May 18, 2007

Against The Day, For Perec, Ambivalent about Sarcasm, Undecided about Conclusions

I’m still reading “Against The Day,” which is perfectly written and full of so much life, humour, silliness and low-minded seriousness but which does have one problem. It’s too big. I don’t mean too long, too all-encompassing, or too ambitious. I mean it’s too big to go in my bag. It’s bigger than a brick and weighs about as much. It’s bloody massive. The result of this is that I never take it out with me and only read it in bed (where I’m often – due to drink, tiredness, etc etc – not at my best to enjoy it fully). As a consequence, I keep picking up smaller books to read on the bus or tube or train (which is where a lot of my reading gets done). I had a little Beckett re-reading phase (“Ill Seen Ill Said” and “Worstward Ho!”) and then this week I bought myself “Bartleby & Co” by Enrique Vila-Matas.

From what I’ve read so far, “Bartleby & Co” is a very ingenious book about not writing books – which actually states, in a way, that the ultimate modern book is the one that isn’t written (consciously, deliberately). The central character decides to write footnotes to an imaginary text about all the books that have deliberately not been written by writers who decide to refuse to write. It’s a heavily-impacted mixture of commentary on real and imagined works from all over the world which raises a question I guess a lot of writers spend a lot of their time trying to avoid: why write? Although, as I’m only 40 pages in, maybe I’m wrong...

Anyway, quite early on in “Bartleby & Co” an imaginary work by Georges Perec is referred to. It’s called “A Portrait of the Author Seen as a Piece of Furniture, Always” and is described as “sarcastic”. This actually stopped me. “What has he got against, Perec?” I wondered. Because despite my own ingrained sarcasm, I couldn’t think of a less sarcastic writer than Georges Perec and couldn’t help seeing it as some kind of jibe at his expense.

Why should this be? I think reminsicences of Perec tends a little towards the hagiographical, or perhaps just my reading of them does. There’s also those wide-eyed photos, which encourage the viewer to see him as a spritely naif. But I also think there is a generosity to his writing which you don’t associate with the terminally sarcastic (guilty, m’lud).

Luckily, I then remembered Perec’s “mission statement” or justification of his writing and looked it up: “I think my ambition as a writer would be to run through the whole gamut of literature of my age without ever feeling I was going back on myself or treading ground I had trod before, and to write every kind of thing that it is possible for a man to write nowadays: big books and small ones, novels and poems, plays, libretti, crime fiction, adventure stories, science fiction, serials and children’s books…” (from David Bellos, “Georges Perec: A Life In Words”)

Not only is this, I think, a magnificent aim for a writer, but it fully justifies the existence of a sarcastic Perec work in Vila-Matas’ photo-negative of Borges’ Library of Babel… In fact, in such a library, there would have to be a sarcastic Perec. But then, the statement also shows Perec as the author of his own Library of Babel, “writing every kind of thing that it is possible… to write”.

Unfortunately, I can’t decide what I think any of this might mean or come up with a neat conclusion. So, rather appropriately as it happens, I’m just going to stop.

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