Sunday, September 18, 2005

The sorrow of living

I was told they’d come in the afternoon to pick up the clapped-out washing machine. So at midday, when afternoon begins, though I’m sure they meant one o’clock, I was indoors waiting for the buzzer to sound, just waiting. Four hours later, I was still there. Each successive moment might have brung that urgent electronic exclamation. I had to be there. I had to sit and wait. Each new moment, however, was as silent as the rest.

From the armchair, as I waited, I looked at the bookshelves. Too many unread and, more importantly, never-to-be-read books! So I decided to pass the time by putting my books through a selection parade. One pile to keep, one pile for Oxfam. I put the first book, a book about Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, on the Oxfam pile. I have not read Also Sprach Zarathustra let alone this. I remember standing in a secondhand bookshop and wondering whether to buy it. One often buys books out of hope. One day, one will have time to read all that is necessary. One day, everything will come together. Now, six years later, that hope must be abandoned. I will not read a single page. I know this. There are loads of other such books; so many futures to be dissolved.

The next book to be judged was Jorge Semprun’s autobiographical narrative Literature or Life. Actually, I read this eight years ago when it appeared in the university library. I bought the paperback in 1999 because it was so impressive. But I never read it again. The covers feel like soft blackboards smeared with chalk and, worse, the opening pages appalled me. I didn’t recognise the book. Second time round it came across as mannered and smug. This time, I had another look. The Oxfam selection process was abandoned. I’ve now read two-thirds of its 310 pages. For sure, it's still mannered and smug, but there is gravity too.

Semprun was a Rotspanier, the label applied to him as a Spanish political prisoner at Buchenwald. He had been arrested as a resistance fighter in occupied France and deported. Before the arrest, he had also been a student at the Sorbonne, reading philosophy. He says he went without meals to buy Heidegger’s Being & Time after being inspired by Levinas’ essays. A good deal of the book is informed by such thinkers. He is much taken with the lines in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: ‘Death is not an event in life. Death cannot be lived.’ He is taken because, after Buchenwald, he felt that he had in fact lived through death.

Literature or Life was originally published in 1994 as L’ecriture ou la vie, which perhaps should be Writing or Life. That’s the choice Semprun had to make after a terrible discovery. Once the camp was liberated, he returned to Paris and began to write and live again. Just as you might expect. He found that his ‘crazed, ravaged gaze’ attracted women and he used it ‘without scruple’.
Without scruple, most certainly, but not without some apprehension. Because each of these encounters, each of these adventures, pleasant though they were, revived the pain of memory for me. Each one of them reminded me of what I wanted to forget: death, whose shining darkness was the source of these pleasures.
Writing had the same double edge.
All through the summer of my return, through autumn, up to the sunny winter’s day … when I decided to abandon the book I was trying to write, the two things I had thought would bind me to life - writing, pleasure - were instead what estranged me from it, day after day, constantly returning me to the memory of death, forcing me back into the suffocation of that memory.
Paris is full of such memories of death, the dark side of Proustian reverie. He sleeps in an apartment with furniture wrapped in white winding sheets. During the night he wakes in a cold sweat, biting his clenched fists to keep from screaming. ‘Only forgetting could save me’ he writes.

Clearly by the time these lines were written, the need to forget had dissipated. But the book infuriates because the narration is deliberately self-distracting. Reading it is like trying to keep up with a fast walker who is also talking a blue streak. Even now, nearly 50 years later, Semprun approaches his memories only in occasional glances over the shoulder of time. He learnt his lesson in Paris. ‘I should have been more wary, that night’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have ignored the portents of le malheur de vivre. The sorrow of living.’

Which reminds me: back to the selection process!


  1. I've read a few accounts recently of book lovers culling their collections and each one gives me a bit of a shiver. I seem to be constitutionally incapable of giving up books. Occasionally I try when my bookshelves are overflowing but, as in your story, I tend to get distracted by one of the books whose merits I'm weighing. Then I give up the attempt and opt to buy more bookcases instead. When I do manage to give up a few though, the ones I've never read are the ones least likely to go. Even if I've owned a book for ten years and never cracked the spine, I still believe I'll get to it someday. The last time that the local library staff threatened to strike, I remember feeling quite relieved that I still had so many unread books of my own to tide me over...

  2. Hi Kate, as someone told Brian, it's not so bad once you're up. I haven't missed any of the books once they were gone. I intend to make a list and offer them to the people I work with. Lucky them. I wonder how many will want Genette's Mimologics?

  3. Anonymous10:05 pm

    MMm.. Genette. A nice book in need of a good home, mmm?

  4. I knew a guy who collected washing machines. He had lots of them. Books? No problem.

    When I thin out my book collection, I usually sell back the books I no longer want. These tend to be my wife's books.

  5. Wife - ex-wife - or soon to be... ex-wife?

  6. It feels great to get rid of books. I am a professional book reviewer and at this very moment there are stacks of books sitting in cartons in my house waiting to be tossed out...I've written in 'em for reviews and as soon as I'm done with all the author's proofs, off they go.

    When I was a grad. student (yes, I have a Ph.D. in English), I used to hoard books. They meant as much to me as physical objects as for their intangible, interior meanings. But now, I look at most of them and I think "dust mites." A few of the nicely-bound nineteenth-century tomes (the ones not printed on the acidic paper of mid-century), I'll keep. The rest I'm ready to chuck.

    It's simply dawned on me that most of my books I will never read and that another big chunk of them I will never reread. Why then, am I keeping them? Anything I really want to reread, I can find again. Ditto anything I haven't read but might one day wish to.

    Mostly, I'm realizing how lousy 95% of published books are and every year I get given hundreds of them.

    Let 'em go. You'll feel better and you'll have fewer allergies.

  7. Marriage is a bad idea if you want to keep books. Unless you are sure you will never split (a bet one should never stake much on... especially, books.)

    Twice I've left 500 or more books behind. It's hard to part with them. You keep looking back and wondering what became of them, wondering what went wrong. The books, I mean.

    It's how I use them. I'll be sitting at my desk writing and remember a passage I need to check. A passage in a certain book. The book will become present for me, the color, the cover design, the writing in the margins. I'll know exactly where it is, know by the companions on each side... and then I'll remember. Gone. Like old lovers.

    Books become extensions of my memory--part of my neural system. The other night I was trying to remember Yvor Winters name... a blank. But I knew exactly where Harold Bloom had mentioned him in his book on Yeats, alas, I'm in process of moving and I'd packed all the books from that shelf. I had to open box after box to find it.

    I generally don't shelve books until I've read them. They make nice towers on the dresser, on the floor by my desk. A kind of movable sculpture



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