David Brooks became one of my must-read authors when his novel The Fern Tattoo (2008) was nominated for the Miles Franklin award, and I really enjoyed The Umbrella Club when it was released in 2009. (See my review). He’s also the author of The Sons of Clovis, (2011) which is an exploration of the infamous Ern Malley literary hoax, a subject that sounds very interesting to me.
The Conversation is a departure from the previous novels – it’s more of a meditation on life than anything else. It’s a beautifully presented book, with a sumptuous dustjacket with gilt lettering, expensive paper and gorgeous saffron coloured cover boards. It feels lovely to hold it in your hands, especially as Brooks conjures up a sensual meal enjoyed in the warmth of an Italian evening, far from everyday life. An older man and a young woman are dining alone in a restaurant in Trieste, and a gust of wind blows his papers on to her table. They end up dining together. From this unlikely premise, a long discursive conversation ensues, in which they share the most intimate of thoughts. The book is structured around the courses of the meal, affording the opportunity for the characters to share their opinions on culture, philosophy, history, and art, as well as on their personal experiences of love. These two seem like soulmates drawn together by the Fates because it’s the kind of conversation one would love to have with a Beloved.
It’s because they are strangers who will never meet again, that they feel able to talk so openly about all kinds of taboo subjects including suicide, sexual experience, and betrayal.
‘But this is crazy!’
‘Crazy? I don’t understand.’
‘To be telling you all this, a complete stranger.’
‘Because I am a complete stranger, and you can tell me with impunity. We just talked about that. I mean, whom could I tell who could possibly affect you? Even if I were inclined to tell, which generally speaking I am not.’
‘And because, a lot of the time, 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 to come into existence…’ (p66)
I didn’t find this quite convincing enough. The way she hung on his every word, insisting that the conversation be prolonged, suggested to me that some kind of sensual attraction as well as a chance meeting of minds might occur. I kept waiting for this to happen, but no, apart from the discreet waiter appearing with successive courses, all that happened was conversation. 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. Having come to this conclusion part way through the book, I did not know what to make of the ending at all.
However, on reflection, I now realise that The Conversation is not meant to be read as a piece of realistic fiction. The plot, such as it is, is a mere device, a frame on which to hang philosophical discourse about life, vaguely reminiscent of the way that Sophie’s World is constructed to showcase philosophy rather than as a novel.
Author: David Brooks
Title: The Conversation
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2012)
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.
Fishpond: The Conversation
Or direct from UQP.