Kate Kellaway is disappointed by a little book about conversation which suffers from runaway enthusiasm undone by preciousnessby Kate Kellaway / March 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
At the end of each chapter of Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity (1994) is a list of “suggestive” reading. Zeldin hopes that his bibliographies will enliven readers “in the same way as a few drinks might be served after a meal to allow the conversation to expand.” Zeldin’s analogy charmed me at the time-as did his exotic, compendious and mind-stretching book. And so, when given Conversation as a Christmas present, I was predisposed to like it, confident that it could be as quickly and enjoyably downed as an ap?ritif.
It is a peculiar experience to read, silently and in solitude, about conversation (the book was originally six radio talks), a point which does not escape Zeldin. Here we have, instead of the tennis of conversation, a protracted game of golf. (The book picks up when rare snatches of dialogue are recorded.) At first I took the subtitle How Talk Can Change Your Life to be a marketing ploy; but it quickly became evident that this is not a parody of a self-help book. Zeldin believes in self-help on a grand scale, arguing that conversation can change everything. “Our private conversations do make a difference to the world,” he says. Then he mysteriously and vivaciously introduces the subject of wallpaper. “Wallpapering the house,” he asserts, “can be more than a shared chore, more than a shared entertainment, particularly if one makes one’s own wallpaper. In the process one can change one’s idea of beauty, and when that happens one is changed oneself.” Steady on! This little book suffers from a runaway enthusiasm at times undone by preciousness. Each pronouncement about what Zeldin calls the New Conversation is launched like a hot air balloon from which he seraphically views the world below. The absence of cynicism is attractive-but it is impossible to get a sense of what the form or content of the New Conversation will be. The content would appear to depend partly on food. Zeldin is something of a gastronomic snob, suggesting that conversations over dinner cannot prosper unless the food is imaginative and innovative, as though a good conversation could not take place over fish and chips. (How did the Irish, on a wretched diet, manage to talk as they did?)
Conversation is bloated with edible metaphor. Witty conversation is likened to nouvelle cuisine. “It may sharpen the mind, but on its own it contains no nourishment.”…