Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Six minutes

At the TLS, Adrian Tahourdin has a great piece about Pierre Bayard's extremely appealing-sounding Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus?, a book which (tantalizing as may be) I am almost certainly too lazy to read myself until it is translated into English:

Bayard’s project is a serious one. He tells us, in his “Prologue”, that he was born into a family who read little, that he himself has almost no appetite for reading and that, anyway, he cannot find the time for it. As a (fifty-two-year-old) professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII (and a practising psychoanalyst), he often finds himself obliged to comment on books he hasn’t looked at. And yet “non-reading” is a taboo subject in the circles in which he moves. He lists three constraints that we all feel as readers: “The first of these constraints could be called the obligation to read. We live in a society . . . in which reading still remains the object of a form of sacralization”, particularly where certain “canonical texts” are concerned: it is practically forbidden not to have read these. The second constraint “could be called the obligation to read a book in its entirety. If non-reading is frowned on, speed-reading and skimming are viewed in as poor a light”. For example, “it would be almost unthinkable for professors of literature to admit – what is after all true for most of them – that they have merely skimmed Proust’s work”. Can this really be the case? If so, it’s a dismaying thought – presumably Bayard has had some explaining to do to his colleagues since his book was published in France earlier this year. The third constraint, and the one which most of us would take as given, is the need to have read a book in order to be able to talk about it: according to Bayard, it is perfectly possible to have a fruitful discussion about a book one hasn’t read, even with someone who hasn’t read it either. These constraints lead to a lack of openness in our dealings with each other, Bayard claims, and generate unnecessary feelings of guilt.

He does not address the fact that most of us have our blind spots where particular authors are concerned, and that many of us do feel oppressed by the thought of the books we haven’t quite got round to reading, or wish that we had read years ago and know we now never will. Bayard is not interested in this; instead, he divides the works he mentions into four categories: “LI” indicates “livres inconnus” (books he is unfamiliar with); “LP” “livres parcourus” (books glanced at); “LE” “livres dont j’ai entendu parler” (books he has heard discussed) and “LO” “les livres que j’ai oubliĆ©s” (books he has read but forgotten). Ulysses, for example, falls into the category “LE”: he claims not to have read the novel, but he can place it within its literary context, knows that it is in a sense a reprise of the Odyssey, that it follows the ebb and flow of consciousness, and that it takes place in Dublin over the course of a single day. When teaching he makes frequent and unflinching references to Joyce.

I love it! "LP" seems an especially useful category (and also perhaps there is need for a supplemental category LOL, "livres que j'ai oublies ayant lus"--not sure that is quite grammatically correct, but the meaning is books which I have forgotten having read...).

Also free at the TLS: a rather enchanting review by my dissertation advisor Claude Rawson of a new edition of the eighteenth-century satirical miscellany The New Foundling Hospital for Wit. Here, for instance, are some thoughts prompted by a parody of Macbeth titled The Three Conjurors:

Such irrational accesses of delinquent likeableness in the portrayal of criminal or tyrannical malefactors have not as far as I know been fully understood, though W. H. Auden has some suggestive remarks about them in The Orators. It is partly a matter, as Auden perceived, of how we are drawn to aspects of the “heroic” of which we disapprove, and, as Brecht said to those who complained that he was being soft on Hitler in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, may also be a patronizing put-down. An interesting exception is Macbett (1972), Ionesco’s play of the Cold War years, where no atmosphere of boorish good humour rubs off on disreputable protagonists, and where even Shakespeare’s good characters, Duncan, “Banco”, and “Macol” (Malcolm), are Hitlerian or Stalinist killers, not even minimally likeable. A comparable effect is nevertheless created by means of a slapstick automatism of “cruelty”, as though the slanging matches of Punch and Judy shows, or the clockwork routine of a clown knocking another down, were defining the mood of every order to behead, and every act of mass killing. Ionesco, following Jan Kott, thought Shakespeare was the ancestor of the “absurd”.


  1. Thankfully I presume there is no category like "en tout cas, j'ai vu le film ..."

    (It sounds quite delightful to me.)

  2. I didn't even think of the film thing! I think that would be too lowbrow, these all have a certain je ne sais quoi that the other one lacks...

    Doesn't it sound like a fun book, though?!? It's short, too, perhaps I had better read it in French after all...

  3. if I knew more than a few works of French Imight attempt an acronym for "books I thought I'd read, began discussing and then 1 minute into the conversation suddenly remembered that no- in fact, that was the unread book still sitting on the shelf right next to the book by the very same author that we were now supposedly discusing..." oof this happened recently with "V" and "Vineland"

  4. I had this--I put it in a story, too!--with Michael Chabon's "Werewolves in their Youth," really I had read Victor Pelevin's "A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia"!