17 March 2007

Riding the Literary Thermals

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:58 pm

A barometric low hung over the Atlantic.

– Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 1930

I haven’t gotten very far in Pierre Bayard’s book about how to talk about books you haven’t read. I have, however, gotten past the first sentence. Bayard observes the fact that individually none of us has read more than the tiniest fraction of all the books that have been published, such that relative to this hypothetical library of all books each of us is a non-reader. Bayard cites a passage from The Man Without Qualities in which General Stumm is looking for the single greatest idea ever thought in human history. The General went to the Imperial Library in Vienna to look for that greatest-ever idea. As the librarian walked him through aisle after aisle of books the General’s resolve began to falter. He asked the librarian how many books the library contains. Three and a half million. The General performed some mental calculations: if he read a book a day, it would take him a hundred thousand years to read them all. So he asked the librarian to help him find the greatest idea ever. After asking him several questions, the librarian directed the General to a bibliography of bibliographies in a particular area of study. The General was amazed. What is the librarian’s secret? How, out of these millions of books, can he direct a patron to just the right one?

It was almost too much, I tell you! But when he saw how stunned I was, he explained himself. The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and tables of contents. ‘Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.’

You might be wondering how long it took me to translate this piece of text from the French. The answer: no time at all. It turns out I have an English-language copy of The Man Without Qualities. It further turns out that I’ve read it. So on the one hand I feel a certain sense of superiority over most of the people who get five pages into Bayard’s book and are already confronted by an obscure Austrian book they haven’t read. On the other hand, I’ve not yet been comforted by the soothing balm of being told it’s okay not to read everything. So far I’ve read everything Bayard has read.

But now my attention has been diverted to Musil’s book. What if the only book I ever read was The Man Without Qualities? Could I generate a rich life of the mind by thinking about what I read in this single book? I start at the first page, which begins with a barometric reading, localized to a particular place and time. How is this helpful to my inner life? I begin the second paragraph:

Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike strings. Where more powerful lines of speed cut across their casual haste they clotted up, then trickled on faster and, after a few oscillations, resumed their hasty rhythm. Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. By this noise alone, whose special quality cannot be captured in words, a man returning after years of absence would have been able to tell with his eyes shut that he was back in the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna. Cities, like people, can be recognized by their walk.

Is it necessary to talk about such a passage of text? Something can be observed about it: that patterns of human activity can be thought of in the impersonal terms of flows and channels, textures and densities — not unlike atmospheric pressures, in fact. But do I believe that last sentence — could I recognize any city by its walk? Does anyone walk in any American city, for example? This is a book not of my place and time. Except I’m an American living in a foreign city that still does have a walk. Still, I feel benumbed by it, almost as if I’d lived here a long time. Maybe if I left and then came back I’d find it comfortingly familiar, like this hypothetical world traveler returning at last to his home town of Vienna. But maybe Antibes isn’t enough like Vienna. Still, I don’t think Vienna is much like Vienna any more either, not after the war. I remember watching The Third Man, set in a blasted postwar Vienna, and wondering how much had been lost that could never be restored. And then I think about the writer of The Third Man, Graham Greene, who used to live not ten minutes’ walk from where I sit, in an apartment near the marina on the way to the train station. Could Graham Greene have recognized Antibes by its walk?

If you spend a long time in a book, set it aside for a decade or so, then come back to it, would you recognize it by its walk — by the narrow dark passages and the bright squares, by the speeds and clots, the oscillations and rhythms, the textures and edges, the barbs and dissipations — by the sheer noise the book makes, a noise that cannot be described in words?



  1. I seriously doubt it. I can put down something that I wrote and find it a few months late, not recognize it, and think “Where did that come from? It’s pretty good.” Then, sadly, I am embarassed that I liked my own work.

    Still, I have had the feeling described above about parts of Nice, though I was only absent fifteen months or so, not years.

    So, perhaps cities and writings leave different impressions upon us. I’ll let you know when I “return to a place after years of absence” be the place a city or some writings.

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 29 March 2007 @ 4:31 pm

  2. At least when you pick up something you wrote you don’t think “gee, this kinda sucks.” I should go look back at some old blog posts and see if they seem familiar.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 March 2007 @ 6:36 pm

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