The words tumbled out of…

In (one) European tradition there is an idea that a human being is specified by nothing else so much as speech (talk): I am what I say, and if my talk is not coherent, then neither am I. The most trivial example is a moment when I do not keep my word – when I do not, for example, wait where I promised to wait and my friend who keeps the appointment waits in vain; at first he is angry, but when it happens again and again, he stops waiting and then I cease to exist for him. Either we keep our word or we are no longer in this world.

Since this identification of talk and life makes sense, I find interesting the cases in which speech (talk) does the opposite of representing the life of the speaker, that is, when speech contradicts life (agency).

One such disturbing experience is portrayed by Paul Auster in the novel The Brooklyn Follies. The main character, Nathan, lives – in his opinion and in the opinion of his kith and kin – a messy life in which he mistreats both himself and those around him. A turning point in his life, which we follow in the novel, is when his speeches contradict his life. For example, according to nine-year-old Lucy, her awful uncle Nathan is amazing – well, just when they talk together: “We have such a nice time, when we talk together. … it´s about the best fun I have. Talking to you, I mean. You´re such a jolly old soul, Uncle Nat…” (164).

Does this mean that he is able to talk or narrate but is otherwise dysfunctional in life? It seems impossible to discuss serious matters with him; all he can do he is tattle. However, it turns out that his talk helps him to save the child and to build good, solid relationships: these are serious, crucial matters.

It is true that after writing a letter to his daughter Rachel, in which he asks for her forgiveness and for a second chance, she forgives him and he helps her. Here also the scene is governed by words, by talking: when he admits his ruined marriage he brings a smile to his daughter’s face, and awakens her élan vital, not by what he is saying (the content of his speech) but just by the fact of his talking: “I had no idea what I was saying. The words tumbled out of me in a mad rush, an unstoppable deluge of nonsense and overcooked emotions, and when I came to the end of my ridiculous speech, I saw that Rachel was smiling, smiling for the first time since she had walked into the restaurant. Perhaps that was all I could hope to accomplish. To let her know that I was with her, that I believed in her…” (168). Here, though, even a bare, unsubstantial speech has a point and can have deep meaning in the life of a human being. At the same time, it is not “platitudes – all those exhausted phrases and hand-me-down ideas”; these are condemned in the novel from the very beginning (2). It is rather a speech that invokes enthusiasm and love. Nathan’s nephew Tom says it openly: “I love hearing you spout your bullshit, Nathan” (36). And the dialogue between Tom and Nathan discloses the basic characteristic of this talk – straightness: “I hadn’t realized it until now, but I’ve missed it [chat with Nathan]. I’ve missed it a lot.” “You think I’m joking, ” I said, “but I’m giving it to you straight. The pearls of my wisdom. A few pointers after a life time of toiling in the trenches of experience. Conmen and tricksters run the world. Rascals rule. And do you know why?” “Tell me, Master. I’m all ears.” “Because they’re hungrier than we are. Because they know what they want. Because they believe in life more than we do” (36).

I do not believe that the novel shows us a picture of a hopeless man confronting certain episodes from his life. It is rather through his speech that he is able to overturn the course of events and decide on the course of life of given individuals. Speech entails the fact that the one who speaks is agreeable, good-mannered and has the wisdom of experience for the listener; let us say that the speaker does not reject the good, meaningful life, and that he has an appetite to live and to challenge life. This sort of talk implies much more than we usually put down to speech as to a communication tool. And we should be very careful and resourceful to preserve such speech or talk, particularly in the present age of social media and pandemic-related lockdowns. This might be the biggest menace and challenge of our time… That is, this speech is in a sense more fundamental than therapy and medicine: “I offered to pay for regular sessions with a therapist if she thought they would help, but she said no, she’d rather just talk to me. Me. The bitter, solitary man who had crept home to Brooklyn less than a year earlier, the burnout who had convinced himself there was nothing left to live for knuckleheaded me, Nathan the Unwise, who could think of nothing better to do than quietly wait to drop dead…” (204–5).

And there is more in such a speech. Let me, finally, recall Auster’s script for the movie Smoke (directed by Wayne Wang), where certain forms of speech carry the thread of the life of a whole community in Brooklyn. It is not damned tattling, but it is also not philosophical disputation. The whole movie culminates in an extreme instance (“Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story”) of when a satisfactory and fulfilling talk is fully mendacious: it is an encounter between two people who don’t know each other but pretend that they do (that one of them is someone else). In particular, a chap named Auggie rings the bell to return a wallet he has found, but the door is opened by an elderly blind woman (not her nephew Robert, who is the owner of the wallet and who has left her). The dialogue is as follows:

“… Anyway, I finally get to the apartment I’m looking for and ring the bell... An old woman’s voice asks who’s there, and I say I’m looking for Robert Goodwin. ‘Is that you, Robert?’ the old woman says, and then she undoes about fifteen locks and opens the door. “She has to be at least eighty, maybe ninety years old, and the first thing I notice about her is that she’s blind. ‘I knew you'd come, Robert,’ she says. ‘I knew you wouldn’t forget your Granny Ethel on Christmas.’ And then she opens her arms as if she’s about to hug me.

“I didn’t have much time to think, you understand. I had to say something real fast, and before I knew what was happening, I could hear the words coming out of my mouth. ‘That’s right, Granny Ethel,’ I said. ‘I came back to see you on Christmas.’ Don’t ask me why I did it. I don’t have any idea. Maybe I didn't want to disappoint her or something, I don’t know. It just came out that way, and then this old woman was suddenly hugging me there in front of the door, and I was hugging her back.

“I didn't exactly say I was her grandson. Not in so many words, at least, but that was the implication. I wasn’t trying to trick her, though. It was like a game we’d both decided to play – without having to discuss the rules. I mean, that woman knew I wasn't her grandson Robert. She was old and dotty, but she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn't tell the difference between a stranger and her own flesh and blood. But it made her happy to pretend, and since I had nothing better to do anyway, I was happy to go along with her.

“So we went into the apartment and spent the day together… Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her. I told her I found a good job working in a cigar store, I told her I was about to get married, I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. ‘That’s fine, Robert,’ she would say, nodding her head and smiling. ‘I always knew things would work out for you.’

What about this story from the life? How to explain it? The answer, in my eyes, may be found elsewhere in the novel: in the end, when Nathan ends up in the hospital, where he almost dies, we read: “After the doctor left, Omar Hassim-Ali and I talked for close to an hour. It didn’t matter that we were strangers. When a man thinks he’s about to die, he talks to anyone who will listen” (215). Yes, Granny Ethel was dying, so she needed someone close who would listen and talk to her. Or, to be more faithful to the novel: as thinkers, we know very well that we actually die day by day, so Nathan’s proposition applies generally, and we need, more than we anticipate, somebody who will listen, talk or preferably both.

(Quotations from The Brooklyn Follies have pages according to the PDF version available here: D:\Textos\TEXTOS-01\TRADTXTS\Au (

Tomáš Hejduk