A couple of months ago, I was in Milan for an “Homage to Giorgio Strehler” at the Teatro alla Scala. This was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conducted by Riceardo Muti and wifli a cast that, at least to my unspoiled ears, represented the sort of perfection that one only reads about, ruefully, in yellowed reviews of the opera seasons one’s parents attended. During the intermission, as I leafed through the souvenir program, I realized I had a modest contribution to make to the literary study of Da Route’s libretto, and that is the observation that while the cavaliere speaks plainly, Leporello, his servo, slips into the more fanciful conditional or subjunctive mood every time he feels he has a captive audience. The overall effect is that of hilariously coquettish temporizing. At the start of the second act, as the nobleman loses patience with his servant, he turns choleric and shouts the buffoon down: “Non soffro opposizioni!”

Now back to Venice, where I had to sign the lease on the apartment I am renting. The owner is a young girl in her 20’s, recently orphaned. (“No father, no mother,” says Walter Matthau in Elaine May’s A New Leaf, “no sisters, no brothers. She’s perfect.”) In everything that concerns the management of her vast estate she relies on the lawyer who used to be a close friend of her mother’s, Avvocato I—, and it was to his office in S. Croce that I had been asked to come at ten o’clock that morning. The lease had long been agreed, drawn up, faxed back and forth between the contracting parties, and although all sorts of fast ones had been pulled in the process, I had decided not to quibble and just get the thing over with. I was there to sign.

The subjunctive mood of verbs, used to express condition, hypothesis, contingency, or possibility, does not exist in Russian grammar. Although the ghost of a subjunctive lingers on in English, Italian retains four whole tenses (plus a conditional). It is only when one finds oneself face to face with an Italian lawyer, intent on wasting his time at the expense of his client, a wealthy orphan, that one finally grasps the concept of language as a social instrument in all its ruthlessly grasping actuality. From 10 to 11:30, the Avvocato spoke to me in interminable sentences where no verb had a suffix I had ever heard before and exotic particles whizzed by me like ricocheting bullets, which was mighty strange, I kept saying to myself, since the document had already been signed by his client. So what earthly reason could there he for all those conditions, hypotheses, contingencies, and possibilities?

I managed to sign the thing just before noon, but the Avvocato would not let me go. Still in his jolliest subjunctive, he launched into a discussion of Italian inefficiency—”in government! and in finance!! and in/AW!!!”—which ended a full hour later with a perfectly simple statement, delivered by a pretty secretary using Uic indicative mood of the relevant verb, to the effect that he had a luncheon engagement in 15 minutes. We shook hands, and at quarter past one I finally crept away, thinking how marvelous it was that I wasn’t the dumb sucker paying the bill. One hundred and ninety-five minutes to sign a piece of paper! If it hadn’t been for that luncheon entr’acte, I’m sure I would have had to hear a sermon on the general imperfection of man, perhaps in both the Venetian and the Milanese versions, and if he ever got tired of the subjunctive he might have treated me to a recital of the No. 82 vaporetto timetable between Piazzale Roma and Ponte dell’ Accademia. No, no, I know, this is the whole point. That simply isn’t done.

Having had some experience of litigation and lawyers in both the United States and Britain, I can declare that, by those standards, the behavior of Avvocato I—, not by any means a fly-by-night operator or ambulance-chaser but a long trusted family practitioner and pillar of the community, is shocking and absurd. Yet there are no lawyer jokes in Italy. Italians prefer to tell jokes about politicians and policemen, and I have an amusing little statistic here that helps to explain why. According to Corriere della Sera, the total number of Tangentopoli indictments, that is, indichncnts ordered by prosecutors in the eight-year history of the “Clean Hands” corruption investigations in Italy, stands at 3,146. The number of indictments actually granted by the courts is 1,233. The number of actual convictions is 582. The number of people actually serving prison sentences is four.

The reason why there are no lawyer jokes in Italy is that lawyers—like doctors, pharmacists, architects, engineers, accountants, surveyors—are professionals, and hence invulnerably, unshakably, immovably middle class. Can anyone think of a single American joke at the expense of an architect? Of an English joke about an engineer? Neither obvious upstarts like the politicians nor poor deadbeats like the carabinieri, Italian professionals are all of them pillars of the community and models of responsible citizenship. They arc more than bourgeois professionals; they are professional bourgeois. They may not be revered, or even deeply respected, but making jokes about them is too much like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Thus a lawyer may be cheating an orphan, a surveyor may be soliciting a bribe, an accountant may be arranging the payoff for a contract killing, but they are each other’s and everybody else’s own, they are the community’s flesh and blood, they are what everyone wants to be and is. Except for the class distinction that is their affected speech—deracinated, phantasmagoric, mellifluous, soporific, interwoven with tidy contradistinctions and tiny possibilities.

Genteel syntax, of which the subjunctive mood of verbs is a serviceable gauge, is the sword and the shield of the professional, the stratification police of Italian middle-class diction, the invisible dragon waiting to leap from the mouth of every white-collar gallant from Lombardy to Sicily. I’m not envious of these people’s command of Italian, I swear. Quite the contrary. English culture until the 19th century and Russian culture well into the 20th were aristocratic in both tone and origin, more open by far to the itinerant craftsman than to the rich academician. Logically, it is the indicative and, even more clearly, the imperative mood of verbs that takes pride of place in my system of cultural values, and this level of syntax, fortuitously, is much easier on the foreigner’s tongue.

The diarist Woodrow Wyatt records that Kingsley Amis liked to tell the story of how he and Anthony Powell once went to tape a literary discussion at the BBC. The producer, a loquacious and eager young man, kept fiddling with the presentation, saying he would like the writers to speak more about this, highlight that, and so on. “We’re not interested in the way you would like it,” said Powell funereally in what, to my mind, is a perfect parody of genteel syntax in English. “We’re only interested in the way we would like it.”

The very term, “command of language,” has something about it that is neither civilian nor very civil. “I would have liked to have done this for you, certainly,” says the enlisted man to the commanding officer in a play about Italian life which somebody may one day write, “but unfortunately, due to circumstances which would not have been in my control even if the course of events had shown itself to be something other than it had, I was not able to be of much help in carrying out my ord—, I mean your instructions.” This is more or less how the gallant professional uses his education to keep his dignity, by distancing himself from the thing which must be done in order not to become its doer, that is to say a mere servant or subject, and hence something other than perfectly genteel: “Voglio far il gentiluomo, / e non voglio più servir,” as the lout Leporello sings in the opening scene of Don Giovanni, borrowing, like a nobleman’s cloak, his master’s indicative mood of the verb “to want.”

“I want this.” “Give me that.” “Do it.” This is how a child talks. Or a nobleman. Or a foreigner. I have never cracked an Italian grammar book, and now that my abysmal laziness has found for itself such profound rationale, somehow I doubt I ever will. Too much grammar is the only thing that’s wrong with this country.