Fernanda Eberstadt’s Little
Money Street in the New Yorker this week. Here he is talking about
Her value, as a virgin, is ascertained not by the young groom on the wedding
night but, according to archaic folk custom, by the probing finger of a tribal
crone: Eberstadt’s partially renegade Gypsy friend Linda explains, “For
Gypsies, it’s a nasty old woman who is paid to penetrate the girl, like
a gynecologist but with dirty hands, in front of all the husband’s family.
It’s terrifying, it’s inhuman.” Landric sums up: “People
talk about preserving Gypsy culture. But what am I as an educator supposed
to do when the comportment of my students is frankly pathological?”
Eberstadt, liberal enough to doubt liberal pieties, complains that “if
these pedagogues were nineteenth-century missionaries to a cannibal island,
they could not be more convinced that the belief system they wished to impose
upon the Gypsy savages—in this case, egalitarian secularism—was
as unequivocal a good as clean water.” Yet she comes down, finally,
on the side of clean water, asserting that the French authorities are “using
their utmost powers of imagination and sympathy to devise ways of freeing
a community that was clearly stuck and unhappy.”
What struck me about this passage was not only Updike’s striking language ("the
probing finger of a tribal crone") – it was also the way that he
strung quotations from three different people together in one paragraph.
Now there’s no rule against quoting more than one person per paragraph, unless
you’re doing dialogue or conversation. But for some reason, at the back of my
head, I always thought there was. I suppose that when I was learning English,
I might have misunderstood my teacher’s comments about dialogue, or maybe my
teacher was the one with the misunderstanding. Either way, I’m glad I now went
to the effort of looking my imaginary rule up, and coming to the conclusion
it doesn’t exist.
That said, I would be happy to break the rule if it did exist. If something’s
OK by John Updike and the editors of the New Yorker, it’s OK by me.