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Konverzácia a európska literatúra
Adam Bžoch Number ORCID

Konverzácia a európska literatúra

Conversation and European Literature
Vydavateľstvo Európa, s.r.o.
Published: 1. 2. 2024
About monography:
The present monograph, Conversation and European Literature, discusses the historical genesis of free, convivial conversations as a social and cultural phenomenon. Tracing their interrelations with European literature, the study ranges from the European Renaissance through to the long 19th century. The author draws the concept of conversation as shaped by cultural studies. While scholarship of the 1990s already elaborated on the nexus between sociology, linguistics, cultural, and literary studies, the present analysis rigorously expands the notion of literature. On the one hand, canonical texts are discussed alongside works of marginal status, or non-fiction. Next to devotional, didactic, and socio-educational texts, which fulfil a prescriptive function, the study also looks at documents of daily life, such as letter exchanges and memoirs. On the other hand, literature exhibits an ambiguous relationship towards conversation – or rather, orality. With regards to conversation and social behaviour in general, the written word occupies an exemplary role in helping readers navigate correct social patterns since the early modern period. Also, the written word acted as a projection screen for mimetic images of actual social and linguistic events. Between the Renaissance and the modern era, literature articulated not only what was considered normal, but also documented its deviations and the decay of social behaviour and linguistic articulation. Based on such observations, this book uses written sources to take note of several crises of conversation in different epochs of European cultural history. As the refined courtly forms disappeared, etiquette underwent radical change in the age of the bourgeois, as social interaction was democratized alongside subsequent waves of social emancipation. Meanwhile, such transformations also implied a loss of fundamental ethical qualities, namely propriety, tactfulness, and sensibility towards the situation of one’s conversation partners. The implication is that such losses threaten social life and instigate regressive tendencies in the process of civilization. As a pool of human experience, literature bears witness to hidden linguistic and social dynamics.
         The first chapter, ‘Conversation as a Subject of Interdisciplinary Research’, introduces the reader to the topic by elaborating on the relationship between free (or polite) conversation and discrete literary forms, as established in the field of international cultural studies. The following seven chapters trace the development of historical notions of conversation in the light of canonical literary works and other forms of writing.
         Chapter Two, ‘The Concept of Conversation in Desiderius Erasmus’, closely examines closes several dialogues from the scholar’s Colloquia familiaria (1495–1533) in view of their prescriptive and mimetic focus. The Colloquia introduced the contemporary European readership to a range of model situations, which offered patterns for everyday conversations – first only in Latin, but, once translated, also for vernacular languages. Erasmus’s text also looks at certain forms of ordinary speech through a critical lens. This humanist approach is particularly relevant because it observes a critical distance towards courtly conversation, which had originally come into fashion during the Italian and, later, the French Renaissance. Here, courtly conversation established a precise definition of what counts as a ‘conversation’, which was increasingly understood as an art form and as a socio-linguistic skill. Despite the pretense of the oft-quoted universality of appropriate decorum and its seemingly ‘civil’ trajectory, conversation also evinced a strong connection with social status.
         The third chapter, ‘The French Culture of Conversation – Its Origins, Norms, and Development’, gives an account of the universal norms of European conversation, placing special attention on cultural transfers between Italy and France during the 16th century. Another important source is the rules that were articulated systematically in French etiquette guides of the 17th century. During this period and up through the 18th century, the prescribed rules were critically examined by authors such as Marguerite de Navarre, Michel de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, François de La Rochefoucauld, Jean de La Bruyère, Duc de Saint-Simon, and Madame de Sévigné. They placed the concept of polite commerce in contrast with the unvarnished, pluriform reality of convivial talk. While the intellectual discussion of the French Enlightenment (Jean le Rond d´Alembert, Denis Diderot) draws inspiration from Erasmus and Montaigne, the crisis of free conversation is connected to the loss of its unintentionality (Giacomo Casanova, Choderlos de Laclos, D. A. F. Sade). Regardless of the semblance to French conversation, talking here becomes instrumental for the achievement of personal pragmatic goals.
         The aim of Chapter Four, ‘New (and Old) Elements of Conversation in the Golden Age’, is to trace the alternatives that emerged against the backdrop of the evolving universal norms of conversation, as seen in aristocratic circles. The emergence of a new phenomenon, the vindications of silence, of cautious speech, and of linguistic austerity could be seen in Spain (through the work of Baltasar Gracián) and the Netherlands (through that of Hugo Grotius). Self-mastery in speech attained new significance during the 17th century, as political reasons contributed to a change of emphasis: attention to one’s conversation partners gave way to reserve and discretion on behalf of the speakers, who feared to compromise themselves. During the rise of bourgeois culture, the Netherlands simultaneously saw the inclusion of ‘lower’ (crude and direct) forms of speech in elevated conversation. This can be observed not only in contemporary comedies (such as those of Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero), but also in numerous works of genre painting.
         The fifth chapter, ‘Conversation in the Bourgeois Age’, discusses the superficial adoption of aristocratic manners of behaviour and speech among the bourgeoisie, as seen in French comedies of the 17th century (especially Molière). Conversely, the bourgeoisie’s culture of feelings and values also shaped the ideas surrounding social interaction in France, England, and Germany during the 18th century. This can be seen in literary, discursive, and pictorial examples (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Hogarth, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Adolph Freiherr von Knigge, and Johann Wolfgang Goethe). The supposed opposition between bourgeois colloquy and Romantic conversation is only shown in the choice of their topics, such as the rediscovered genre of the conversation on arts, and less in its values, as both embrace democratic values and liberated sensibility. The decay of bourgeois conversation is inaugurated by the end of the Belle Époque and the Great War, as seen in several examples taken from German-language literature (Thomas Mann, Ernst Jünger, and Robert Musil).
         Chapter Six, ‘Observations on Conversations in Russian Novels of the 19th Century’, can partially draw on existing dialogical research. In the works of Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, and Leo Tolstoy, one can observe the coexistence of the depleted ideals inherited from the French salon and insights into the seeming vitality of ‘Russian conversation’ of the 19th century, which increasingly blocked out French conversation from the social life of the Russian aristocracy. Authors such as Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky critically portrayed the displacement of common forms of conviviality by Russian conversation but without offering alternative models for civilized commerce.
         The seventh chapter, ‘Czech Literature in the Field of Conversation Studies’, offers an overview of Czech etiquette guides of the late 19th century, which have received no critical attention thus far. They provide an insightful perspective on modern Czech literature after 1918 as well. Authors of the Interwar period, such as Karel Čapek and some others, elaborated on the (bourgeois) ideals of conversation, which were widely embraced in the newly founded republic after 1918. The corrosion of ‘beautiful talk’ can be found in Hašek’s works and represents a frequent motif still found in Czech post-war literature (such as Josef Škovorecký and Bohumil Hrabal). Here one can witness a new, anti-bourgeois, and democratic norm of social parlance and social conviviality.
         The last chapter critically examines the ‘Forms of Conviviality Among the Slovak Romantic Generation’. The writers and fathers of the Slovak nation, such as Ľudovít Štúr and Jozef Miloslav Hurban, hardly excelled in conversation. Since they neither cultivated the heritage of old conversational norms nor developed new forms of conviviality, their works only feature a small number of literary examples of (ideal) conviviality. Quite the contrary, Štúr and Hurban hark back to early or pre-modern mannerisms, such as reticence and excessively chivalric behaviour. Notably during the 1830s and 1840s, the sociable relations among Slovak Romantics evince a perhaps playful, but at the same time conservative, status-conscious, and puritanical-misogynistic attitude. They could not serve as models of social behaviour for the following generation. Thus, the development of civilized and sociable commerce in Europe witnesses the emergence of a facet of social behaviour which documents deviations from the conversational norms that are considered universal.
424 pages
conversation, European literature, culture, history
About edition:
Publisher: Vydavateľstvo Európa, s.r.o.
Edition: 1.
Edition place: Bratislava
Edition year: 2023
ISBN 978-80-8237-027-3 (print)
Book type: monography
How to cite:
ISO 690:
Bžoch, A.: Konverzácia a európska literatúra. 1 vyd. Bratislava : Vydavateľstvo Európa, s.r.o.. 2023. pp. 424. ISBN 978-80-8237-027-3.

Bžoch, A. (2023). Konverzácia a európska literatúra. Bratislava : Vydavateľstvo Európa, s.r.o.. ISBN 978-80-8237-027-3.