By David Brooks
University of Queensland Press, $29.95
DAVID Brooks' novella The Conversation is his homage to worldliness. At dinner time, outside the Cafe Cosini in the spacious Piazza Unita in Trieste, two strangers are by chance brought to eat together when ''a gust of wind came out of nowhere'' and wrecked the table of one of them.
Stephen Mitchell, an Australian electrical engineer about to turn 55, who has lived in France for 20 years, has spent part of a free day in the city, ''following the ghosts of James Joyce and Italo Svevo''. The Italian woman, Irena Rizzoli, who is reading A.S. Byatt's Possession, is half Mitchell's age and introduces herself as ''a linguist, an interpreter with one of the car companies''. With little wariness, they begin to converse, sharing their opinions on love in particular, and setting them within stories of past affairs and - in Mitchell's case - three marriages.
Brooks' book is, in significant measure, a meditation on what prompts memory (here it is the frank sharing of them) and on what memory prompts - for these two people, spontaneous, lengthy and unguarded reminiscences. Her father was a partisan during the war and ''one of the first communist mayors in our region'' after it. His father was a diplomat and before then a ''war hero'' in New Guinea, who married a Frenchwoman from the New Hebrides. He fell in love ''with my mother, the daughter of his father's lover''.
Irena has offered the first confidence, ''a problem with a relationship, or perhaps it would be better to say a non-relationship''. Conducted by email with a Russian client of her firm, ''it is starting to hurt, to ache, and I don't know why''. When he offers something of his past in return, she teasingly exclaims: ''A story, at last! I was getting so bored with philosophy.''
Their exchanges are punctuated by the arrival of the various courses of their meal: ''The conversation broke as they settled again, arranged themselves, scented, tasted.'' It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is easier to write sensually of food than sex. Brooks dexterously manages each assignment. As Mitchell bites into battered anchovy flowers, ''they reminded him of the first time he'd tasted deep-fried bean curd, a salt crispiness on the outside, watery succulence within''. Each character's remembered sexual encounters are rendered with erotic obliquity. Their telling involves triumphs of implication and they remain sources of rueful pondering. Mitchell muses that ''the most interesting thing about having an affair with someone who is also married is that while you are trying to explain yourself to yourself, you are also able to listen to them doing so''.
Our listening, through the length of this evening, is the formal challenge that Brooks confronts. How can he maintain interest when what we have is the conversation of two people extended over 200 pages? First, there are the varieties of tales - of adultery, from folklore, of the early loss of a mother - that this taut framework encloses with no impression of strain. Everywhere a lightness of touch is evident, for instance as Irena jestingly says to Stephen that ''you are tied to the chair by my charm and the wonder of the night, or perhaps just by arthritis or too much teran [regional wine], and I have questions''.
Sometimes we have the sense of the book treading water, but then there are such interjections as this, by Stephen, on the course towards his third marriage: ''The way full of error and damage, and deceit.'' Urbane, self-assured, The Conversation brilliantly examines modes of civility still possible in an adult world, one where sexual, moral and emotional commitments are faced in their complexity, and interconnection.
■ Peter Pierce is the editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature.