Monday, September 03, 2018

The end of literature, part two

On Saturday I discovered that another secondhand bookshop in Brighton has closed; the third this year. Saturday mornings have often involved a walk along the promenade, a turn right into Ship Street and onto Colin Page's around the corner on Duke Street. There will be no motivation now the books are gone.

The window displayed antiquarian volumes of no interest to me, and indeed more or less everything inside the shop was of no interest to me, but in good weather the owner put two trestle tables out front that held hundreds of very reasonably priced paperbacks, and unusual paperbacks too, such as Robert Antelme's The Human Race in the original French and a collection of Heidegger's essays, bought for 70p. There were never any brightly coloured mass market paperbacks by Jennifer Someone or James Someone Else that make charity shops such hopeless places.

But I haven't bought anything there for months – the last was a collection of essays by the theologian Rudolf Bultmann – so I can't complain. Trawling though secondhand bookshops has become a groundhog day of blank disappointment. Contrast this with my first day in the city: walking down the road from the station, I found two shops facing each other on either side of the road. In the first I found Thomas Bernhard's The Loser in the rare Quartet hardback, Peter Handke's Absence in a rare Methuen hardback, and an even rarer copy of Maurice Blanchot's The Sirens' Song (two copies in fact, and I wonder if the person to whom I gifted the second still has it). Snapping all three from the shelf has become my guide to how I should consider a purchase: No snap, no buy. That said, I have often neglected the injunction, as I remember hesitating over Bultmann's collection, buying it eventually only out of gratitude that there were still alternatives to brightly coloured mass market paperbacks. I look at the book now and wonder why Lutheran theology might appeal to me more than the paperback of that novel everyone was talking about last year. One's needs develop, of course, sometimes quickly, and that's why the search goes on, as one seeks to understand obscure needs; to find the nourishment one needs. Sometimes I regret not snapping something off the shelf, such as a boxed set of Luther's writings for under a tenner, with the shop now stocking baby clothes.

Of course, if I wanted that boxed set so badly I could order a copy online, so I must be searching for the covert promise that comes from chance discovery more than from the overt content of the books. And this must be why my favourite TV show is Aussie Gold Hunters: mostly amateur men and women sweeping metal detectors over the Australian outback in temperatures of 40º and mostly turning up flakes of gold but, very occasionally, totally out of the blue, huge nuggets worth thousands. The contrast in values is what stirs: one can measure the price of the book against practical necessities, but not the value of its promise.

The itch to search has been there since I started reading. On Sundays in the late 1980s, I would cycle seven miles to a car boot sale in a field just outside the village of Titchfield hoping to find nuggets among the I shot JR mugs and paperbacks of Gormenghast and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Despite multiple visits, the only book I can recall finding is Gabriel Josipovici's novel Contre-Jour. It was 20 pence. Once, I stopped at a small town library as small and creaky as the Terrapin huts of my school years and picked up a 1960 hardback of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, also for 20p. Gold in the outback of provincial England.

I would also cross the harbour and tour the secondhand shops of Portsmouth and Southsea. The first was Adelphi Books, which I am amazed to see is still going, just. A little further on there was a small shop from which the only thing I bought was a pamphlet of short stories edited and published by the couple who ran the place. The male half expressed very clear views in its editorial: he wanted solid, entertaining stories that did a good job for the reader. He was not interested in stories with literary merit, he wrote. If your story had literary merit, he would chuck it aside. Naturally, his own story took a prominent place in the collection. It tells of a man whose neighbours are very touchy about his pet dog's interest in their guinea pigs living in a hutch in the garden. He assures them that his dog won't harm them. Of course, one day soon after, the dog waddles in proudly carrying a dead guinea pig in his mouth. The owner is frantic that the neighbours will find out before he can rectify the situation. Under cover of darkness he sneaks into the next door garden, opens the hatch and places the dead animal on its bed of straw, arranging the body so it looks like it's died in its asleep. Relieved, he goes to bed, only to be woken the next morning by a woman screaming "Fergie!!!". The dog owner acts innocent and asks what is wrong. The woman explains that the day before Fergie had died and they had buried her in the garden. 

The next shop on the route was a short walk from Fratton Park, my other haunt at the time. The Star Bookshop was where I bought this perfectly formed edition of Kafka's Letters to Felice and the stiffed-spined edition of Levinas' Totalty and Infinity, but failed to spend £4 on Bergson's Matter and Memory in the superb Zone Books edition, which I sometimes regret. It seemed a lot of money at the time, though I spent that amount on this 1964 Edinburgh University Press edition with slipcase of Montale's poems, with George Kay's translation of Meriggiare pallido e assorto; the best I've read. I can't remember how much I paid in the same shop for Marthe Robert's Franz Kafka's Loneliness, but look at that: a literary critical work on Kafka published by Faber & Faber!

Click for a close-up

Brand new paperbacks were not as expensive then as they are now, and I bought novels in regular bookshops. I've written before about the effect of reading the first paragraph Peter Handke's Across had on me as I browsed and how, a year later, after snapping it off the shelf, reading the Quartet Encounters edition of Bernhard's Concrete in the shadow of an office block from which I had once walked out of a job was like coming home. It doesn't happen now.

When that sort of thing did happen, I was walking towards rather than away. Walking out of that job now looks like an attempt to deal with the contrast of what I was experiencing and the blankness of drudge work. Coming to this cosmopolitan city to study was no doubt also an attempt to walk away physically, to manifest what appeared to be a process in practical existence, to get closer to what was revealed in various chance discoveries. After all, there was a clear programme to follow: academic study, perhaps book reviewing, even writing books. I followed all three, and, amongst other things, they exposed proximity to a void. 

Where now? Two years ago I marked thirty years of reading by reminiscing about holding a copy of The Sirens' Song I could not take home. I had no access to Blanchot's writing otherwise. By coincidence, the book was published by a press based in Ship Street so it looks like, by coming to live here and finding my own copy, I had arrived at the source of the literary Nile. But if this is true, it is also where I began, because recently I discovered that Titchfield has a close connection to Shakespeare. Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably the Fair Youth of the Sonnets, was also the Baron of Titchfield. He is buried in the parish church. And it made me think about his 400 year old bones in a coffin in that quiet place, and of their proximity to the absolute of literature, "the supreme Mecca of the English-speaking race" as Henry James characterised its birthplace, and of their proximity to that field. Wriothesley is not booked to appear at the next Hay-on-Wye literary festival (yet) so, to get closer to what inspired Shakespeare to write and everything that writing stands for, does one stand next to the tomb? If that's not close enough, does one open the coffin and fondle the bones? Does one climb in and snuggle next to them? Does one then close the coffin lid? And then?


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