Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Julia Kristeva=Julie Christie

Alberto Manguel at the TLS on the art of conversation:

For many years, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo got together in the evenings to talk. In the mid-1960s, through a series of trivial circumstances, I became the lucky witness to many of these conversations. For hours on end, over a dismal meal of boiled vegetables and overcooked rice, in Bioy's vast and dilapidated Buenos Aires flat, the three would discuss an infinite number of subjects with intelligence, lightly carried erudition and wit. Listening to the three friends talking was like listening to a chamber orchestra playing an improvised concerto. One voice would suggest a theme, the others would pick it up and play on it, then abandon it in order to simultaneously attack several others, the whole peppered with quotations, anecdotes, tidbits of esoteric information and jokes. Bioy once made a list of the subjects he remembered they had discussed: it is three pages long and ends with "the autobiographical books of George Moore, Victor Hugo, Housman's poems, Toulet's contrerimes, and the formulation of ethical principles". Whoever attended the dinner was forced either to enter the conversation according to implicit rules of subject and tone, or to drown in the flow of words. A third possibility (which I timidly chose) was merely to sit and listen.

Similar in appearance, but utterly different in their essence, were the gatherings of Roland Barthes, Severo Sarduy and Francois Wahl around a table at the Cafe de Flore in Paris. These were never communal undertakings: here nothing mingled and became one. Their talks had the feel of oral essays, of recitations and quotable repartee. I can remember whole chunks of these talks: Barthes on the new Drugstore that had opened on the rue de Rennes, and on the lamented removal of the Paris pissotières; Sarduy on Manuel Puig’s belief that Julia Kristeva was a pseudonym for Julie Christie; Wahl on the metamorphosis of the magazine Tel Quel into Change (“plus ça change, plus ça reste tel quel”). Brilliant as the talk was, it was not a conversation, rather what Rebecca West, quoted by Stephen Miller in his new book, Conversation, called “intersecting monologues”. On the other hand, I would find it impossible to recapture the conversations at Bioy’s flat, except for a few words here and there which I probably read later in an interview or an essay. Perhaps proof of the success of a conversation is the very fact that it cannot be reproduced. A conversation at its best exists solely as it happens, in the moment in which it is spoken.

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