Frederic Raphael’s top 10 talkative novels

From Petronius to John Steinbeck and Evelyn Waugh, the novelist considers books that have mastered the art of dialogue, ensuring that ‘they always speak to us, not least between the lines’

The Grapes of Wrath

Still from the 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath.

Born in Chicago but educated in England, Frederic Raphael is probably best known as the author of Glittering Prizes, and its sequel Fame and Fortune, both of which he adapted into acclaimed TV and radio series starring Tom Conti as writer Adam Morris. This month, he publishes a third volume in this series, Final Demands, which finds Morris contending with middle age and its discontents and which he has also adapted for BBC Radio 4.

Raphael is also a prolific author of some 20 other novels, as well as history books, biographies and film screenplays. Last year he completed a strikingly contemporary translation of Petronius’s Satyrica.

“Dialogue brings a novel to life. It is possible to compose fiction without it, just as Georges Perec was able to write an entire book without using the vowel “e”, but one had better be a genius to affect such forms of composition. And once is quite enough. It may also be possible to contrive great blocks of prose, in which landscapes are described and psychological states analysed as never before. But a writer who cannot make characters talk, and have their conversations require us to listen to them, is locked into airless formality.

“Dialogue tells us what people say and it hints at what they do not. It encourages readers to bring a book to life by enticing their participation in it. They then supply their own reading of how loudly or softly, truly or falsely, words are exchanged. When a writer allows his characters to talk among themselves, he grants them their freedom. If only because the subconscious can then chime in, his premeditated scheme never wholly dictates what someone will say.

“Dialogue in a novel is like stained glass, the surrounding prose is there to frame and support it. Even Marcel Proust, who certainly delivers paragraphs of dense prose, used dialogue brilliantly; and silence too. His greatest character, the Baron de Charlus, is arrogant, garrulous and caustic. But when an arriviste hostess finds the nerve to banish him from her house, his inability to find any kind of crushing retort signals the moment when the narrator, Marcel, is able to stand away from his mentor’s shadow. Thenceforth he is free to depict him with merciless accuracy. Dialogue can be used in various ways and various registers, but a writer who masters its nuances will produce novels that always speak to us, not least between the lines.”

1. Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

O’Hara was a keen observer, above all of the Pennsylvania Dutch inhabitants of the town he called Gibbsville (a permeable disguise for his birthplace, Pottsville). He could mimic local speech and vocabulary so that the reader can overhear it. The story of the life and death of Julian English is a masterpiece of erotic suggestion and narrative economy.

2. The Satyrica by Petronius Arbiter

Petronius, who lived during the reign of Nero, who ordered his suicide, wrote a sprawling picaresque novel of which only the chapters concerning the gross Trimalchio, a millionaire ex-slave, have survived in their entirety. Petronius was a master of elegance and of its low cousin, scorn. The adventures of Encolpius, his anti-hero, and his louche companions are salacious and farcical by turns, but they are brought to life by the often absurd and obscene chat which comes directly from the gutters of Roman life. As I discovered when translating Petronius, dead languages can still have raucous voices.

3. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Lewis was nicknamed “Red”, more for the colour of his hair and livid complexion than on account of his politics, but his capacity for catching the vocabulary and aggressive philistinism of middle-western America was as boundless in print as it was, we are told, in person. In company, he was a mimic who did not know when or how to stop; in print, he made accuracy into satire. Babbittry entered the American language as the style of salesmanship and humbug to which John Updike surely paid rhyming tribute in his creation “Rabbit” Angstrom, a salesman in the Lewis tradition.

4. A God and His Gifts by Ivy Compton-Burnett

The last novel published in Ivy’s lifetime was one of the first I ever reviewed. I am glad that I recognised genius when I saw it; a limited genius perhaps, but there it was. Ivy’s novels were always a tapestry of dialogue, formally phrased but full of hidden poisons and traps. Her milieu was the Edwardian upper middle-class, on the surface polite, savage underneath. She described very little, but lust, violence and greed all emerged from the seemingly prim dialogue. Melodrama was never more elegantly articulate.

5. A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

Murdoch was a philosopher and a romantic, with a sensuous intelligence and a keen ear. Her novels contain slabs of rather too colourful landscape and gushing description, but her great strength lay in the clever edginess of her conversations. I wrote the movie script of A Severed Head and it was, I confess, an easy job: unlike most writers’, much of her dialogue sounded good out loud. I remember, for instance, an unfaithful wife saying, “It’s all or nothing” and the husband’s answer: “Let me recommend nothing.” Facile? You do it.

6. Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham

Maugham is regularly dismissed and as regularly resurrected. He had no grand opinion of his own work, but he learnt early on, when writing plays, that a capacity for amusing dialogue supplied the best means for capturing an audience. Cakes and Ale (the title comes from Twelfth Night) proves that the literary world of the 1930s, with its cliques and claques, is not very different from that dominated by today’s Michaels and the ubiquitous Antonias. It is said that Hugh Walpole soon came to recognise his own voice, and character, in Alroy Kear and, no doubt, Thomas Hardy in Edward Driffield. What is a novel of manners without a serrated edge?

7. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

When I first opened Steinbeck’s great novel about “the Okies” – migrant sharecroppers from the 1930s dust-bowl of Oklahoma – I found their dialogue, phonetically reproduced on the page, quite incomprehensible. But read it aloud and the voices of the Joad family come out fighting, as it were. The family’s trek to golden California has plenty of cruel incident, but when I think of Rose of Sharon, for instance, I hear her name “Rosa-sharn” the way Tom Joad said it, and says it.

8. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Most pundits now proclaim Brideshead Revisited as Waugh’s enduring masterpiece. Its purple passages have their nostalgic glamour, but isn’t there something lamingly absurd in all that well-spoken snobbery? Waugh does so love a Lord. The earlier Scoop is a satire on pre-war Fleet Street and has a savage larkiness that never visits Bridehead. What does one remember in particular? The line “Up to a point, Lord Copper”, the nearest an employee dares come to disagreeing with his tyrannical (Northcliffian) boss.

9. The Golden Fruits by Natalie Sarraute

Sarraute was one of the “new novelists” who set out to renovate French fiction in the early 1950s. Her novel, like Cakes and Ale, is a satire on the literary world, this time in Paris, written almost entirely in dialogue. Its title refers to a novel which is only talked about in her text. It is first saluted as a masterpiece and then slowly picked to pieces by critics and envious friends of the author.

10. A Roman Marriage by Brian Glanville

The story of an English girl seduced and enchanted by an Italian lover is told with appropriate irony by a man who knows and loves Italy almost as well as England. His novel Along The Arno is early evidence of his ability to bring characters to life by reporting them, so to speak, with curt accuracy. A Roman Marriage is a comedy of incompatible manners, Anglo-Saxon and Latin. I confess, if it is a confession, that A Roman Marriage is dedicated to me. It is not a sign of corruption to speak well of one’s friends, not least when their work deserves it.


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