NONFICTION: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007)

Thanks to Jordan Amadio for recommending this lush philosophical treatise on the meaning of literacy, written by a professor of French literature at Paris Huit. The title makes the book sound a little flip, but Pierre Bayard’s examination of such questions as “whether a book you have read and completely forgotten…is still a book you have read” is serious and relevant to anyone who cares about reading.

We learn that to be culturally literate is not so much about having checked off boxes on a reading list, but above all to be versed in books’ contextual relation to one another. There is not necessarily shame in not having read various canonical masterworks, Bayard argues, if one at least knows what they are about and why they are canonical:

I’ve never ‘read’ Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s quite plausible that I never will. …[But] I feel perfectly comfortable when Ulysses comes up in conversation…. I know, for example, that it is a retelling of the Odyssey, that its narration takes the form of a stream of consciousness, that its action unfolds in Dublin in the course of a single day, etc.

Would-be-voracious readers who are short on time are validated and emboldened to hear Bayard say, “My intellectual library, like every library, is composed of gaps and blanks, but…it is sufficiently well stocked for any particular lacuna to be all but invisible.”

He goes on to demonstrate the value of reviewers and critics. Although it seems there are many artists who bemoan the critic as somehow anti-art, I personally believe that critics give meaning to art, and am glad that Bayard isn’t in disagreement. “Besides actually reading a book, there is…another way to develop quite a clear sense of its contents: we can read or listen to what others write or say about it. This tactic can save you a lot of time” and is not a cop-out shortcut because “[a] book is not limited to itself, but from the moment of dissemination also encompasses the exchanges it inspires.” Yes!

Bayard then develops the argument that what we remember of books may bear little resemblance to the books themselves, but rather, we each retain a personal version of a particular book based on our own experiences and sympathies. The ravages of time estrange us even farther from what we have once attentively read; “[w]e do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies.” Although we as readers may have sensed that this happens when we read, and maybe felt less intellectual for it, Bayard does us a service to get this reality out into the open, so that we can stop feeling embarrassed and start truly having a conversation.

Later, he discusses the relationship between books and personal identity. We are, in a way, the sum of what we have read since childhood. (As a corollary, he says, two people might deepen their romantic relationship by having read the same books.) “Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing…the missing elements of our personality.” By being anxious about books and about society’s expectations for our literacy, however, we fail to seize the best that literacy offers us, which is in fact creativity, self-knowledge, and freedom. Bayard makes the extraordinary move, at the end of the book, of liberating the reader from his library. Criticism, he suggests, is a way of being in touch with your soul, for which any one text is but a springboard. Reading is wonderful and necessary, but the higher good is to WRITE. “All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.”

FILM: Happy Together (1997)

As recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hera gets her revenge on one of her husband’s lovers, Semele, by getting her to make a certain request of Zeus the next time they are alone together. He agrees to grant Semele a wish whatever it may be, and then is dismayed to hear her ask, “Make love to me the way you do to your wife.” He protests that as a mortal she would not be able to take it, it is too glorious, too much. But she insists, and in the ensuing act she is destroyed. When I encountered this story in high school, I was captivated by this idea of beauty so rapturous that it is incompatible with life. On certain summer nights, sitting alone contemplating the moon, I had vaguely apprehended this kind of beauty, and it felt like a burden because it seemed that most people live lives that have nothing to do with it. (Another exquisite rendering of this idea is Lois Lowry’s The Giver.) I feel this pain still, when I dream dreams at night that have so much more emotional and intellectual depth than I ever experience when awake, dreams which I so quickly forget. “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” There is a dimension I am able to experience, intense and beautiful, that is so otherworldly I wouldn’t even know how to live it. And that is why I connected with Wong Kar-Wai’s film, Happy Together. He has to go outside the normal methods of story and character development to do it, but he manages to evoke exactly those barely survivable moments of divinity.

I’d seen three of Wong Kar-Wai’s other films. His Chungking Express is one of my favorite movies of all time. In the Mood for Love, his best-known work in the circles I run in, I could never get into, and 2046 I found visually pretty but lacking in substance. Some say Happy Together is Wong’s best film. It’s about the co-dependent romantic relationship between two Hong Kong men living in Buenos Aires, Ho Po-Wing who comes and goes as he pleases and Lai Yiu-Fai who lets Po-Wing walk all over him. We watch as Yiu-Fai slowly learns to break free of the relationship. How difficult it is for him to do the right thing and get out; after all he loves the guy, and isn’t love supposed to be a force of good, something to hang on to? That is the sad paradox of love sometimes—that doing the best for someone else can mean doing the worst for yourself. But there is a selfish angle for Yiu-Fai too. When the freewheeling Po-Wing gets beaten up and Yiu-Fai takes him in to nurse him back to health, he muses: “I never told Po-Wing, but I hoped he would take a very long time to get better. Those were our happiest days.” In other words, on some level he can’t empathize with Po-Wing’s physical suffering, can’t truly love him, because he is so invested in what he can get from Po-Wing’s being vulnerable and infirm—the chance to take care of him. Isn’t that another kind of love? A broken and ironic but altogether human love?

FILM: The Princess Bride (1987)

For personal reasons, I sought this film out for a third viewing. The first time I ever saw it, I watched it with my family and we were all completely unimpressed, especially given the hype. Romances were by far the choice genre in our household, and since the character development and the depth of interaction within this particular romance were unsatisfactory, so was the whole film. The second time, I was halfway through college and watching with friends one summer, and conceded that it was more entertaining when watched on a social rather than cinephilic basis (the same thought I had about Moulin Rouge). But that was all; I couldn’t empathize when people quoted obsessively from the script.

I liked it a lot more this third time, responding with not just tears but cathartic sobbing at the end. What had I picked up that I hadn’t noticed before? Firstly, I’ve begun to think about how to raise children, and the film’s idea of giving young children (i.e. the Fred Savage character) this myth of true love as the highest value in life surprised me with its appeal. It seems like such an unlikely value to advertise compared to all the ennobling motives out there: God, country, virtue, public service, helping the unfortunate, science, art…against all this, what do two little people matter? “A hill of beans,” right? Yet the movie makes a postulate out of true love, as shown by all the characters verbally celebrating it no matter how mean or out-of-touch they are, and the concept of shaping innocent minds in this mold is oddly beautiful and illuminating. Better yet, the movie allows you to become one of those innocents yourself while you’re watching it.

Secondly, I’d always resented Buttercup for her passivity while Westley does all the work (though I guess you can’t fight if you insist on wearing an impractical dress instead of pants), but tonight I noticed something to credit her with: while Westley is running around with incredible strength and dexterity, she is standing still with incredible faith. This is a word or virtue I’ve never much thought about before, but now I see that Buttercup enacts Milton’s words, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It takes more than desire and action to see these lovers safely through; it takes belief that it will all work, and in fact something stronger than the mere word belief implies. When Westley promises “I will come for you,” he is not just stating his desire and then later deciding that he will do as he said. He is, in speaking that promise, in fact creating the future, and Buttercup’s faith creates it along with him. From this we learn a lesson in shaping our own destinies.

Interfaith Relations in Balzac’s “The Atheist’s Mass”

I remember being told by an evangelical Christian “friend,” in high school, that she just didn’t understand how someone with “a genius IQ” (by which she was trying to refer to me) could fail to grasp the obvious Eternal Truth in her religion. This kind of unpleasant encounter is inevitable whenever someone holds rock-solid convictions as to the ultimate nature of the universe and our souls’ fate: she was judging me as wrong and dense on a fundamental issue, just as many might judge her to be the same. The big thing is that she was judging me this way even while being my loyal and respectful friend in all other respects, thereby proving that her love and respect for me were not that great. What happens, though, when feelings for another person who does not share one’s beliefs do grow ardent enough to rival those beliefs? This question is poignantly answered in Honoré de Balzac’s short story “The Atheist’s Mass,” which tells of an atheist surgeon’s encounter with Catholicism.

Desplein does not believe in an eternal soul because he has dissected the entire human body and not found the seat of it. He is as legendary with his surgical craft as he is outspoken about his atheism. One day, however, his protege sees him sneaking into a cathedral, and subsequently discovers that Desplein attends a mass four times a year which he sponsors himself. The mystery is built up and then revealed: as a medical student, Desplein was so impoverished that he nearly starved to death, but for the steadfast love of his neighbor, a poor water-carrier who believed that the future surgeon would do epic and noble deeds and therefore devoted his life savings to supporting him through school. When this neighbor, an ardent Catholic, died without family or friends, Desplein could think of no other way to express the gratitude that burned within him than to honor Bourgeat’s deepest wishes: at mass four times per year to pray for the repose of his soul and his quick release from any purgatory. “This,” he says, “is as much as a man of my opinions can permit himself.”

This is a hopelessly lovely story, one which made me cry more than once, but the ending jars. After revealing his secret, Desplein says that “God must be a good fellow,” referring to his own excellent fortune and fame, and that “I would give my entire fortune if faith such as Bourgeat’s could enter my brain.” Balzac concludes by imagining Desplein not dying an atheist, and Bourgeat appearing to him on his deathbed to open to him the gates of Heaven. The story is marred by this moralization, which resolves the hopeless impasse between believer and atheist by suggesting that the latter can be converted through acts of sacrifice and charity. Without this implausible ending, the story would have been much more profound.

Here is the point that Balzac could have made instead, if only he had ended his tale a few paragraphs sooner: that love can coexist with holding on to one’s belief or lack thereof. As the title illustrates, Desplein could still be called an atheist. Just as there are rituals you perform, or words you speak, because of what you believe about ultimate reality, there are also those that you perform and speak because you love tradition, and those that you perform and speak as a deeply meaningful gesture. Rather than taking a page from my high school friend, Bourgeat showed Desplein the greatest respect by never suggesting he was wrong not to believe in God. In turn, Desplein showed Bourgeat the greatest respect by acting, with respect to Bourgeat, as though Bourgeat’s conviction might be right, while doing it in a way which did not compromise Desplein’s own dignity.

Translating Baudelaire’s “La mort des amants”

“A translation is like a woman,” my friend quipped; “she cannot be both beautiful and faithful.” It is a truism to say that translating poetry is especially difficult, but when I saw the following translation of Baudelaire by one Michael Field, I couldn’t help but try my hand.

La mort des amants

Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs légères,
Des divans profonds comme des tombeaux,
Et d’étranges fleurs sur des étagères,
Ecloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux.

Usant à l’envi leurs chaleurs dernières,
Nos deux coeurs seront deux vastes flambeaux,
Qui réfléchiront leurs doubles lumières
Dans nos deux esprits, ces miroirs jumeaux.

Un soir fait de rose et de bleu mystique,
Nous échangerons un éclair unique,
Comme un long sanglot, tout chargé d’adieux;

Et plus tard un Ange, entrouvrant les portes,
Viendra ranimer, fidèle et joyeux,
Les miroirs ternis et les flammes mortes.

“The Death of Lovers”

There will be beds, full of light odours blent,
Divans, great couches, deep, profound as tombs,
And, grown for us in light magnificent,
Over the flower stand there will droop strange blooms.

Careful of our last flame declining
As two vast torches our two hearts shall flare,
And our two spirits in their double shining
Reflect the double light enchanted there.

One night, a night of mystic blue and rose,
A look will pass, supreme, from me to you,
Like a long sob, laden with long adieux.

And later on, an angel will unclose
The door and entering joyously relight
The tarnished mirrors and the flames blown to the night.

Why did I disapprove of this version? I didn’t like its excess, its melodrama, and its straining too hard to meet its rhyme scheme. Such cloying words as “blent” and “enchanted” have been added out of nowhere just to fill up space. “Divans” and “couches” is an unnecessary redundancy, as is “deep” and “profound” (both pairs in the same line, even worse, when there is not a single repetition in Baudelaire’s line). “Blooms” is an awkward noun here, especially with the assonance of “droop”; the end of this line seems to jam up against its prescribed confines and fails to evoke a pleasant feeling.

A counting of syllables explains exactly why this translation sounds like it has too many words. As you might know, the French counterpart to English’s classic iambic pentameter (10 syllables) is the alexandrine (12 syllables). Whereas we tend to write our sonnets in iambic pentameter, the Gauls do it in alexandrine, and a skim through Baudelaire’s work shows that this meter is his workhorse too. (As you might also know, by convention, terminal e‘s are counted as syllables unless they fall at the end of a line.) Yet “La mort des amants” is written in lines of only 10 syllables apiece, and each of the fourteen lines adheres to this reduced length, producing a sonnet that is especially tight and distilled. Michael Field, however, sticks with the standard 10-syllable English line for his translation, with the following exceptions (and exceptions to meter should mean something):

– His second quatrain is 9-10-11-10. It makes sense to remove a syllable from a line about “declining,” as though the “last flame” were truly too short of breath to make it through 10 syllables, and insert an extra syllable in a line about “two spirits in their double shining,” as though love were enough to create extra syllables—probably not a clever allusion to reproduction, but at the very least a hint that two lovers’ energies can add up synergistically. This way, the quatrain as a whole still contains the prescribed 40 syllables.

– His final tercet is 10-11-12, which seems a crazy violation of meter. He is likely aiming to give the impression of effusive joy and transcendence of mortal bounds, but really—Baudelaire was able to accomplish this without adding syllables.

My contention is that 8-syllable English lines would be the best choice to represent these 10-syllable French lines.

I sat down tonight with Le Robert micro, a French-French dictionary, to look up all of the words in Baudelaire’s poem. There are several French words here with superb meanings which I don’t believe Field has captured adequately:

Ecloses: the past participle of éclore, which is used both for the hatching of an egg and for the blossoming of a flower. (I am reminded of how a single verb in ancient Greek serves for the sinking of a ship and for the setting of the sun: learning languages in itself can be an act of poetry.) Michael Field’s “Grown” doesn’t cut it.

Usant à l’envi: user is sumptuously defined in my dictionary as “détruire par la consommation,” bringing to mind the Ovidian myth dearest to my heart, that of Semele too sincerely wanting all the beauty of Jupiter. This is inadequately translated by “declining,” which although a more conventional word for death is not what Baudelaire meant. “Declining” is too tame, entirely the wrong tone for à l’envi: the phrase means that the two flames are competing to outdo each other to burn out the fastest.

Esprits: the primary definition in Le Robert is that of “minds,” not “spirits,” and I prefer this.

To Field’s credit, he does well with another word whose definition I thought was lovely: entrouvrir means to open just a crack, and “unclose” is much more in the right spirit than “open” would be.

There are aspects of the French we could not possibly hope to translate well, like sanglot. Look at this word for “sob” and see the roots for “blood” and “throat,” listen to the gurgling choking sound of the “ngl.” I also admire the proliferation of x’s in the Baudelaire sonnet, suggesting mystery, and the kisses of lovers, and a religious connotation (the cross) all in one. Knowing the inherent weaknesses of any translation, though, I still thought I could produce one more defensible than the one that had originally irked me. Here is what I came up with:

We will have beds steeped in light scents,
Chaises deep as mausolea,
And under sublime firmaments
Shelves of blossomed bougainvillea.

Like torches our two hearts shall flame,
Racing to burn out to the last,
Their brightness in double enframed
In minds which are mirrors twin-cast.

One evening, rose and mystic blue,
Like one long sob charged with goodbyes
We will exchange a single flash;

Then an Angel will tiptoe through
And, smiling, reimmortalize
The dull mirrors and mounds of ash.

This has precisely 8 syllables per line, a reduction from the typical 10 that I think best reflects Baudelaire’s reduction to 10 from 12. The impersonal “There will be beds” is replaced by the more faithful “We will have beds.” The redundancy of the second line is removed. Field’s “light” has been replaced by the more faithful “skies,” or rather its synonym “firmaments,” which is more apt since the image of “light” occurs more powerfully later in the poem and should not be repeated this early. “Grown” has been replaced by “blossomed.” The competition between the two torches has been put back in the poem. I like the anapestic gallop of my sixth line which echoes its content. Yes, Baudelaire repeats some synonym of “two” FIVE times in the second quatrain, and Michael Field was faithful to this, but it sounded excessive and I believe I have not substantially changed the tone in reducing this repetition to three. I like the alliteration of “minds” and “mirrors” at the end of the octave, and the way it is echoed in reverse (mirrored!) as “mirrors and mounds” at the end of the sestet. I like the spondaic sustained drumbeat “like—one—long—sob” which enacts what it means. “Flash” is more faithful to “éclair” (whose only definition is “lightning bolt”) than “a look.” I think that “tiptoe through” captures the essence of opening the doors a crack, in sound as well as in meaning. I like how the final tercet begins like a whisper: “Then-an-AN-gel,” suggesting the passage of time before the conclusion.

Criticisms are invited. The best part of this was the process: the thrill of delving deep, deep into Baudelaire; the joy to be found in close reading; the drive to best communicate the sonnet’s beauty to those who don’t know French.

Recognition in Kafka’s Metamorphosis

How do Gregor Samsa’s parents and sister come to the conclusion that he is the arthropod?

I believe that if I were to see a giant bug emerge from my brother’s room, I would assume that it had invaded his room from the outside, and I would worry that it had hurt my brother in some way. This seems to me a much more natural conclusion than the story’s correct one, and yet the Samsas never look around for any trace of the possibly injured or devoured Gregor (e.g. shredded clothes, blood)…because they somehow know that he has transformed into the creature.

I believe that if I were to see a giant bug in my house, I would immediately focus all efforts on exterminating it, enlisting the help of neighbors or professionals. Yet the Samsas shepherd the bug into his room, keep him secret as far as possible, and start feeding him, because they somehow recognize the bug as him.

He is unable to communicate to them in any understandable way. For them to come to the conclusion of Gregor’s metamorphosis into a many-legged vermin violates all common sense and all reason, which means that the family’s unanimous conclusion is the result of that instantaneous, emotionally tinged, and seemingly infallible faculty—recognition.

The concept of recognition is a fascinating one, especially when you consider that the human brain has a processing area set aside for recognizing faces. In youth I had a mild phobia of developing prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize familiar faces) even before I knew that this was a real neurological condition: the ability to recognize is so powerful and so mysterious that it captured my imagination.

In Kafka’s story, the recognition functions like religious faith (another fascinating concept?): the Kierkegaardian leap is taken, bolstered by its collective nature, but at the end of the story the irrational belief falls away. It is only under duress, after months of belief that have borne no fruit and only misery, that the family even entertains the thoughts “I don’t want to call this monster my brother…I can’t endure it any more” and “How can that be Gregor?”—but once they decide to reverse their recognition, it is enough to kill Gregor without their touching him.