Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dipping in rather than reading properly

Georges Perec's W or the Memory of Childhood. Perec casts a kind of spell over me, I'm not sure why. Here's a passage from late in the book about one of his early memories of reading, centered on Dumas's Twenty Years After (the translation is by David Bellos):

It feels as though I knew this book by heart and that I took in so many details that re-reading it was simply a matter of checking that they were still in their proper places: the silver-gilt corners on Mazarin's table, Porthos's letter tucked away for fifteen years in a pocket in one of d'Artagnan's old doublets; Aramis's quadrangle in his convent; Grimaud's toolroll, thanks to which it is learnt that the barrels are full not of beer but of gunpowder; the incense paper d'Artagnan burns in his horse's ear; the way Porthos, who has still got a hefty fist (the size of a mutton chop, if I'm not mistaken), turns some fire-tongs into a corkscrew; the picture book which the young Louis XIV is looking at when d'Artagnan comes to fetch him away from Paris; Planchet in hiding with d'Artagnan's landlady and speaking Flemish to pretend he is her brother; the peasant carting wood and telling d'Artagnan the way to Ch^ateau de La F`ere in impeccable French; the unyielding hatred of Mordaunt when he asks Cromwell for the right to replace the hangman kidnapped by the Musketeers; and a hundred other episodes, whole chunks of story or mere turns of phrase which feel not only as if I had always known them but, much more, as if they were, to my mind, virtually part of history: an inexhaustible fount of memory, of material for rumination and of a kind of certainty: the words were where they should be, and the books told a story you could follow; you could re-read, and, on re-reading, re-encounter, enhanced by the certainty that you would encounter those words again, the impression you had felt the first time. This pleasure has never ceased for me; I do not read much, but I have never stopped re-reading Flaubert and Jules Verne, Roussel and Kafka, Leiris and Queneau; I re-read the books I love and I love the books I re-read, and each time it is the same enjoyment, whether I re-read twenty pages, three chapters, or the whole book: an enjoyment of complicity, of collusion, or more especially, and in addition, of having in the end found kin again.

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