Muriel Spark

Day Seven

My notebooks and desk drawers are littered with unused notes. While writing an essay or a review I refer to notes. For a novel I seldom refer to them unless for factual information. Snatches of dialogue which I think of at odd times and jot down on loose pages of uneven size, including the backs of envelopes, go into a Notes file. Some of these express my feelings at a given moment but have no bearing on the fictional character who expresses it. One note reads “X hated to waste his time more than he hated anything. ‘I will extract with invisible pincers,’ he thought, ‘some form of good, of interest, of sex, or deep amusement, out of this block of selfishness at my side [obviously a woman he sat next to at a table]. I will gain by the three-quarter hour that I have to spend talking to her.’ “

In my personal experience, “her” could often be “him.” Men at the lunch or dinner table, fellow-guests, can often be deadly boring, while women are more likely to hold one’s interests. Socially wiser than men, with a sense of what is possible and suitable for three-quarters of an hour divided between the man on her right, the man on her left, and very often the people opposite all joining in, a woman knows there is no point in pushing a theory which, if challenged, would take step by step to justly explain. The best table talk is made up of amusing but not nasty anecdotes involving other people who are, or whose names are, known to the company. Men are frequently less good at this activity than women. They have a tendency to lecture, to be informative as to who sang Amneris in Aida in 1985, and where. They will tell the world assembled that there is wonderful food to be had in China, which they have just visited, at every street corner. Where do we go from there? Not everyone can or wants to ask details of the Chinese food, or extol its wonders. Not all at the table are in a position to pronounce on the quality of the singer who played Amneris in 1985. It is not that these subjects are intrinsically boring but that the time and place could never expand to accommodate them.

Whereas women, on the other hand, do excel in the form: “Did you hear Janice’s daughter is engaged? Yes, that painter, the same one. Well, they can’t afford a wedding but it’s the marriage that counts. Yes, the brother–he’ll be out soon. He got remand for good conduct.” [laughter all round].

If I don’t stop this diary entry now, I will be led away on a short story, the opening paragraph of which would be the piece of dialogue above.