French novelist Lydie Salvayre’s tiny treatise on the dwindling art of conversation hides within it an amusing portrait of a lonely, failed intellectual. The Lecture is written in the form of a monologue given by a pompous, unnamed Frenchman who stands before the citizens of his small town, Cintegabelle, intent on methodically teaching them the withering art of conversation and thus saving French civilization.
He digresses at every turn, each argument and example reminding him of his recently deceased wife, Lucienne, a woman with the “vegetable immobility and enigmatic beauty of a cabbage.” Discussing the use of conversation as a romantic tool (a subject dear to the Frenchman’s heart), he recalls his own courting days: “My verbal vivacity and florid declarations . . . did more to lift up her redoubtable skirt than any fumbling gesture I’d never have dared make anyway.” Even a reference to Ahab and the whale (one of many unnecessary literary name-droppings) brings Lucienne to mind, since she “spent most of her time beached on the bed, belly up, emitting marine odors.”
The Lecture leaps nimbly between wisdom and inanity, its narrator’s striking voice perfectly rendered in Linda Coverdale’s deadpan, crystal-clear translation. Although our orator sees himself as a great thinker, his proposals are often hilarious—like his petition to replace the city’s benches with sofas purchased from unemployed psychoanalysts, based on his notion that the derriere must be comfortable for a proper chat to ensue. Of course, buried underneath all these dyspeptic declarations is a backhanded ode to his wife, to whom he never listened while she was alive. The couple lost the hang of conversing, he laments, and spent their marriage “looking high and low for other ways to connect with one another. Despairing of ever finding any that could satisfy us. Like Dante’s poor damned souls. Which we were. Without realizing it.”