Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Imaginary books and libraries

A recent meditation on a possible future project called "99 novels" (a novel to be composed of short pieces about books--99 of them in total--that do not exist) prompted the proprietor of The Dizzies to suggest I take a look at the recently deceased Stanislaw Lem's collection of book reviews of non-existent literature, A Perfect Vacuum. I found a trove of other good books at the (non-imaginary) library as well, and on Sunday night I had a huge imaginary-book binge; thoughts follow below.

So I made two miraculous discoveries, books that have my highest recommendation (though in slightly different ways, the first is one I think everyone should get and read who even vaguely thinks they might like this kind of thing, the second will only be available to you if you are [a] a bibliophile with a large disposable income or [b] a card-holder at an excellent research library).

So here's the book everyone should get, Thomas Warton's The Logogryph, a small and devastatingly attractive volume produced to a very high standard of writerly and printerly beauty. (I'm just going to note things that struck me, but you can find a very good real review at Bookslut by Colleen Mondor. Also worth a look: the Gaspereau Press website, and particularly their "virtual printshop"--this would be especially good if you were teaching high-school or college students about printing and bookbinding, it's got lots of excellent stuff.)

Regular readers of this blog know that I am resistant to the charms of the offspring of Borges, Calvino and/or Garcia Marquez (and even sometimes to the originals themselves, I like Borges very much--there is something aesthetically stringent and peculiar and stubborn about his vision that attracts me, and of course the beauty and economy of the writing--but Calvino has often struck me as a little too pleased with his own imagination, and Marquez while occasionally quite overwhelmingly awesome is just not my cup of tea). But while Wharton's definitely somewhere in this sort of constellation, he had me right from the beginning with the novel's epigraphs (Johnson's Dictionary: "Logogriphe. A sort of riddle"; anonymous 17th-century Chinese critic, "While the reader reads, the book dreams") and my engagement did not flag. Beautiful, beautiful sentences and a haunting imagination (this would go well on the fantasy-science-fiction shelf).

There's a more-or-less novelistic frame story and periodic interludes (a cultural-political survey of the literature of contemporary Atlantis, an absolutely amazing "found fragment of an index" that I cannot bear to describe because it is so perfect in every particular--pp. 189-90 if you're looking--and the description of a city of sixty thousand librarians, eighteen of whom, "usually the most captricious and heterodox, are chosen yearly as anti-censors, whose duty it is to ensure that no book is ever banned or prevented from reaching any reader. There is also a body of officials whose function is to ensure that any disturbing or scandalous volumes are distirbuted at random through the city, in order that the wrong reader may come upon them by accident, and so complicate and deepen her reading life with matter that she may otherwise never have countered"). Also I feel sure it is the only novel I've ever read that includes the word "scadibulous."

One early tale about the inventor of paper and the habit of printing early Chinese novels without punctuation ends with this excellent selection of advice (from an annotated erotic classic):

The reader should wash her hands in cool water both before and after taking up the pages.

The wise reader keeps a polished mirror before her while she reads and looks into it from time to time.

The reader does the novel an injury if while reading his thoughts drift to household duties or matters of money.

At the end of long chapters, the reader should set the book aside and speak with someone innocent of its pages.

The ideal reader of this novel reads like snow falling: without aim or goal she takes the shape of that upon which she silently settles.

The reader should be like the ant, crawling through the labyrinth of an empty hive in search of a drop of honey.

The reader should, after reading, say a few prayers to ward off the ghosts that have collected, like vapours on a winter evening, about the room.

And here is the most gothic and chilling interlude, like a tale of demonic possession by Sara Gran (long excerpt, sorry, can't resist--go and buy this book!):

"It will live in your imagination": That's what the hype on the back cover promised. So you bought it, started reading, fully aware that the copy on the covers of books is either brazenly exaggerated, or, at the very least, purposefully inaccurate for the same of popular appeal.

You can admit it to yourself now, you felt sorry for this novel. The cover art was duller and more perfunctory than that of most algebra textbooks. The author stared out at you from the photo on the back flap of the dust jacket with a look so earnest that you flinched and glanced away, embarrassed by such naked hopefulness, such a raw desire for your approval. You skimmed the first three pages and were unimpressed by what you read, but this fact only fueled your perverse whim to take the book home with you. You weren't going to behave as so many other readers surely would, in the restless grab for flash and dazzle over substance. You've always been proud of your ability to stick to something, to delve a little deeper, to find gems among the discarded and the passed over. There was no doubt in your mind that the blurb, "it will live in your imagination," was a halfhearted lie, a cliche along the lines of "poignant, riveting," and "deceptively simple." But you weren't going to let that prejudice you. You weren't that kind of reader. You were different.

But now you find yourself damning the reviewer who enticed you into this book by telling you it would get inside your head and take up residence there, for much to your shock and dismay, it has.

You are aware that in spite of how defenseless it appeared at first, the book is obviously capable of holding its own. It can make its own way without your pity and your charity. It should be encouraged to leave this temporary haven. It should
want to leave. It will not grow otherwise. But the book will not leave, and you find yourself unable to demand that it do so. You were too polite to begin with, too accommodating, and that early opportunity to assert yourself has passed you by. Having made itself at home, and unconcerned with your disapproval, the book bangs and shuffles around inside your head at all hours of the day and night, hangs its wet socks and undershorts across your tidy plans and dreams, infiltrates every corridor and room with mysterious, alien odours, refuses to share in the daily chores, invites noisy guests invariably unacquainted with the notion that a welcome has an expiry date, leaves the kitchen a mess and the bathroom a horror.

Now it has come down to a painful decision: one of you is going to have to find new accommodations. You stand there in the hallway, steeling yourself for this unavoidable and unpleasant confrontation, while the book lies sprawled on the sofa, staring vacantly at the television, its bare feet propped on the snack-cluttered coffee table, its thick, dull fingers prodding the remote control.

The other discovery is in a different vein but really excellent and hilarious, a collection of Frederick Rolfe's Reviews of Unwritten Books beautifully edited and annotated (I think they were not published in book form during Rolfe's lifetime) by Donald Weeks and published in gorgeous little pamphlets by the Tragara Press of Edinburgh in 1985. (I think I only had the first three of four, and of course they are in library bindings now, but they really are delicate and beautifully printed.) Rolfe is probably best known as the author of the strange and baroque Hadrian VII, which I remember devouring when I was a teenager--I could swear it was a Picador paperback rather similar to the British paperback edition of Midnight's Children...--almost certainly on the basis of a recommendation in some book by Anthony Burgess but have not re-read since.

And these reviews are amazingly funny and strange! They were published in the Monthly Review starting in February 1903, but they feel amazingly fresh and timely ("Machiavelli's Despatches from the South African Campaign," "Lord Bacon's Treatise on Wireless Telegraphy"--this one is especially funny--or "Lionardo da Vinci's Notes on Modern Engineering," with its long rhapsody on Egypt: "It has all the charm of a book of travel written by one who has not visited the country"--shades of that Jenny Diski piece over the weekend).

And here is a bit from "Herodotus' History of England":

He gives a good account of the Britannic Navy, running Sir William Allan very close in the matter of special knowledge of the boilers of ironclads; but he does not appear to be quite accurate in stating that King Alfred built the Spanish Armada as a flying squadron, wherewith to intimidate Queen Elizabeth, because she desired to contract a matrimonial alliance with the Emperor Napoleon. If Elizabeth really desired that marriage, it is almost certain that Chaucer would not have failed to mention it. But Herodotus gives a grand account of Trafalgar. After the battle, he says, Raleigh sailed westward, and discovered an island, whence he brought back the wonderful new herb nikotiana. Raleigh sat on a rock in the ocean-stream, and smoked; and all the world hired galliasses, and came to see. This leads to a fascinating discursion on the use of tobacco among the ancient Greeks. It is only here that we find that delightful picture of the three greatest dramatists of Greece. Aischylos with a pipe (bull-dog briar), Sophokles with a cigar (cabana), and Euripides with a cigarette (gold-tipped Egyptian). There is something very convincing about this legend. Homer, he says, used snuff, being unable to enjoy the sight of the curling smoke. Sokrates smoked a home-made mixture of blackberry leaves and tea-leaves, when he was unable to come by ship-tobacco honestly. Alkibiades used a cigarette-holder for the sake of his rose-onyx finger-tips; and Plato was a non-smoker. No student of Plato could possibly hesitate about accepting the last statement.

All right, I think Lem is going to have to have a separate post, that's quite enough of this for now. Lem tomorrow. I did find Stuart Kelly's promisingly titled The Book of Lost Books but soon realized it is not the book for me, it's about real lost books (so to speak, although they do not exist), and though I liked lots of things about the concept (including Kelly's opening anecdote about how as a child the gift of one of the Mr Men children's books led him to "a single-minded trawl of bookshops until [he] had every one of the series," leading later on to the completist impulse to own all of the Dr Who novelizations, the 'Fighting Fantasy' dice and decision books and--as a teenager--Agatha Christie paperbacks) the book itself got a bit worthy, and also it's the kind of book that I am sort of disqualified from reading because of my professional literary-critic-ness, it is for the educated layperson and that's all very well but I really, really can't read a book for fun that includes sentences like "In the seventeenth century, every poet knew that the deepest honours and highest praises were reserved for the writer capable of producing an epic" or--oh dear...--"The divine Jane! Only forty-two, only six novels to her name, only four of them published, when a systematic erosion of her suprerenal cortex ushered her into the spinster-cold earth!"

Also consulted: George A. Kennedy's Fictitious Authors and Imaginary Novels in French, English and American Fiction from the 18th to the Start of the 21st Century. An interesting premise for an academic book, but not really what I wanted, as he's mostly interested in made-up novelists and novels that appear in the course of 'regular' novels, not so much the meta-fictions in which imaginary novels come front and center. However there is a rather funny and somewhat obsessive catalog of imaginary novels provided as an appendix....


  1. A Perfect Vacuum is a very difficult book. The last cosmological exercise in particular I don't think has been very well explained, particularly in its anticipation of the strong computationalism of Fredkin, Wolfram, et al.

  2. Yeah, it was much less enjoyable than I was expecting--more thoughts on this later this evening, I expect....

  3. I found it immensely enjoyable, but it's neutron-star dense compared to someone like Calvino or even Borges. You should also, if you haven't yet, read Imaginary Magnitude.

  4. Oh, I see; I think "Imaginary Magnitude" sounds more like what I thought this would be like. Will get it ASAP (I picked a bunch of Lem's other books off the shelf at the same time as Vacuum, not sure though if this was one of them). Good stuff. (Depends on what your definition of "enjoyable" is. Obviously there's no clear line between work and pleasure reading, but this seemed to me to fall rather hard on the side of "work.")

  5. Max Beerbohm has an imaginary-books essay in And Even Now, "Books within Books". It's at the light-mockery-of-Victorian-fiction end of the scale, however, rather than the denser-than-Borges.