No Sex Please, We’re German; Serendipity Overkill


Ask The Paris Review

In recent weeks I’ve been told by three separate (male) friends that I talk about sex perhaps a bit too freely. What should I read to restore my sense of conversational decency? —Gretchen, Berlin

As Daniel Piepenbring observed earlier this week, no subject—not even kittens—is safe in the presence of a thoroughly dirty mind. So don’t bother reading about kittens.

Years ago a friend invited me to visit his family in New Delhi. Just before I got on the plane, he called to warn me that his family was broad-minded, relaxed, urbane, good-humored, devoted to Scotch and to gossip—all of which turned out to be true—and all of which might lead me to venture an anecdote about, say, dating, or flirtations, or romantic misadventures. This, my friend assured me, would be a disaster. “My family is not like your family. We do not talk about sex.”

Didn’t talk about sex? What did he mean? Would they laugh? Would they change the subject? “They would pretend not to have heard you. They would be shocked.”

I boarded the plane in a state of intense dismay. My friend was right: my family can’t get through dinner—can hardly get through Lehrer—without at least one pretty detailed discussion of somebody’s love life. And I would be staying with his family for a week! I had visions of John Cleese goose-stepping all over Fawlty Towers in his doomed efforts not to mention (sorry, Gretchen) the War.

But as luck would have it, the books in my carry-on were the Palliser series, by Anthony Trollope. These saved me. Readers of the Daily know my feelings about Trollope. Among his many virtues, he manages to write about intimate family life, intrigue, courtship, and infidelity—without ever raising a blush to the Victorian cheek. I clung to him as a guide. It helped that my hosts spoke an English closer to Trollope’s than to mine. (They were the most genteel people I had ever met.) Every time I opened my mouth, I simply asked myself WWTS.

I suggest you do the same. (And/or make a few new friends—you’re in Berlin!)

I keep running into the “man of my dreams” everywhere. No matter the place, the possibility of running into him is always weirdly high. It’s serendipity overkill. I never know what to do or say when we keep seeing each other. What are some scenarios in literature where serendipitous moments were maximized and the characters successful in gaining a new friend (or lifelong romance)? Yes, I know planning these meetings out is somewhat contrary to the definition of serendipity. —Katherine H.

If you want to read a crazy yet strangely absorbing book about what not to do, may I suggest Hans Koning’s 1997 novel Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History, in which the hero glimpses the woman of his dreams, follows her across two continents, and ends up on death row?

It occurs to me you might also propose a date.

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