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"Country" in a Chanel Suit

An oft-noted distinction within literary texts is whether they emphasize showing the characters in action over telling the reader about them. Exposition vs. theatrical action. Of course, this is a simplification. (Of course).

Our friends Plato and Aristotle wrote about this stuff. Plato talked about diegesis and mimesis.

(Indistinct yelling. A loud crash). What? These posts are getting worse—first you introduce a sexy title, and then start talking about Plato. What is the point of—

Please remove this individual from the blog.

(More yelling). Pretentious bully! Let go of me!

…as I was saying. Diegesis is the telling of a story by a narrator. Mimesis is showing action, quoted speech. (Mimesis from the same word root as mimicry—copying). I’m sure the fans of the blog now see the relevance of this distinction to my purpose—exploring the narrative voice in fiction.

In “A Sport and a Pastime,” you have a narrator who is a character in the story telling a story about Dean and Anne-Marie. So, it’s simple then, it’s all diegesis—all telling.

Well, actually, most of the story consists of dramatic scenes that “show” the characters in action, along with sections that “show” the narrator moping around and thinking stuff.

There you have it—the distinction between diegesis and mimesis, between showing and telling just melted (“Someone left the cake out in the rain, all the sweet green icing melting down.”)


In fact, I think what “Sport” does is to demonstrate that these distinctions are too simplistic. Maybe a more useful way to look at it is that diegesis is the whole “reality” of a story (I think this is a major concept in film). Mimesis gets at verisimilitude, believe-ability. As a reader, you get seduced into the world of a text, wanting to feel that it is real, and this depends to a large extent on how believable and consistent it is. Our example from last week was “Lord of the Rings.” Spoiler alert! Dwarves and hobbits aren’t real, but to read “LOTR” and be seduced into its magic is a beautiful experience. Both elements are necessary.

Let’s look for them in “Sport.”

Here’s the scene where the narrator first meets Phillip Dean in Paris.

Through the crowd a woman is approaching.

“Isabel!” Christina cries. It’s her friend.

There is no way to begin except with admiration for Isabel who is forty and dressed in a beautiful, black Chanel suit with silver buttons and a ruffled, white shirt. On her finger is a ring with a large diamond, a perfectly round diamond that catches every piece of light, and her smile is as dazzling as her clothes. There’s a young man with her whom she introduces.

“Phillip…” Her hand flutters hopelessly, she’s forgotten his name.

“…Dean,” he murmurs.

“I’m the worst in the world,” she says, the words drawling out. “I just seem to forget names as fast as people can tell them to me.”

She laughs, a high, country laugh.

“Now, don’t take it to heart,” she tells him. “You’re the best looking thing in this room, but I’d forget the name of the President himself if I didn’t already know it.”

She laughs and laughs. Phillip Dean says nothing. I envy that silence which somehow doesn’t disgrace him, which is curiously beautiful, like a loyalty we do not share.

Okay. First, there’s a lot of dialogue here. Dialogue tends to be “showing” or mimetic, although it can be used to present exposition—characters telling each other background information they already know for the reader’s benefit. Salter doesn’t indulge; the dialogue here is about the scene. This is all the narrator’s point of view (as is the whole story). He is observing Isabel approach. He informs us that this is the friend of Christina who was referenced earlier. He describes her costume and appearance with admiration. There’s no way to do that—describe—without “telling.” If this were a play, then the audience would see what the characters look like and draw their own conclusions. Writing, best beloved, is different. Here, we’re meeting Isabel (and Dean) through the narrator’s eyes. We see what he wants us to see. And it is not neutral. A subjective judgement. Isabel is beautiful. Salter describes someone who is forgetful and relatively unembarrassed about it. Aware of it—“the worst in the world.”

To do this bit only by “showing” would be quite a challenge. Somehow, the text would have to convey that Isabel is the friend previously referenced without the narrator saying it. Isabel could say it—“Oh, hi. I’m the friend previously referenced,” but that would create all kinds of problems (a character commenting on being in a work of fiction? It’s been done, but it’s not the style of this book). So we have diegesis and mimesis.

What is a high, country laugh? I don’t know but I like the description. It’s a nice contrast to Isabel’s elegant attire. There’s a story here that we really don’t learn. She’s a woman from the American South who lives in France and wears expensive clothes and jewelry. “She’s married to a rich, rich Frenchman.” And Dean is with her—what is the implication there? It’s never spelled out. What it does do is make Isabel a more interesting character, more than one-dimensional. It raises questions about her. “High, country laugh” is the narrator’s view. The description of Isabel’s clothes are through the narrator’s vision but are mimetic. In fact, they are free enough of judgement that we the readers are therefore free to make meaning of them.

And Dean says nothing—his silence says a lot. The narrator notes this; he envies him. He makes a subjective appraisal that Dean’s silence doesn’t disgrace him, somehow. And that it’s curiously beautiful, “like a loyalty we do not share.”

What does this mean? A silence that is admirable, that communicates a loyalty that the narrator is not a part of—a reference to Dean’s relationship with Isabel, perhaps? Perhaps a code of silence about indiscretion that the narrator admires but doesn’t feel capable of.

In this scene, I believe the mode is mimetic embedded within diegetic (diabetic?) What’s its “point?” It’s the first appearance of Phillip Dean, and the reader learns several things about him. He’s ambiguously “with” a wealthy and beautiful woman. He is handsome and taciturn, possibly discrete. These things are believable but they are also part of the created “world” of the story.


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