a good technique, harder than it looks to achieve. Teju Cole makes pretty good use of it in his terrific novel Open City. Previously, when people called a work “Sebaldian” it was in reference the use of photos and the blurred distinction between fictive and non-fictive elements. But they never mention this technique. Instead, they call his style “mesmerizing” or “bewitching.” I sometimes think they are really referring to the way he can drift from one first person narrative to the next. Teju seems to understand this well enough. Notice how this passgae begins in third person:
His name was Saidu, he said. His school, near the Old Ducor Hotel, had been shelled, and burned to the ground in 1994. A year later, his sister had died of diabetes, an illness that wouldn’t have killed her in peacetime. His father, gone since 1985, remained gone, and his mother, a petty trader at the market, had nothing to trade. Saidu had slipped through the shadows of the war. He was pressed many times into fetching water for the NPFL (the National Patriotic Front of Liberia), or clearing brush, or moving bodies away from the street. He got used to the cries of alarm and the sudden clouds of smoke, he learned to lie low when the recruiters came calling for either side. They would accost his mother, and she would tell them he had sickle-cell disease and was in the throes of death.
His mother and her sister were shot in the second war, by Charles Taylor’s men. Two days later, the men returned and took him away with them, to the outskirts of Monrovia. he carried a suitcase with him. At first, he thought the men would make him fight, but they gave him a cutlass, and he worked on a rubber farm with forty or fifty others. At the camp, he saw one of his mates, a boy who had been the best soccer player in school: that boy’s right hand had been severed at the wrist, and had healed to a stump. Others had died, he had seen corpses. But it was seeing that stump where the hand used to be that did it for him; that was when he knew he had no choice.
Then we move a bit closer:
That night, he packed his soccer shoes, two spare shirts, and all his money, around six hundred Liberian dollars. At the bottom of his tattered backpack, he placed his mother’s birth certificate. The rest of the things in the suitcase he emptied into a ditch. The suitcase itself he threw into the bush. He did not, himself, have a birth certificate, which was why he took his mother’s. He escaped the farm, walking the road alone in the darkness, all the way back to Monrovia. He couldn’t return him, so he went to the burnt ruin of his school, near the Old Ducor Hotel, and cleared a corner there. He thought that if he went to sleep, maybe he would die. The idea was new to him, and it felt good. It helped him sleep…
By now, the idea of getting to America was fixed in his mind. In Bamako, unable to speak Bamana or French, he’d skulked around the motor park, eating scraps at the marketplace, sleeping under the market tables at night, and dreaming sometimes that he was being attacked by hyenas. In one dream, his mate from school came to him, bleeding from his severed hand. In other dreams his mother, aunt, and sister showed up, all of them crowding around the market table, all of them bleeding.
How much time passed? He was unsure. Maybe six months, maybe a little less. He eventually befriended a Malian truck driver, and washed his truck in exchange for food. Then this driver introduced him to another one, a man with light brown eyes, a Mauritanian. The Mauritanian asked him where he wanted to go, and Saidu said America. And the Mauritanian asked him if he was carrying any hashish, and Saidu said, no he had none. The Mauritanian agreed to take him as far as Tangier. When they left, Saudu wore a new shirt the Malian driver had given him. The truck was packed with Senegalese, Nigeriens, and Malians and they had all paid except for him. It was extremely hot during the day, and freezing at night, and the water in the jerry cans was carefully rationed…
Until we finally enter the mind of the character:
In Tangier, he said, he had noticed the way the black Africans moved around, under constant police surveillance. A large group of them, mostly men, and mostly young, had a camp near the sea, and he joined them. They wrapped themselves in blankets against the cold wind from the sea. One man next to him said he was from Accra, and told Saidu that journeying through Ceuta was safer. When we enter Ceuta, the man said, we have entered Spain, we will go tomorrow. The following day, they went to a small Moroccan town near Ceuta in a van, a group of about fifteen of them, then they went on foot to the border with Ceuta. The fence was brightly lit and the man from Accra led them down to where the fence met the sea. A man was shot last week, he said, but I don’t think we should be fearful, God is with us. There was a boat waiting, operated by a Moroccan ferryman. They held hands in prayer, then loaded up, and the man rowed across the shallows. They completed the ten-minute journey to Ceuta undetected, rolled ashore, and scattered into the rushes. Ceuta, as the Ghanaian had said, was Spain. The new immigrants split up in many directions.
Isn’t it a kind of magic, to slip from one body to the next seamlessly?
Here is another version, a little more heavy-handed, by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby
One October day in nineteen-seventeen ——
(said Jordan Baker that afternoon, sitting up very straight on a straight chair in the tea-garden at the Plaza Hotel)
— I was walking along from one place to another, half on the sidewalks and half on the lawns. I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground. I had on a new plaid skirt also that blew a little in the wind, and whenever this happened the red, white, and blue banners in front of all the houses stretched out stiff and said tut-TUT-TUT-TUT, in a disapproving way.
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