May 30, 2020
I used to think that the walls of my flat in Paris were solid enough to be soundproof; until, that is, the new tenant moved in next door.
He was not an unpleasant young man (of about 30 years old). He had the look of an intellectual, but of course one mustn’t judge an intellect by its beard. Unfortunately he belonged to the class of person that, during the great confinement, was capable of télétravail, working at home via computer and telephone. I say unfortunately because he was possessed of one of those voices that, though not necessarily very loud, was acutely and deeply penetrating (I have noticed that in American restaurants there is often, if not quite always, a woman possessed of such a voice).
Rather unusually for such a type, though, his was not a high-pitched voice; rather it was low, more a volcanic rumble than a diamond that cuts glass, a drone rather than a shriek. I have never heard a man speak so continually. Sydney Smith said of the great historian Macaulay that he had occasional flashes of silence that made his conversation perfectly delightful, but in the case of my neighbor the flashes of silence were replaced by a deep baritone errrrr. One could not say that he was drawing second breath because he never came to the end of his first. The worst thing about his voice, perhaps, was its monotone. A man reading a telephone directory—in the days when there were such things—would have put more expression into the recitation of page 487 of the list.
I can’t hear what he’s talking about, except the occasional disconnected word, but it seems that his social life is the continuation of his professional life, except that very occasionally a woman tries to say something but is doomed soon to be drowned out by the droning monotone. He can talk—or at least speak—until one in the morning.
Oddly enough, I am not as irritated by him as I might have expected, probably because I also feel sorry for him. In a word, he is a terrible bore and I have a soft spot for bores. There are many worse people in the world than bores, and at parties, which I find more boring than any single bore could ever be by himself, I always seek bores out. With them, I am insured against being thought a bore myself, which I think I often am.
Of course, the true bore, like the true eccentric, doesn’t know or even suspect that that is what he is. The eccentric does strange things because to him they are the most natural things in the world to do. The true bore doesn’t know that he is boring others because what he says is so very interesting to himself, which is why at dinner parties my wife sometimes has to kick me under the table.
My problem is that I have two modes of socializing: to be silent or boring. I cannot make small talk, for when I try to do so my words turn to dust in my mouth, as it were, before I have even uttered them. I can talk only on matters of impersonal interest.
My problem is that I am a serial monomaniac, with one subject occupying the foreground of my mind for up to a few months. In the midst of my enthusiasm, I cannot imagine that other people are not as fascinated by the subject as I. The subject of my monomanias are various: Haitian history; the disappearance of the cuckoo from the English countryside; the life of Caradoc Evans, the Welsh writer of the early part of the 20th century; etc. I never stick with anything long enough to be a scholar of it.
When my wife kicks me under the table, it is usually in mid-anecdote. I cannot stop straightaway, abruptly, for that would look peculiar, as if I were having a fit or a stroke. But I have to bring it to a quicker end than I had anticipated, omitting details that to me had seemed choice and amusing. Often, I have to admit, my wife has heard them before.
Of course, I don’t agree that I am being, or have ever been, boring. Bores don’t know that they are boring, just as people with halitosis don’t know that their breath smells. I look at the people around the dinner table and think they are glued to what I am saying. The fact that I don’t really give them any alternative doesn’t occur to me. How, in any case, could anyone be uninterested in the story of le Roi Christophe who built, or had built, one of the wonders of the world, La Citadelle, near Cap-Haitien, or of how people threw bricks through Caradoc Evans’ windows, so disgusted were they by his literary portrayal of his countrymen? In those days, literature was important.
When my wife kicks me, I want to ask the other guests, “Am I being boring?” This is not a neutral question, however, a mere request for information. Generally people will go through agonies of ennui before they tell someone, “You are boring me,” just as they will not tell someone that he smells. I did once tell a patient who smelled so awfully that he made the corridor stink for two days after he had walked down it, but even then I had to pluck up my courage to tell him. After about three visits I said that henceforth I would have to see him in the hospital grounds, not indoors, upon which he naturally asked why.
“Because you smell so terribly,” I said.
He took it very well, I must say, and made efforts to clean himself up, but since he was enormously fat, had not cleaned himself for decades, and had many ravines in his body, his efforts were only partially and very gradually successful. What he really needed was industrial cleaners.
Can I do anything about the man next door? I fear not; there is no subtle sign I can give him, such as a kick under the table. Also, it would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I have, moreover, a sense of fellow feeling with him. We bores must stick together against the wits of the world. Earplugs, then, are the only answer, but only partial, for his deep rumbling voice still penetrates, like the approach of a goods train that is so long that it never goes by.