I haven’t been reviewing books much lately, so now I’ll get back into it. First, an insightful little book with a misleadingly whimsical title, How to talk about books you haven’t read, by Pierre Bayard. It points out that many of us, if not all of us, talk ‘expertly’ about books we haven’t read, or have read but forgotten, or that we’re really not sure if we’ve read or not. This is particularly true of books that have become key cultural works, such as certain plays of Shakespeare [read but forgotten, in the main, at least in detail], Moby Dick [half-read], The Odyssey [unread], Ulysses [read, but I wouldn’t want to be tested on it] and so forth.
With a fine sense of irony and a sympathetic sense of the enormity of the task before anyone wishing to form an overview of western, or world, literature, Bayard picks out examples from the work of, inter alia, Robert Musil, Umberto Eco, Paul Valery, Graham Greene, Pierre Siniac, Honore de Balzac and Oscar Wilde, not so much to illustrate particular points, but to enter into speculation about the whole field of reading and non-reading. For reading a book is somewhat similar to witnessing an accident – no two accounts are the same, and the differences are often so great as to make you wonder if your co-witness hasn’t replaced the ‘real accident’ with an elaborate fantasy. And Bayard has an almost ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude towards these divergences. His attitude is, don’t be hesitant in imposing yourself, even on texts you haven’t read, or are barely familiar with. In a world compiled of texts, the key is to be able to negotiate your way through them in an expert fashion. And via these labyrinthine intertextual travels, to make your way out to the top of the heap, looking down, master of all you survey.
Not that Bayard takes this all too seriously. The book has an appealing lightness of touch, and is full of recognisable moments for those who choose to engage in the cultural campaign of reading, for self-improvement or for kudos – if there’s a difference. For example, after commenting on Montaigne’s notes about writers, which Montaigne himself stumbles upon, having forgotten both the notes and the writers, he makes this obvious but nonetheless telling point:
What we preserve of the books we read – whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully – is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion.
This observation occurs quite early in the book, and Bayard, arguably in post-modernist fashion, tries to make the case that we should turn our failings into advantages. It’s a variation on the death of the author and the birth of the reader [or non-reader], though less strident and virulent than the usual variations. Or maybe just more beguiling.
In fact, though I enjoyed the book well enough, my own memory has reduced it to the fragments above-mentioned, though I read it only months ago. So, to refresh myself, I reread the epilogue, a matter of a few pages, and found myself, less beguiled by the mildness of style, disagreeing quite strongly in places. Let me put some pressure on a few quotes from this epilogue.
Encouraged from our school years onwards to think of books as untouchable objects, we feel guilty at the very thought of subjecting them to transformation.
I’m sympathetic to this, for I’ve always disliked the idea of books as sacred objects, and of writers, especially Great Writers, as sacrosanct. I recall some thirty years ago approvingly quoting something from Sartre, to the effect of ‘don’t expect me to handle your fine authors with kid gloves’, and I fondly remember shocking an older head, at about the same period, with some scathing and probably unfair comments on D H Lawrence. But the point is that I still worry over the fairness or unfairness of my comments. Don’t be worshipful or subservient, sure, but don’t be unfair either. You have to be true to texts, or they become meaningless. Transformation has its limits.
It is necessary to lift these taboos to begin to truly listen to the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text.
Here we have ye old post-modernist agenda of the world as a ‘sum of subjectivities’, raised as a value. The text is infinitely mobile, we each read it differently, we may as well be reading different things, so that as a referent, a ding an sich, it more or less evaporates, and what we must ‘truly listen to’ is this sum total. Hence it isn’t necessary to read the text, we can just add our [creatively] subjective interpretation to the sum of ideas about it, responses to it, discourses on it. Note also the word taboo here. Remember the taboo is against not treating the text as a text, fashioned by a particular person at a particular time. But if you don’t treat it that way, what is it? An infinitely mobile object, a blur, out of which you can fashion any shape you fancy. Is this really about taboos, or is it about something else?
The text’s mobility is enhanced whenever it participates in a conversation or a written exchange, where it is animated by the subjectivity of each reader and his dialogues with others, and to genuinely listen to it implies developing a particular sensitivity to all the possibilities that the book takes on in such circumstances.
This sounds so delightfully enriching and inclusive that it seems mean-spirited to object, but I’m just not sure that dissolving the text in a soup [however tasty] of possibilities, or subjectivities [however animated] equates to ‘genuinely listening to it’. By all means we should be alive to the personalized nature of engagement with a text, but the text isn’t the world, the text is the text. And Bayard really does seem to be confusing the two. It seems to me that he really wants us to be particularly sensitive to the world [of all possible subjectivities], to genuinely listen to it. So what then is the use of the text? A jumping-off point, the merest touchstone? Would a gesture, a facial expression, or an infinitely suggestible blankness, do just as well? To put it another, more tin-tacks way, is the text enhanced by the richness and diversity of the conversations around it, or is it that our conversations are enhanced by the richness of our texts? I’d put my money on the latter.
The encounter with unread books will be more enriching – and sharable with others – if the person undergoing it draws inspiration from deep within himself.
Again here, we’re beguiled by such affirmative terms as ‘enriching’ and ‘inspiration’. We’re almost enticed into disregarding the hole in the middle of this doughnut-shaped claim. What Bayard is saying, simply, is that your encounter with an unread book will have to rely on you for its richness, since nothing much will come from the other side of the equation/encounter, namely the unread book. He’s advising us to be more interesting [about the books we haven’t read, or anything else], for then we’ll assuredly be more interesting, to ourselves, in an encounter more or less entirely with ourselves. Others will no doubt be inspired, too, on hearing of this encounter.
To become a creator yourself: this is the project to which we have been brought by the observations drawn from our series of examples, and it is a project accessible only to those whose inner evolution has freed them from guilt completely.These people know that talking about books you haven’t read is an authentically creative activity, as worthy – even if it takes place more discreetly – as those that are more socially acknowledged.
We don’t have to be taught or encouraged to be creative. Creativity is child’s play – watch any child. I have a seven-year-old friend who, at ages three and four, created wonderful, rambling narratives at the slightest suggestion. We passed by a house in the country, and she told us that she used to live there, years ago, with her boyfriend Michael who had a big blue car and they drove together all around the island and had picnics and visited their friends and it was great fun. On another occasion, when I was carrying her on a path by the seashore, she told me that she’d once been shipwrecked on these rocks, and she had to swim out and save her Nan who’d been carried away by the waves, and it was stormy and there were sharks in the water, and she wasn’t a very good swimmer, but she got her Nan to safety but then a shark bit her leg but it didn’t hurt very much but she had to go to hospital…
These delicious tales were of course free from guilt, and suggested to me that story-telling comes earlier in our development than truth-telling, and is probably more vital to us. We don’t learn to free ourselves from guilt, we learn to feel guilty – it comes as one of the responsibilities of socialization. Vital though story-telling is, truth-telling, the ability and the need to separate fact from fiction, and the sense of guilt related to telling porkies, are also pretty important qualities to develop. Obviously, a witness to a murder shouldn’t be encouraged to cover the bare bones of what she has witnessed with the rich draperies of subjective, guiltless inspiration. In the case of fictional texts, we naturally allow people more room for such inspiration. There’s less at stake, viz-a-vis story-telling and truth-telling.
Still, we do get annoyed, surely with some justification, when we hear a writer or a text traduced by someone we strongly suspect hasn’t read much more than a page or two of author or work. One of Bayard’s ‘examples’ intended to inspire us is Paul Valery, whose work was hitherto unfamiliar to me apart from a few memorable lines. Bayard describes three pieces of writing by Valery – ‘appreciations’ of three other writers; Marcel Proust, Anatole France and the philosopher Henri Bergson. We are primed, before being invited to reflect on Valery’s reflections, with the knowledge that Valery reads very little, as a general rule. Insofar as he has read his three subjects, he has probably only done so in order to ‘glean their worth’ [whether in terms of the fashion of the time, or for all time, is hard to say]. Nonetheless, according to Bayard, he still has valuable things to say, positively or negatively, about each writer.
Bayard calls this a ‘poetics of distance’, and, really, we only object to such poetics if the writer being treated is misrepresented, according to our lights. We want confirmation of our views, but we also want a deepening of our insight. That’s to say, we want ‘right judgment’ but also rich speculation and analysis. We want ‘truths’, but not necessarily about the writer, her work and her time; above all, they should be about something that relates to us, something we can benefit from, a take-home message from another instance of the conversation of humanity. And of course, in poo-pooing slavish devotion, or adherence, to texts, Bayard does make an important point about self-development and self-respect. There is an important sense in which we should read, or simply acknowledge, texts as a contribution to our story, our enrichment and growth. As such, we shouldn’t allow them to overwhelm us. Our main project is ourselves, and our struggle to keep afloat in the swamp of influences, and to move forward, or at least to be able to convince ourselves that we’re moving, in a forward direction.
To talk about books we haven’t read always will entail elements of guilt. It’s not so much that we should remain guilt-free when we engage in such talk, rather we should acknowledge what our talk is really about, whether it’s about thoughts that have emerged from our understanding of the writer’s standing, or thoughts about the subject of the text, or some celebrated incident within it. If someone who really has read the text contradicts you about it, then you can bow to their superior knowledge, or explain that, really, that isn’t what you want to talk about, you’re more interested in what you thought the text was about. Or whatever. The key is to know what you’re talking about, and what you want to talk about, to explore. To know yourself, to know what you’re doing with yourself.