Monday, July 26, 2010

Words Unsaid

A few years ago, my father-in-law, who is quite erudite, introduced me to a phrase that the French have: L’esprit de l’escalier, which is often translated as “staircase wit.”

The phrase refers to the clever comeback that occurs to us only after the best moment for delivery has passed — after our opponent has walked away or left the room, say, or we have. There’s also a German equivalent, treppenwitz.

We’ve all had this experience: a situation flusters us, takes us out of our game. The moment passes and when it’s too late that great comeback line hits us and we wish we could re-live the opportunity.

The phrase L’esprit de l’escalier originates, apparently, from Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comedien, where he tells the story of just such an occurrence, an argument upstairs in a mansion where he didn’t regain his wits until he was down at the bottom of the staircase alone.

It’s a useful expression because it’s so common. But what of the variant? What of the moment we plan for, but still flub?

I thought of that aspect twice this spring. The first time regarded a trip we take each March to an exclusive resort, where we often see one of those masters of the Wall Street universe, a man who helped run a major corporation into the ground — a corporation that was subsequently bailed out by taxpayers — and came away with millions regardless.

Before we left for this resort, I wondered if I’d see him, as I often do (though we’ve never exchanged a word), and I thought I’d like to give him a piece of my mind about his selfishness and greed. As it happened, he had a tennis lesson just after me and we crossed on the court and he asked my advice about the racket I was holding. So there it was, the chance of a lifetime, the chance to bring embarrassment to a man who ought to have shame presented to him directly by a taxpayer.

But, of course, when the moment came I did nothing of the kind. Worse, in fact. I ended up giving him advice on his tennis elbow!

The second instance was fictional. I wanted to reproduce that feeling of best laid plans coming to nought in my current novel, Cadaver Blues. There’s a scene where Phu Goldberg plans to confront a character who he thinks has wronged his client. He goes through a lot of trouble to get a face-to-face meeting with this character and...well, let’s just say things don’t work out exactly as planned.

You’ll read all about that in Chapter 43, which is coming soon!