Is there anything more deliciously awful than a non-apology?
Benjamin Netanyahu's last week was a gem: I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. [NB - a useful test for genuine apology-hood is if you can take out "I deeply regret that", put in "I wish I hadn't" and still make sense.]
I suffered through a barrage of them one-on-one recently too, when a corporate spokesperson called me to non-apologise for rude treatment the hands of an employee of her company.
"I believe you had a phone call you found unsettling?" she began, putting the problem squarely in my head.
It only went downhill from there. As she rambled on about remedial training, the high standards they aimed for and her even higher hopes that she'd be able to reassure me, all I could hear was the subtext: don't sue us, don't sue us, don't sue us.
Eventually she asked, in a summing-up kind of voice, if I wanted to take it further. I said: "Nah, as long as someone's spoken to the person and she gets it, let's leave it there."
"Oh!" exclaimed the corporate spokesperson. "We have indeed spoken to her."
Dot dot, I think you'll agree, dot.
So I told her that a careful, nicely judged, apology-like stream of words that avoided any admission of fault was infinitely more annoying than the initial rudeness. She assured me of her good intentions, pretended she no idea what I might be getting at and asked if I'd like to speak to someone else. I politely declined (sub-text: I'd rather drink Draino) and finally we were done.
But if you can do it in dialogue in a novel, there's nothing more entertaining to read than the kind of forked-tongue evasiveness of which the non-apology is the crowning glory.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet give a masterclass on devious dialogue in Pride and Prejudice:
(Dame Judi is my Lady C, Colin Firth's wet shirt notwithstanding. It's like original series Star Trek, but Picard.)
"I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood; though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you."
"If you believed it impossible to be true, I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What could your ladyship propose by it?"
"At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted."
"Your coming to Longbourn to see me and my family will rather be a confirmation of it."
And . . . they're off. There's four more pages of cat-and-mouse brilliance. I defy anyone to read it without punching the air.
The best modern proponent of forked-tongue or more generally passive-aggressive dialogue, to my mind, is Joy Fielding. Here's a couple discussing their upcoming wedding early on in Kiss Mommy Goodbye:
"Everything's arranged. White and yellow roses. And daisies. Like you said."
"I thought that was what you wanted," Victor said.
"It is," she smiled. White and yellow roses would be lovely.
"We can have white and pink roses if that's what you'd prefer," he offered.
"No," she said, remembering that it had been her first choice, but after all, it was his wedding too. "White and yellow is fine. I'll be beautiful."
He smiled. "Well, I just thought, with the room being the color it is." Donna took a moment to reassess the room.
[description of yellow room]
"Anything else?" he asked.
"I called the photographers."
"Messinger-Edwards," Donna answered. Victor smiled. "They'll be here at four."
The question caught her off-guard. She stumbled. "I just thought four would be a good time. An hour before the ceremony. You know, gets some shots of . . . Why? Isn't four o'clock a good time?"
He nodded. "Sure." He paused. "I wouldn't have done it that way, but sure. It's fine."
"How would you have done it?"
He shook his head. "Four o'clock is fine."
She changed the subject. "I bought the dress at Bonwit's today. I drove in today and tried it on and it looked great. You were right."
He smiled. "You'll be sitting around in it for a long time, you realize, since you called the photograhers at four o'clock."
"You want to change the time?"
"No, four o'clock is fine. You just have to recognize certain consequences. The dress might look a little wilted by the time the ceremony starts."
"When would be a better time? Five?"
"We're getting married at five." he laughed softly. "Forgetting our anniversary already."
"Well, when? Later?"
"No we'll be too drained later to pose for formal pictures. I told you. Four o'clock is fine."
Oh boy. Should these people get married? No. Are they going to? Yes. Could we stop reading? No way.
I truly hope for the sake of a fellow writer that none of Joy Fielding's manipulative slow-mo car- crash conversations are drawn from life, but I know that I'll be making some dialogue lemonade with that lemon of an apology I got over the phone.
Who's your favourite writer of head-wrecking dialogue? And why exactly do we enjoy it so much anyway?