Magazine article The Spectator

Conversation Pieces

Magazine article The Spectator

Conversation Pieces

Article excerpt

There's an endless amount of 'chat' on radio and TV, but how much 'conversation'? A recent book by an American, Stephen Miller, reminds us of the difference between them, and how much we have lost by our obsession with argument, obfuscation, self-revelation, or should I say self-deception. Conversation, argues Miller in his thought-provoking book on the subject (published by Yale), used to be regarded as one of the arts. It should be an intellectual adventure, a chance to extend your experience of life, experiment with ideas, flex your wits, improve your understanding, as well as a source of pleasure and delight.

It once was.

'Honest conversation, ' says Dr Johnson, prevents the mind from being 'empty and unoccupied'. In Finland, for instance, where 'silence is regarded as a sign of wisdom and good manners' and people rarely converse over dinner, it has been suggested that the high suicide rate and degree of alcohol dependency is the consequence. It's an extreme conclusion. Not all conversation is of mutual benefit. Try conversing with someone whose political opinions are the exact opposite of your own. And how often does an evening of dining and talking leave you with regrets? Did I say too much? Did I interrupt rudely and too often?

To converse well, you must also be a good listener, able to reflect and extemporise on what you have just heard rather than simply releasing your own thoughts. Goethe, Miller tells us, was a good listener, but even he was discomfited by the salonnière Madame de Staël, with whom he was unable to get a word in edgeways: 'she talks well, but at length, at great length'.

This week's Private Passions (Sunday, Radio Three), in which the American writer Joyce Carol Oates chose some music for us to discover or hear anew and talked about it with the presenter Michael Berkeley, was a master-class in good conversation.

Oates has just published her latest novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter. There's rarely a time when she's not just published a book; something over 100 at the last count. But although they talked about her book, this was only in the context of the music she had chosen, as a line on which to peg ideas, rather than the programme's USP.

There's a boy in the novel who comes from a difficult background but who has the chance to develop his gift for music. He enters an international young pianists' competition and plays Beethoven's Appassionata sonata, which Oates first heard as a child, performed by Artur Schnabel. …

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