Monday, September 14, 2009

Le premier étage

A green morning, finally some sunlight sneaking through the heavily laden limbs after another soaking rain. I turn on the radio, all the same debates are still raging. I turn on the computer, the headlines are pretty much the same as they were a month ago. I look around at this heavy, heavy earth and marvel at the sheer force of inertia, the desire of bodies at rest to stay at rest. Was I away or did I dream it?

I met P. and his wife upstairs at the Café du Flore, away from the overfed tourists and indifferent waiters spilling out noisily onto the Boulevard St-Germain. Sure, the place has a history, but that history is on the wane. The room went muggy as an ancient Parisian breeze blew through the open windows. The two of them make a lovely couple, urbane, passionate, exceedingly intelligent. The conversation was unguarded, marked by humor and a shared sense of the tenuousness of American literary culture and the almost superhuman effort necessary to sustain it. P. is a writer of some renown in Europe whose books sell well in Germany and Austria. Though they have been translated into English and garnered praise, both in the UK and America, sales have been, shall we say, modest.

We rehearsed the possible reasons -- too many books, not enough review coverage, poor jacket art, American resistance to works in translation (especially works about itself), the corrosive effect of pop culture on already degraded imaginations, you know, the usual line-up of suspects. But our conversation was more bemused than anguished. After all,
the world is what it is, as Sir Vidia would have it -- fantastical, comical, tragical, a playground for pessimists who secretly harbor an incurable streak of optimism. We might hover above it in judgement, but then we would be judging ourselves and our place in it, good and bad, as well. This was not the occasion to do that. Besides, P. is a writer who lives and breathes his work. The selling of books is of secondary interest. Important but not critical.

They recounted spending a holiday week-end at some friends of theirs out in the Hamptons last summer. It made him nervous to be without his computer, in constant company, unable to work. "I didn't like it. I couldn't write." His wife chided him slightly, "But you got to swim every day."

But one can't help it, one longs for readers. "There are so few good readers," he lamented. I thought to myself, of course -- reading is not easy, it takes time and a willingness to forget oneself for an extended period, to yield to another's voice and world-view. The ability to read well and deeply is perhaps as much a gift as it is to write. For a good reader is not a passive receptor, but an active consciousness in which a text comes to life. That takes concentration. Just like writing. Listen, anyone with decent eyesight and a limited vocabulary can read unmoored snippets of text on a screen, but it takes a committed reader -- one willing to work at it -- to read a book and follow its author's vision to full bloom.

When I asked P. what books he'd read recently, he remarked, "I'm not a reader, actually, I rarely read fiction at all. Of course, I read a great deal when I'm researching for a book, but I don't want to lose my concentration when I'm working."

The sounds outside subsided as dusk began to settle in. A fine Parisian drizzle had started to fall. We left our empty glasses and cups and descended to the street. Writing is a way of catching the light, perhaps reading is the same.
Au revoir, dear friends. It had been a lovely encounter. Au revoir. We parted lightly and entered the old city through separate doors of perception.

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