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Talking to Strangers

October 9, 2014

David Brooks: The Conversation

Do we discover who we are when we talk to another person?

“[We] don’t know what we think until we force it into expression, and we do that mostly through telling someone. If we don’t say it, don’t get it out that way, then maybe it remains a part of ourselves we don’t see, don’t know about, a part that doesn’t really exist. A total stranger, because they can be told, with impunity, things we can’t so easily tell others, might actually help us come into existence.”

So says Stephen to Irena when she exclaims how crazy it is to be discussing a personal problem with a stranger. They have met by chance at a restaurant in Trieste, and during the evening they enjoy an ambrosial series of courses and a book-length conversation.

Piazza Unità, Trieste

Piazza Unità, Trieste, the setting for The Conversation (Mariotto52, CC licence)

Stephen is a well-read Australian engineer living in Paris, where his wife has a bookshop. His style is reflective and empathetic. He makes some insightful observations on a problem Irena is trying to sort out, “yet he did not want to appear like this, as if he had answers.” When suggesting two responses to the problem, he thinks to himself, “Always this tendency to bifurcate.” Much later in the conversation he is about to compliment her, “but realised that that was an old impulse in him, obvious and empty and rote, and that they were in any case well past that.”

Irena is more lively and spontaneous. She is Italian, an interpreter and translator, and her voice is that of someone fluent in a language not her own. When he holds back from telling her about a traumatic time in his past:

‘Tell me!’ Dismay in her voice, and sternness. ‘We have already agreed upon this. You cannot at one point say that the marvellous thing about conversations with strangers is that you can say anything to them and then as soon as it comes to it, how do you say this? You close up, like a clam.’ She smiled, as if pleased to have found the word.

The Conversation is rich in engaging stories – about themselves, their families, their relationships – and these stories interplay with ideas in a way that causes the reader to stop and think. How do we know when we are in love? Is it purely a matter of passion, or can we work our way into it? Is someone dangerous to us to the extent that we love them? Is love possible without risk?

Is there an emptiness in us, Irena asks, that we try to fill by devouring each other? Or is it, he counters, that we are manipulated by ideology into defining ourselves as a lack, to make us serve the interests of religion or the patriarchy or, more recently, the consumer society? Perhaps there is a “romantic economy” that serves a wider economy. “If you are defined as a lack, then you’re going to need a constant supply of things to fill it.” But what if we redefined this supposed lack as “something energising, a sign of health and vitality?”

Late in the evening, when Irena goes to the toilet, “he found himself thinking of the conversation, wondering what, as they had followed the twists and turns of it, she had really been thinking. … Could he even hear her, through himself?”

The whole novel is in Stephen’s point of view, so the reader also does not know what Irena has been thinking.  As I read, I felt a slight unease fluttering around this focus on the older male, which was then crystallised by Lisa at ANZLitlovers in her review: “Unkindly perhaps, sometimes I felt it was a long and very elegantly constructed older man’s fantasy – meeting a beautiful younger woman who found him fascinating, one who made no demands that would complicate his life.”

I’m not sure what to think about this. If the point of view had flipped back and forth between Stephen and Irena, it would have been a very different book. Some key elements that depend on the mystery around Irena would have been sacrificed. And it can be argued that restricting the point of view to Stephen allows Irena to be the driver of the plot – she keeps pushing him to go deeper, refuses to let him off the hook when he tries to evade the issue. This is what leads Stephen to new insights about himself, such as understanding that his grief at the loss of his mother did not fully emerge until the break-up of his first marriage.

In any event, this slight unease did not stop me from enjoying The Conversation immensely. I was charmed by two articulate and deeply thoughtful people and took pleasure in feeling the structure of the conversation: the waves, pauses, hesitations, unexpected turns, digressions, hijackings, and glimpses of something else happening in the other’s mind.

A beautiful and memorable experience.

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