Monday, February 21, 2005

Flog it!

To appreciate the following, which is from S.N. Behrman's Duveen and quoted at slightly greater than normal length, you need to know that Duveen is Joseph Duveen, the greatest salesman in art history; Thompson is Joseph R. Thompson, the owner of a chain of restaurants; and "the Chicago dealer" is a lesser salesman who has run out of paintings expensive enough to sell Thompson and decided to throw him to the lion. The place is Duveen's New York gallery, the time somewhat before the great depression. Ready?

"Duveen led Thompson, as well as the Chicago dealer, into the lift, which bore them to sacrosanct upper regions. Duveen strode swiftly though a thickly carpeted, dimly lit room that contained six Old Masters reclining on easels. Thompson, in his way, was almost out of the room when, like Mrs. Lot, he looked back. He lingered; from the blur of the six pictures he got a quick impression of infinite desirability. He called the hurrying Duveen back. 'Here are some pictures,' he said. 'What about these?'

"Duveen took his arm. 'My dear Mr. Thompson,' he said gently, 'there is nothing in this room that would interest you in the least.'

"'Why not?' argued the new pupil. 'Of course they interest me. What would I be doing here if they didn't interest me?'

"'These pictures, my dear fellow, I am reserving, as a matter of fact, for a favourite client,' Duveen said. 'They will interest him far more than they could possibly interest you.'

"Thompson protested; he would yield to no one in acuteness of interest. 'Why do you think they wouldn't interest me?' he asked. 'I want you to know, Sir Joseph, that I own some pretty good pictures.'

"'I am sure you do,' Duveen said soothingly. 'And if you will just follow me, I am sure that I can add to your collection and, if I may say so, improve it. But not these. You are a busy man, and I don't want to waste your time. Not with these.'

"'Why not?' repeated Mr Thompson.

"Pushed to the wall, Duveen dropped all pretence of tact. He made it plain that he thought the pictures were over Thompson's head, both aesthetically and economically.

"'How much for the six?' Thompson demanded.

"'A million dollars, I am afraid,' said Duveen, as if pained at having to demonstrate the truth of an unflattering statement.

"Thompson was ready with an answer. 'I'll take them,' he said vindictively."

A virtuoso piece of dialogue construction, that, as well as salesmanship, with adverbs that do something. The aggravating "soothingly" is my favourite.

[Duveen, by S.N. Behrman, 1953. Jars and jars and jars of polish rubbed into a collection of stories pretty enough to stand it. Loose-ish overall structure because once a multi-part magazine profile, but elegantly tight within each chapter.]

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