Friday, July 23, 2010

Circumspection, trust, and Dorothy Dunnett

I'm off on vacation next week, and all this week as I've been thinking through what books I would bring with me, I kept telling myself that I wouldn't bring the fifth volume of Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo Rising series. I needed a week away from early Renaissance Europe, I told myself--and {SPOILER ALERT!} as I made my way through the final pages of the fourth volume, Scales of Gold, that seemed completely reasonable: it really seemed as if, at the halfway point in the series, Dunnett was going to let Niccolo find some peace, allow him a sort of emotional plateau from which she could begin the second half of her extended account of his life and adventures. But oh, after 2,750 pages I should have known her better: the final half-dozen pages of the novel delivered such incredible, unexpected body blows . . . and now I find myself tucking volume five into my bag for tomorrow's drive . . .

Which leads me to what I promise is my last Dunnett note for a good while. Late in Scales of Gold I encountered a passage that I think gives a good sense of a quality of Dunnett's writing that I've not yet touched on: her preference for obliqueness and circumspection, which, if one makes allowances for the fact that she's writing historical adventure novels, rivals that found in The Tale of Genji. If a point can be made indirectly, if a revelation can be delivered sidelong, then that is how Dunnett prefers to give it, and in doing so she demands an attention from her reader that would be utterly foreign to most popular fiction.

Sometimes this approach turns up as simple foreshadowing, characters noticing something that we don't have the awareness to see; at other times, it's more difficult and impressive, with discoveries or facts or even major plot points presented through elliptical references that rely on a close attention to and understanding of the characters involved. She relies on this approach frequently enough that I might call it a tic, or a flaw--if, that is, I weren't so impressed by the confidence in her reader that it demonstrates.

Which is all by way of preamble to my unimportant, but telling example. Scales of Gold finds Niccolo's company scattered across Europe, tending to various parts of the trading enterprise. The following scene comes as Niccolo has returned to Bruges from three years in Africa. The entire company has endured a long day of ceremonial welcomes, which means the end of the day finds much business still to be discussed with Gregorio, one of the company's managers, who himself has just that day returned to Bruges and been reunited with his mistress. Late in the evening, Nicholas visits the room of his friend and traveling companion, Father Godscalc,
after he had spent time with Tilde and Catherine and Diniz, and had told Gregorio not to wait, since he was too tired to see him tonight.

Godscalc smiled when Nicholas reported that to him. The priest was not in bed but, wrapped in a robe, was resting in a chair with a back, his feet propped on a stool. He said, "If you had not brought him Margot, he would be a sorrowful man. Are you tired?"
Now that I've called this out, the meaning is obvious. Nicholas told a white lie to Gregorio in order to free him to hurry to his much-missed mistress--but picture this as one little paragraph in a 520-page novel, in a 4,000-page series, and you surely will begin to see what I mean: Dunnett trusts in--counts on--her readers paying attention and knowing her characters. And, as with a trusting parent or a hands-off boss, she makes us want to be the reader she supposes us to be.

Next week will be light--probably just a few quotes, at best, while I'm away. See you in August.

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