The year is 1987, the city is Frankfurt. Alexander Reight is one of seventy academics attending a conference on Anglo-German relations between 1500 and 1805. He was planning to give a paper, it is said, but pulled out, citing ‘paucity of research material’. No matter. The line-up is otherwise excellent – and the very fact that Reight is part of the audience is, for all those present, a distinct draw. Who wasn’t stunned, only a year or so before, by his seminal text: The Art of Prussian Balladery, 1705-1729?
What they don’t know is that Reight has never been overly keen on conferences. It’s not the concept of mingling with other minds that bothers him, per se; rather the manner in which this tends to transpire. The real problem is, he later claims, ‘verbal communication of an intellectual nature’. Not talking, specifically, but ‘talking clever’. Or else, as he later said (or should I say, wrote): ‘the wholly unreal expectation that I might actually speak as I write’.
Every academic has their nervy days. So what? Something about this conference, nevertheless, touches more than a single nerve in Reight. As each paper passes, followed by the customary ten minutes for questions, the pressure grows. No one expects him to ask a question everytime, not at all. But after the first day has finished – and Reight has yet to raise a single point – there is an almost tangible sense of disappointment. When will the great man speak? Surely he’ll say something? He must, mustn’t he?
The second of three days rolls by, but Alexander Reight continues to hold his peace. There are moments in which he appears to be mulling over a question; rolling over a query with his tongue – but this is as far as it gets. The words refuse to leap from his lips. He keeps schtum. The rabbit of wisdom is well hutched-up.
As the third day draws to a yawning close, Reight’s fellow delegates have long since given up on the prospects of him speaking his mind. They’ve tried during coffee breaks to coax him out of his shell, but to no avail. No matter. It’s a little sad, perhaps, but it happens. He’s a quiet man, so what?
They underestimate the pressure, however, that Reight puts on himself. To him, this is certainly not a small matter. This is simply not excusable. He really ought to say something, oughtn’t he? Ah, but time is running shorter than a legless dwarf. Only two papers remain – and there’s no guarantee that they’ll fuel a debate in which he’ll be able to participate. After all, they don’t remotely cover his period of interest. Still,what other options does he have?
As the penultimate paper finishes, Reight decides that the time is ripe. He’s going to ask a question. He’s going to speak at last. Yes. The mute oracle is about to open his mouth for the first time.
And say what? Therein lies the problem. Reight doesn’t have a question formed in his mind as he raises his hand. What he has instead is a small voice, a comforting voice, a voice which could be the voice of experience – but might also be the voice of ignorance. In any case, this voice is telling him that everything will be all right. He’ll know what to say when the time comes. He’s an intelligent man. He’s written a great book. He can ask a clever question, of course he can.
Or can he? Needless to say, he can’t. He starts off promisingly. ‘Could I just, um, perhaps, draw everyone’s attention to an issue, um, relating to a point made, um, at the beginning of your lecture?’. It’s non-specific, granted, but it might yet lead somewhere. Alas, no. This footpath goes off into thick undergrowth. And what undergrowth! Brambles, brambles everywhere. ‘I fancy that the exemplarity, ostensible though it is, corresponds to an innate interference emanating from an awkward instance of, um, irregular ontological, um, horizontality’. Truth be told, Reight has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. His mind and his mouth are going through a messy divorce – and communication is scant, even non-existent. Words come out regardless. Long words, some of them. If you don’t listen closely, you might be fooled into thinking that they go together. But they don’t. Not at all.
How long this goes on no one can quite remember. Some say thirty seconds, others five minutes. At what point he starts sweating, shaking and, finally, frothing at the mouth is also under debate. In any case, the dark curtains of chaos descend soon after. What started out as a tentative question turns out to be a complete mental-breakdown, from which he takes Reight a year, at least, to recover. Even the most well-constructed minds can unravel fast. And Reight’s mind unravels faster than a ball of string in the hands of an over-excited kitten.
It’s a sad story, make no mistake, and I somewhat regret my decision to tell it to you, if only because it leaves such an unfortunate impression of Alexander Reight. For though he never rose again to the heights of his first book, the rest of his career was nonetheless strewn with minor successes. I am firmly of the opinion, in fact, that he never wrote a bad book. His mind was, I repeat, first-rate. He was, by any standards, great.
Still, it would be wrong to pretend that he didn’t struggle. Perhaps he might have picked up the necessary skills at some point. People do. So far as the conference circuit goes, however, he never tested himself again. Frankfurt taught him a lesson he was never to forget, creating an impression he was never able to overturn: an impression of a highly skilled writer who simply couldn’t rise to the challenge of ‘speaking as he wrote’.
Alexander Reight was survived by his wife, Amelia, and two children, Karl and Sofia.