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It began, like so much else, with my mother. One of her quick and piercing put-downs of a person—usually a woman—of whom she disapproved was “She’s got a mouth on her, that one.”
My mother had a mouth on her. She was hardly the only one with such a mouth, on either side of a large extended family, but hers was the first voice I heard, the one that summoned me and then my younger brothers to strict obedience, sent us fleeing or cowering from her irritation or disapproval, and set us on the edge of embarrassment when it expressed clear, usually negative assessments of, and verdicts about, other people in public places. My mother had strong opinions and was never timid about sharing them, at times inopportunely. Annoyance was her basic humor. It was not until I was twenty-five or so that I learned that “aggravation,” like “nauseous” and “anxious” (I’ll include “gorgeous” just to add a positive note), was not a Yiddish word, but rather, ordinary English. “If I didn’t play golf,” she once said, “what would I do for aggravation?”
My mother had no internal censor. To think before she spoke never occurred to her. Whatever went through her mind came out of her mouth. She was not a nonstop talker, a babbler, a nervous monologuist; instead, her speech had an explosive force. You never knew what might provoke one of her stealth attacks. She favored two modes: the command and the surprising judgment. Examples of the former: “Billy, sit up straight”; “Richie, you look awful: get a haircut.” Many mothers traditionally think of themselves as helpful domestic disciplinarians. Commands come naturally from them, like sunshine or rain.
My mother’s opinions were more unanticipated than her orders, in part because she issued these obiter dicta as definitive pronouncements. On Shakespeare: “He’s much too talky.” About the French horn: “It’s not a solo instrument.” She was sensitive to the visual arts as well. Of her first trip to Italy: “Everything is old and broken and dirty, but the table settings were impeccable.” She made her trek through the museums and galleries: “If I had to see one more Madonna and Child, I thought I would plotz.” Encountering the Ghiberti Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery in Florence: “If the Church just sold those doors, they could solve world hunger.”
Neighbors and relatives inspired ethical and practical as well as aesthetic judgments. Of an uncle who had dropped us from his will: “The weasel should rot in hell.” About a social-climbing woman who lived around the corner and who always thought herself better than her neighbors and her surroundings: “The next time I see her, I won’t know who she is before she doesn’t know who I am.” In her youth, my mother looked like Vivien Leigh, a diminutive dark-haired beauty. Petiteness meant a lot to her; size offended her, as did facial hair on men and showy makeup on women. No makeup was almost as bad as too much. Excess weight she considered close to a sin for both genders. To a niece, home from college: “You’re getting fat.” To my brother, either before or after serving him a piece of chocolate cake: “You’re getting too fat.” This was an all-purpose accusatory observation disguised as aesthetic-moral diagnosis. She had her fixations. We could never figure out their cause, but they had a kind of eternal permanence in her life. Like many obsessions, they deepened and hardened as she aged. And she never relented in her efforts to articulate them.
To my longtime boyfriend, whom she had not seen in several years, in a hotel lobby before a family dinner: “Ooh! What happened to you?” (His hair had turned gray.) She never hesitated to remind us that our hair was too long, our clothes inappropriate, our posture too slouchy. If she had ever had a daughter, one of them would have long ago killed the other. Sons were in some ways a disappointment to her but also a considerable relief.
A steward of domestic order, she never stinted with her helpful household hints: “If you keep your kitchen drawers closed, crumbs won’t fall in,” or “Eat over the sink so I won’t have to sweep the floor.” Crumbs had no chance in our house. Neither had insects. She did not take kindly to animals. “I don’t need a dog,” she said. “I have three children.” Her aversion to all nonhuman creatures, great and small, was so strong that my mother took what seemed to be considerable, even manic pleasure in drowning ants in our driveway with boiling water. When asked whether she thought they might attack us indoors, she said, “You can never be too careful.” Had she known any Jains, she would have felt no sympathy for, no understanding of, their belief in the sanctity of all life. And she certainly would not have been able to hide her disdain.
Unlike Shakespeare’s Cordelia, whose voice was “ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman,” my mother’s was loud, grating, often shrill, and always capable of penetrating the bowels of any department store when she was trying to locate a wayward child. She uttered suggestions and requests in the same tone as reprimands and commands. When I hear a Philadelphia accent, I hear her. She recognized no difference between the Normandy invasion and a trip to the supermarket. She handled everything with peremptory force and at top volume. Going out for our painful weekly Sunday dinner, she more than suggested: “Drink a glass of milk now so we won’t have to buy one for you at the restaurant.” Waking up my youngest brother, home from college for spring vacation, one Saturday morning at eight: “You can stay in bed, but I need those sheets now.” When I once suggested that she seemed to harbor some anger—always directed outward to the world but with no discernible cause—she barked, “I’m entitled to my feelings.” Self-reflection never led to moments of hesitation, if only because self-reflection did not have a place in her ways of dealing with the world. Neither did silence. For my mother, a room without a radio or a television turned on was a room that lacked vitality. Noise and life were synonymous.
Before her memorial service, the presiding rabbi went on a fact-finding mission with her sons. “Would you say that your mother had a pleasing, quiet manner?” he asked. I knew I had the opening line for my remarks to friends and family at the funeral chapel. I repeated his question; the audience roared. I struck exactly the right tone; I knew I had said the right thing.
My mother often did not say the right thing. At least her sons thought so. But at the same time, she was never manipulative or guilt inducing. She meant well. Although her openness with strangers—she always talked, to everyone, everywhere, in restaurants and supermarkets—was well intended, it struck her sons as embarrassingly aggressive, even threatening. She performed an early version of what we now call networking. No one was safe. Once we all were lined up at a restaurant. My mother could never stand patiently in silence. She began chatting up the people in front of us. “You’re from Cleveland? I have cousins in Cleveland.” My brothers and I were rolling our eyes, hoping that perhaps the ground would open up. The family in front not only knew her Ohio first cousins; they lived next door to them. She made the world a smaller place. She always connected with fewer than six degrees of separation.
Conversation—an exchange of ideas and opinions with something like forward motion—did not figure in her repertoire. I had to learn from others how to perform conversational give-and-take. But when I think of how I turned instinctively away from my mother’s habits and mannerisms, I have to acknowledge, reluctantly and late, that I also inherited many of them. All children, especially in adolescence, find their parents embarrassing. Most of us outgrow the itchy need to disown these creatures from another planet as we start making our own mistakes and recognizing that we have inherited more than our looks from Mom and Dad. We have become them. We are from the same planet. I always sit up straight. I consider a well-made bed a symbol of both domestic and inner discipline. Nothing, neither fever nor backache, has ever prevented me from making my bed thirty minutes after I have left it. Often when I am alone, I eat over the kitchen sink. The crumbs go right down the drain. I, too, have a mouth on me. Sometimes I speak too quickly, unthinkingly, or sharply. I often talk to strangers, in line or at parties, and establish social contacts. And when I do, I can hear Edith, my mother. After all, we call our native language the mother tongue. I accept the resemblance and I move on.
It was not only my mother who got me talking. It was an entire extended family. I can’t remember anyone who was silent, with the exception of my paternal grandfather, an innately soft-spoken, modest man with a commanding wife who ran his life. Several small strokes had deepened his natural reticence by the time I came on the scene. Some of my relatives talked with greater speed and volume than others. I was the only child around. I imitated my elders. I walked, and I talked in sentences, before my first birthday. Enthusiastic and hyperactive, rather than precocious, I listened, and then I imitated. My large family made its impression on me through language. We had no athletes; no one who earned a living by physical labor; no workers, mechanics, or outdoorsmen. A day on the golf course was about as rough-and-tumble as it got. The men were all businessmen and salesmen, of varying degrees of success, or doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. The women did not work outside the house. They were mothers and homebodies, with the exception of my great-aunt Annie, who, widowed young, ran the cigar stand at her Atlantic City residential hotel. She knew tobacco; she also knew which of her gentlemen customers, some of whom became gentlemen callers, preferred which kind of whiskey. The very fact that she worked made her exotic to her great-nephews.
Many of my other relatives had names that now seem caught in amber. Names, like all kinds of fashion, go in and out of style. They change. You might have thought that many American Jews born between 1900 and 1940 belonged—if you saw their first names in print—in a manor house. Their names, but not their voices, were quasi-English. Few of them actually cut a figure from a 1930s black-and-white comedy of manners, whether English or American, when they spoke. They might have dressed like William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, but their voices, their accents, told a different story. The men did not sound like Leslie Howard and Cary Grant, nor the women like Katharine Hepburn, Gladys Cooper, or Billie Burke. Where are those names now: Alfred, Bernice, Clifford, Edith, Evelyn, Gladys, Hortense, Maxwell, Mildred, Myra and Myron, Norma and Norman, Sylvia and Sylvan? They were never plucked from the Old Testament.
All of my great-aunts and great-uncles were but one generation removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Their parents had made the voyage out; my grandparents and their siblings became Americans. The habits and customs of the Old World, all the stuff of family legend, inflected with an American effort to “make it new,” filtered into my consciousness like Ovidian myths or Kipling’s Just So Stories. Whatever differences separated them, these people were all talkers. Some had accents as memorable as the cigars the men smoked and the perfumes and dusting powders the women wore. My grandmother’s older brother Manny married a woman from Boston whom everyone considered hoity-toity. To me, they were both colorful rare birds. They lived in Greenwich Village, where Manny, who sported a beret, played chess in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons. Aunt Gert wore her white hair in a chignon and accessorized with long dangling earrings. Uncle Manny ran a suspenders factory, which switched to belts just in the nick of time, but regardless of their status as manufacturing tradespeople, he and Gert qualified as my family’s sophisticated bohemians, a delectable hybrid, both familiar and exotic. They encouraged in me hope for the possibility of escape.
Few of the Philadelphia relatives were like this. Several, like my father’s mysteriously named uncle Foots-and-a-Half, and my mother’s first cousins Will and Grace (Grace was Aunt Annie’s elder daughter), had shady, Runyonesque connections. Reckless danger, or even misdemeanors, had no part in my immediate family, so these outliers cut a peculiarly enticing figure. Modest bootlegging, usually around Passover, was said to have occurred during the 1920s, well before my time. Prohibition did not stop domestic routine. The family justified home brew on the theory that bathtub wine was at least kosher even if bathtub gin was probably not.
We also had gamblers on the periphery of the family, skeptically admired but also held at arm’s length by their more bourgeois siblings and cousins. In an age when, out of courtesy, we called all familiar adults “Aunt” and “Uncle” whether they were related or not, Uncle Will and Aunt Grace stood out. They moved around, a lot, not by their own choice. Will and Grace left Philadelphia under a cloud and resettled in Miami Beach in the early 1950s, there to open a bridge and poker club and escort the local widows on gambling cruises to Havana and St. Thomas. The sound of Grace’s manicured fingers on the ivory mahjong tiles at poolside (“Three bam!” “Four crack!” delivered in her whiskey baritone voice) possessed an inexplicable sonic splendor, still memorable decades later. Grace, always smoking her unfiltered Camels, spent an hour a day putting on her makeup. She lasted well into her nineties, still wobbling on her high heels to make an entrance at the country club or even the delicatessen. A couple of more distant louche relatives, equally sketchy, played the numbers in Atlantic City. Some got run in for tax evasion. Every family needs a handful of dubious characters to add some romance to suburban reality.
Even more than names, bodies, and smells, I remember sounds. I remember language. Everyone talked about everything—except their inner lives, that is. The family directed all talk outward, to and about the world. Like all lucky children, I must have heard the same family tales and legends—no one really knew or cared if they were true—countless times. “Tell me again,” I remember asking my grandmother, “about how your father hid the five younger sisters in the back room after the family scandal.” The scandal: Lena, the second daughter, married before Rae, the eldest. Only when Uncle Sam, fresh off the boat, took Rae for his wife did the family feel unashamed enough to let the other girls out into the light. Eudora Welty reminisced about sitting under the piano in Mississippi, listening to the grown-ups talk. She attributed her own storytelling successes to early story listening. I can still hear, through the years, my family chattering: assertively, ironically, simultaneously. Language was the best way to make one’s mark. I hardly knew it at the time, but language became my life’s leitmotif.
Call it phonophilia: love of sounds, at least certain ones. Phonophobia is its opposite. Whenever I read or hear accounts of life in the traditional WASP, Scandinavian, Calvinist, or similarly repressed household, a family with silence as well as secrets, I sigh with wonder and some envy. All families have secrets, some well hidden, but not all maintain silence as the default mode with regard to everything. There was no silence in my house, or locked doors for that matter, nor was there any in the homes of my grandparents, with whom we bunked—my father, mother, and I—before we got a house of our own. My father had left the army in 1946, when I was less than two years old. For the next two years, we divided our time between his parents’ light-filled house near the northern end of Philadelphia’s Broad Street and my mother’s widowed mother’s gloomy tenth-story apartment some blocks away. Whatever temperamental and social differences between the two sides of the family, one thing remained constant: Silence was suspect. It went with sleep.
My father’s sister, a young naval bride in 1944, wrote to her parents about the eye- and ear-opening events at a Sunday dinner at the Officers’ Club on the base where she and her husband were stationed. My uncle, a tall, handsome lieutenant, sat at one end of the table, to the right of the admiral’s wife. My aunt sat at the other end, to the right of the admiral himself, who must have been delighted with this leggy, blond, talented, and vivacious Veronica Lake look-alike. Liveried military servants ladled out the soup, then served salad, then the traditional roasted haunch of animal accompanied by the overcooked vegetables that decades later Julia Child taught Americans to forgo. Sherry preceded the meal, and strawberry shortcake followed it. The servants poured coffee from a silver service. Then the gentlemen retired to one room, the ladies to another.
My aunt had only recently escaped from Philadelphia. What most impressed her about the event was not the food. She reported her amazement to her parents: “We had Sunday dinner at the Admiral’s table. Only one person spoke at a time.” She had left behind not only bagels and lox but also high-pitched, raucous Jewish excitement. At home, the men and women might have engaged in separate conversations, but they never occupied different rooms before or after dinner. The family had, for starters, fewer rooms. Compared with what Aunt Wilma knew from home, this dinner with the officers was like Babette’s Feast, the 1987 movie based on Isak Dinesen’s story about the collision of repression and exuberance, self-denial and hedonistic delight.
No one in our family had ever heard, or even imagined, such a thing: “Only one person spoke at a time?” Doesn’t nature abhor a vacuum? The only way that one person alone would be speaking would be if everyone else—against all mathematical probability—had a mouth full of food. At home, the custom of the single speaker never took hold. “Politesse” did not come easily.
Does simultaneous, as opposed to consecutive, speech indicate vulgarity or exuberance? Despair or joie de vivre? A lack of attention or an excess of it? Unresponsiveness to others or heightened concern? If you interrupt someone mid-sentence, do you force him to raise the volume and the speed of his delivery? Neurologists who have tested the brain waves of people listening to music, in concert halls or at home, conclude that it is not the music itself but the pauses within the music that prime the brain for further activity. The silence, not the sound, constitutes the real neurological event. In conversation without pause, there is no event. The conversation becomes a nonstop easy-listening station: all babble, all the time.
In families like mine it was easy to confuse nervous anxiety with genial enthusiasm. Sometimes it was hard to tell one from the other. A raised voice could mean affirmation, love, enthusiastic greeting, or just as likely a warning about tripping and breaking your neck. If danger lurks constantly—where you go, or with whom, what you eat, what you wear, what the weather looks like—then prescriptions and proscriptions have to be delivered in stentorian tones. Hollering signaled love. “Watch out, or you might die” was the essential message. This style of vocalizing had charm when you saw it represented in movies or television. I think of Gertrude Berg’s alter ego, the affable Yiddish yenta Molly Goldberg, who “yoo-hoo’ed” her way across the tenement air shaft from her window to her neighbor’s. In reality, it made my ears tremble and my flesh creep.
Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan,” a nostalgic lullaby to old New York, describes the clamor of peddlers on the Lower East Side as “sweet pushcarts gently gliding by.” We glamorize the past, smoothing over its difficulties, making the noxious delectable. The desperate need of rag merchants, clothing salesmen, knife grinders, and fruit vendors to eke out a living becomes the stuff of melodious sentimentality.
Spoken language, even more than writing, brings us together and sometimes pulls us apart. The majority of all the people who have ever lived have been illiterate. But barring physiological or psychological infirmity, or elected vows of silence, everyone has talked. And talk means more than necessary communication, expressions of needs and desires, affirmations and denials, commands and compliance. I’ll go so far as to deem conversation the essential human art. Even the origin of the word signifies its status as a marker of civilized life: from Latin, via medieval French, an act of living or keeping company, of turning about with other people. The “con” prefix joins us together; the “verse” signifies our turnings. Recently, standard black English has created a contemporary linguistic back-formation—a verb from a noun from a verb—to “conversate,” suggesting a more engaged, active form of communication. I imagine that conversating qualifies as a more animated form of conversing.
Language came early to me. First words, then sentences. I was like a pony out of the starting gate. As a firstborn, prodded by and responsive to the attention of an extended family, I performed with ease. I knew polysyllabic words from an early age. A now ninety-year-old relative (another “aunt”) has reminded me that when I was three, I looked at my six-month-old second cousin and called her a “Technicolor baby.” I had just seen my first Walt Disney cartoons. I came upon the dictionary and the almanac at the same time. I memorized words and facts with equal greed. Exposure to the wittily packed librettos of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas came shortly afterward. “I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox, / I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus”: The Major General’s patter song from The Pirates of Penzance won me over at the age of nine both by its jaunty melody and, even more, by those mouth-filling words. I had as little an idea of acrostics and elegiacs as I did of Heliogabalus, but I made it my business to find out who and what they were.
Not knowing the meanings of certain words, names, or sounds has almost as much power as learning them, of mastering a language. Curiosity impels us. Such arcane researches had no practical or even social benefit, but they gave pleasure, not just the pleasure of showing off by performing, but something deeper, a combination of the physical and the imaginative. I learned that words have sound and meaning. Although I didn’t know this at the time, I was also discovering the essential charms of poetry itself, with its combination of the semantic and the non-semantic. Rhythm, rhyme, and music: melody enhances the meanings of words and the power of communication.
How do we converse, or conversate, with one another? Like clothing and names, speech is style. Cultures as well as individuals have different standards of talking, making sense, going back and forth. Conversation, too, is a kind of performance, subtler and not hewing to a script. And it has a history. It has changed over time and in different places. It may be intimate—between lovers or close acquaintances—or it may be something more public. Here are some adjectives that do not apply to the best conversation: “one-sided,” “monopolizing,” “condescending,” “preachy,” “abrasive,” “hectoring,” “loud,” and “rude.” However many people it involves, conversation is, like chamber music, an exercise in intimacy, of give-and-take, of what Plato, who recorded the talk of one of history’s first and finest talkers, called “dialectic,” a word etymologically related to “dialogue.” Conversation moves forward, or back and forth in starts and stops, like drama itself. That philosophy, democracy, and drama all began in fifth-century Athens says a great deal about the far from incidental relations among them.
Many of the great talkers—Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson at their most clever—would not qualify as masters of conversation. They were performers, delivering bons mots, aphorisms, put-downs, and clever witticisms de haut en bas. The person who excels in conversation has mastered the art of listening as well as speaking. Monologuists and epigram makers belong to a different species. Speechifiers are linguistic bullies. Talkers, on the other hand, relish the game itself. Someone serves, and another person responds. The volleys can engage more than a pair of participants. Pronouncements tend to put an end to conversation rather than enliven it.
One can trace the outlines of the history of conversation from Plato’s Symposium, the original feast of drinking, talking, philosophizing, and flirting, to Trimalchio’s stupendous banquet in Petronius’s Satyricon, then through the salon culture of prerevolutionary France and the coffeehouse culture of eighteenth-century England, to the late-night talk show apparatus of American television, and from there to Internet chat rooms, where virtual people have replaced live ones and where cloaked anonymity often substitutes for honest openness. Animals communicate with one another for practical purposes—mating, protection, aggression—but only human beings talk for the sheer pleasure of it.
Stephen Miller’s 2006 Conversation: A History of a Declining Art takes an amiable stroll through “talk” from ancient Greece to the present American moment. Miller sounds like a modern Jeremiah, lamenting the fact that the latest technology—beginning with television and moving through the newest avatars of computer devices—has severely undone the conditions of, and the prospects for, “civilized” discourse. Like any person given to nostalgia, Miller looks back to golden ages of conversation, to Enlightenment France and Britain above all, and finds in today’s world an absence of the charms that permeated earlier cultures. Such regret is probably misplaced. Not only have witty banter, sharp riposte, and cordial disagreement always been in short supply, but everyone with an ounce of politeness, tolerance, and fellow feeling can attest to conversations he has had that have challenged, amused, and satisfied him in equal measure. Everyone has known great and amusing talkers even if everyone is not a great talker himself. Listening makes its own demands and has its own satisfactions.
Henry Fielding called conversation “this great business of our lives.” I would go further: conversation is the cornerstone of democracy and of commerce. We conduct business through conversation. I have been assured by friends who have international dealings that the Japanese and other Asian peoples are adjusting slowly to, or even resisting, a culture in which Skype and other kinds of teleconferencing have come to replace face-to-face personal interchanges. Traditionally, in a one-hour business meeting in Japan, the first fifty-nine minutes consist of pleasantries and cordial compliments, and the actual sealing of the deal occurs only at the end. Can we dispense with the niceties and cut to the chase? Apparently not: you need those first fifty-nine minutes to ensure the last one.
We conduct business through talk, but we also derive infinite impractical pleasure from chatting. It binds us to one another. Not the screaming we see on television, nor the banal bantering with stars and starlets we see daily—and nightly—but the ordinary give-and-take we have with neighbors; friends and relatives; strangers encountered on airplanes, on trains, and in bars and pubs; and, through the miracle of serendipity, people we run into on the street. Good humor and surprise, the willingness to be pleased or to change one’s mind about matters large and small, signify a cheerful, sanguine disposition. Flexibility of temperament, combined with the ability to listen as well as to speak one’s mind, without harassing one’s mates, ensures civil decency. It’s not only good fences but also good talking that makes good neighbors.
Dancing, that most useless of human activities, teaches both grace and manners. People of a certain age were trained in the drill of the ballroom. It is everyone’s obligation to invite everyone else to the floor. “May I have this dance?” begins the game, and the gentleman leads the lady (in the new age, gender reversal is legitimate) for a four-minute excursion, after which he says “Thank you” and escorts her back. Conversation will perform much the same function, helping us with grace and manners, but only if mutual respect matches the courtesy of the back-and-forth ritual. Growing up, we were told that politeness forbids a frank discussion of certain topics—money, politics, religion, and sex, above all—but those are the topics most people want to talk about. They are certainly the ones that everyone has knowledge or at least opinions about. When Lytton Strachey uttered the word “Semen?”—as question or challenge—to Vanessa Bell after he had noticed a stain on her dress, her sister, Virginia Woolf, said, “We burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us.” Bloomsbury conversation had entered a new era. The modern age had begun. Camp came out of the closet. More than a century later, sex is no longer hors de combat at the dinner table, or anywhere.
Other prohibitions remain. At some genteel men’s clubs in London, New York, and wherever Anglophilia retains its grip, certain quaint customs and modest restrictions still prevail. I have witnessed them. One does not conduct business of any sort at lunch. Even waiting for your host at table, you are not permitted to take out a pen and begin writing. Writing is work. Reading is permitted, but note taking, like using a cell phone, is forbidden. And if you are a club member who arrives for lunch unaccompanied, you sit at the “long table” with other solo members, some of whom you may know but others not. Introductions are frowned upon. You are men of the world and are expected to keep up your end of a conversation without injecting unnecessary trivial personal information, like your name. And you don’t ask questions; no “Who are you?” and “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” Better to begin with the weather and proceed to the news, always mindful not to trample on your neighbors and their points of view. In some cultures—traditional Japan comes again to mind—the very asking of a question is considered the height of rudeness. One works through indirection, teasing out someone’s preferences and responses, rather than asking for them directly, succinctly.
Keeping matters light can also keep them trivial and mindless. Good talk maintains a rhythm, like a piece of music, a ground between highs and lows, the serious and the amusing, the philosophical and the personal. A thread must weave itself logically through the conversation with the appearance of natural inevitability. And there must also be surprises, turnings away, changes of pace and tone that enliven and lead unpredictably to new matters.
At a smart dinner party in Dallas some years ago, a group of ten took to a tastefully appointed table. As servers came in with a first course, our hostess disapprovingly announced, “Oh, I told Susie I wanted the green china, not the red, this evening.” Without missing a beat, I observed unpremeditatedly, “Those people in Bosnia don’t know the meaning of hardship.” The hostess blushed and then laughed. Disaster averted, the meal proceeded smoothly. The red china disturbed neither the soup nor our enjoyment of it. All of us could tell the difference between real trouble and what we might call First World problems. Laughter punctuates the best conversations, always. Social communication thrives on unexpected improvisation.
A laissez-faire approach to talk—allowing it to flow aimlessly but seamlessly—has much to recommend it. Like a stream of consciousness, the stream of talk goes in its own unpredictable way. An alternative conversational gambit looks more like state planning. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the so-called autocrat of the breakfast table, was not the only convener or autocratic choreographer of talk. Some hosts or, more likely, hostesses enjoy orchestrating a conversation. Many times I have sat in numbed attendance waiting my turn to be called on by Monsieur or Madame Professor Host or Hostess. This is the Dinner Party as Command Performance. One doyenne of Dallas society calls this Jeffersonian conversation in honor of the master of Monticello, and she insists upon a single conversation, which means that the table, regardless of the number of participants, has become a graduate seminar, with the hostess making inquiries of everyone on whatever subject she has deemed worthy of attention. This modern version of a Socratic dialogue (along the lines of peremptorily declaring “Let’s talk about beauty”; “What is the ideal city?”; or “What defines a good life?”) has much to recommend it, at least in theory. In practice, the frequent slowness of response, not to mention the potential awkwardness of the diners’ opinions, makes for the conversational equivalent of pulling teeth. As does the fact that people speak in turn, with no volleying between them. What we get instead is a series of little monologues, not a Socratic dialectic—thesis-antithesis-synthesis—with its constantly refining, contradicting, revising, slow unsteady movement. Sit-and-deliver performances tend to sobriety rather than sparkle. One welcomes modest fireworks at the dinner table.
The hostess’s seminar plan inhibits spontaneity. It serves, indeed guarantees, a forced equality. Everyone, moving clockwise or counterclockwise, has his or her say. Planning the conversation is the equivalent of arranging the place cards. One wants to leave nothing to chance, so one scripts the talk. I’ll take my stand with Joseph Mitchell, who was a great writer in part because he was a great listener. He said, “The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves.” Elizabeth Bishop, riding on a bus from Nova Scotia to Boston (in her poem “The Moose”), overhears something similar, “an old conversation /—not concerning us, / but recognizable, somewhere.” Revelations, wisdom, and courtesies come about at least as much by accident as by deliberation.
Natural, active, engaging talkers sometimes bridle or even freeze up when required to perform. And every table needs at least one good listener; not everyone needs to talk to ensure the steady flow. Talkers play to both their sparring partners and their silent admirers. Is there a perfect number for dinner conversation? Experience suggests six to eight. With that number, you can indeed have a single conversation without military rigor or without the enforced etiquette of old-fashioned dinner parties at which the hostess begins by turning to the guest of honor on her right and speaks to him while the host, at the distant other end of the rectangle, turns to the leading lady at his right and does the same. Everyone follows suit. As if by clockwork, the perfect hostess knows to adjust her tempo and turns to the gentleman at her left for the next course. Counterclockwise and then clockwise: it seldom works with symmetrical results, but you get the idea. By this model, dinner conversation is more like a dance, a pas de deux, than an honors seminar. But it is work, not play.
Food and drink are helpful, if not always required, to loosen tongues. Whether in the aristocratic salons of Paris or the coffeehouses of eighteenth-century London, the bar on television’s Cheers, where everyone knows your name, or the late-night drink in a hotel where you chat with the guy on the adjacent stool and reveal truths to someone you will never see again precisely because you will never see him again, civilized consumption and civilized conversation are mates. The mouth is an erotic organ. We use our mouths for lovemaking, but that is private activity. Talking and eating are equally oral but social too. Food is a stimulant, and wine a lubricant, to conversation. Candlelight creates a more than visible glow. It enlightens and enlivens the talkers.
Above all, difference, or what goes by the name “diversity” today, counts for a lot. Birds of a feather may flock or eat together, but only polite disagreement, moderate dissension, can make for conversation. Someone old, someone young, someone exotic, someone refined, someone naive: the blend can vary, but it is necessary. W. H. Auden dedicated his poem “Tonight at Seven-Thirty” to M.F.K. Fisher. He prefers a table of six, with no doting lovers, no children, and no malcontents on hand. A god of any sort would be inappropriate, because he’d probably bore everyone. A genius or a prima donna might overwhelm everyone. (I once had dinner with a great man of music, at a table for six. There was only one topic of conversation, and it was not merely music itself.) Auden asks for
one raconteur, one gnostic with amazing shop,
both in a talkative mood but knowing when to stop.
My own preference would include tablemates of different ages and backgrounds. Even more, I want a table where the subjects of conversation will include language itself, where different tongues can speak on behalf of different cultures as well as sensibilities, and where linguistic cognates and differences give rise to wonder and laughter. At a country dinner party, my longtime partner and I were seated among six older, richer WASPs, who had all the worldly experience, manners, money, and breeding of their class. The conversation turned to idioms from one language that are virtually untranslatable into others. The hostess gave an example from Hungarian. That set the bar very high for the rest of us. Someone else, who had worked for the Foreign Service, offered an example of something in Arabic. I tried, with less panache, to work with the concision of Latin’s ablative absolute, which requires longer English phrases to reproduce. Other people contributed examples from garden-variety Spanish and French. And so it went, until (my) Ken played the trump card. In Yiddish.
“My grandfather used to say, in moments of annoyance, to my grandmother, ‘Minnie, don’t hock me a chinick.’” The other guests leaned in, eager for enlightenment. Ken explained patiently. “A ‘chinick’ is a teapot; ‘hock’ is to chop.” Someone, although no one at this party, might have recognized a cognate in “gehochte leber,” “chopped liver.” “Don’t chop, bang, or knock me a teapot” means “Get off my case; leave me alone.”
One lock-jawed, well-traveled preppy lady of a certain age said through her gleaming teeth, “Oh, I like that one.” And she turned to her husband of many decades and said gleefully, “Louie, don’t hock me a chinick.” I doubt that the formulaic phrase entered their subsequent tête-à-têtes.
I have long since forgotten what we ate at that meal. I do remember what we said. Some people have the capacity to remember what they put into their mouths. I work the other way. I remember what I have uttered and what I have heard.
Language, it has often been said, is the most astonishing creation of humankind. We must have invented it at the same time we invented God. Language allows us communication with those we confront. Having a deity encourages us to address someone we can never see or know but only talk to. He does not reply, for the most part, which is just as well. Job, hearing God speaking from the whirlwind, does not actually have a conversation with him. And Job’s earlier conversation with his three comforters, sadists all, provided him with little solace. Face-to-face talk is still, for the most part, preferable to the telephonic variety. “What are you wearing?” begins Nicholson Baker’s short novel Vox, about phone sex. Like phone sex, talking on the phone is not as good as the real thing, but it has its place. Can we like the online voice better than the one attached to a person we can see at the same time? I cast my vote for the fuller engagement, person to person and in three dimensions.
Conversational tics such as stuttering and interrupting that do not offend or irritate us in person may seem exaggerated and more offensive when you cannot see the person with whom you are talking. A phone conversation resonates differently from a live chat. Looking and seeing complement listening, hearing, and speaking. This psychological or neurological difference has made for changes in socializing. One young friend recently told me that he and his contemporaries, making dates via the Internet, tend to observe one strict rule: no phone conversations before a face-to-face meeting. Text first, talk later. And I often wonder whether the better way to enjoy opera is at a live performance, where you get to see action, drama, sets, and costumes, as well as hear the music, or on the radio, stereo, or computer stream, where you get only the voices and are not distracted by your eyes. In the first option, you have the total experience, but in the second you have the undistilled, pure pleasure of sound. You can hear better when you are only listening.
In “Losing Track of Language,” one of her great poems of travel, Amy Clampitt tackles the issue of conversations with strangers in public places, but with a twist: the languages are foreign. For someone like Clampitt or me, getting something wrong in a foreign tongue can be as much fun as getting it right. Linguistic competence and the pleasure of chance encounters work together. Her poem recounts a train trip between the South of France and Italy. Clampitt and her companion “sit wedged among strangers” in a train compartment. As the landscape changes, “words fall away, we trade instead in flirting / and cigarettes; we’re all rapport with strangers.” She thinks of Petrarch, that earlier pilgrim in the Vaucluse, who perfected the sonnet and immortalized his beloved Laura therein.
Their Italian compartment mate hears “Petrarch” and responds enthusiastically:
A splutter of pleasure at hearing the name
is all he needs, and he’s off
like a racehorse at the Palio—plunging
unbridled into recited cadenzas, three-beat
lines interleaving a liquid pentameter.
What are words?
Words are, of course, all that we have of Petrarch, of Laura, of all the dead: “Whatever is left of her is language,” says the poet, before restarting in a different key:
—E conosce (I ask it to keep the torrent
of words from ending, to keep anything
from ending, ever) anche Sapphò? Yes,
he knows, he will oblige. The limpid pentameter
gives way to something harsher: diphthongs
condense, take on an edge of bronze. Though
I don’t understand a word, what are words?
But of course she understands. She intuits the tone beneath the words, the meanings within the ancient Greek that she knows only through translations of Sappho’s fragments. Landscape and language both fall away, but the poet has made contact, via her two dimly understood foreign tongues, with this stranger on the train. Loss has been her subject, but gain has been her accomplishment.
The poem ends as it began:
The train leaps toward Italy; words fall away
through the dark into the dark bedroom
of everything left behind, the unendingness
of things lost track of—of who, of where—
where I’m losing track of language.
Amy Clampitt, by her own admission, was a “garrulous creature.” She loved language; she loved long, mouth-filling words. She wrote poems that often send a curious reader to the dictionary. She was aware that everything fades and disappears but also that the hold of language, however tenuous, is the strongest thing that binds us together.
Any language lover knows the comedy of miscommunication when trying to master a foreign tongue. And also the thrill of improvised successes. Many years ago, at a beach in the Algarve, I—in my pathetic attempt to weave something like Portuguese out of strands of French and Spanish—charmed a couple of Portuguese boys by explaining to them W. C. Fields’s reason for preferring gin to water and for abjuring the latter. “Non bevo acqua,” I said, “perchè in acqua pesce fucka-fucka.” Nothing was lost in translation. The young men knew just what the great comedian meant. And we ordered more vinho verde.
And years later, at a large dockside restaurant in Genoa, where one sat at large tables with strangers dining on the fruits of the Ligurian Sea, we began chatting with two young Italian sailors, who by this point were rollicking with high spirits and a lot of wine. “Siete marinati?” I asked, noticing their sailors’ uniforms. They guffawed. “Certo!” My mistake: “sailors” is marinai. Marinati means “marinated,” “pickled,” “dead drunk.” And those marinai were ben marinati.
And once, on an Italian train, squeezed like Clampitt into a small compartment with five other travelers, I used literature—as the poet herself did—as a way of opening up a brief conversation. Auden might have been right: six is the perfect number for talking at table. In the hot car chugging from Florence to Parma, I sat between an older Chinese couple, clearly Italian residents, on one side, and, on the other, a well-coiffed lady of a certain age who spent the trip on her cell phone talking to her daughter in Rome. Across from her sat a middle-aged priest who was deeply immersed in the sports pages of Milan’s Corriere della Sera. Across from me, an Italian university student dozed a bit. I had taken for my leisure reading Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Published in 1958, this great elegiac novel reads like something from the previous century. Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous film starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale only increased the glow of the book itself. I looked up and saw that the girl across from me had awakened and was also reading: Il gattopardo. I interrupted her and said, “Noi leggiamo lo stesso libro!” This alerted the Chinese couple, the glamorous signora, and even the priest. Everyone had memories of reading it at school. They all loved it. Auden was wrong when he said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” In our case, a shared literary experience caused a momentary coming together of people who would never see one another again.
Some things go without saying, or without the need of a known language. I can never forget the annual Christmas visits of the woman whose daughter married my brother-in-law. Carina, an exotic French-Algerian model, the kind of woman who literally turned men’s heads when she walked down the street, had taken up with Philip, a savvy, handsome New York rogue. Their daughter arrived shortly afterward, a little early. At that point, Rose, the French grandmother, began her pilgrimages to visit the blessed child. At Christmas in the West End Avenue apartment of my in-laws, Grand-mère Rose and Nanny Evelyn, her American counterpart, spent the holiday week cooking, decorating a tree, and billing and cooing over the child. From infancy through adulthood, Yasmine had the total attention of the grandmothers. The rest of us were superfluous. Rose spoke no English. Evelyn had no French. They understood each other perfectly. They spoke the international language called Grandmother. This language consists of exclamations, verbs of admiration and exaltation, and adjectives in the superlative. No translation was necessary.
Emerson said, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby—so helpless & so ridiculous.” I have always prided myself on attempting rudimentary remarks in the language of any country I visit. In Japan (see pages 63–66), becoming a great baby gave me pleasure as well as stimulation. But wanting to learn language—any language, indeed every language—must have had its origin in those first babblings from my mouth and the mouths of my extended family. I moved quickly from talking to reading to writing, from language in the air, and the ear and mouth, to language on the page. I stayed in school because I was good at school. I learned foreign languages. Had I been born later, I would have taken advantage of semesters abroad and the chance to perfect my speaking of those languages. I have had to satisfy myself with schoolboy forays into semi-competent French, Italian, and German. I became a university professor of English.
And then, for an unplanned, entirely unexpected learning experience, I moved to Texas, where both language and everything else seemed, initially, foreign.
Copyright © 2016 by Willard Spiegelman